Not Gluten Free (Message for August 9th, 2015)

Scripture: John 6:35;41-51

Benjamin Franklin once wrote “Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes.”   The course of human history has certainly proven that true, but I think there are a couple of other certainties in life.  One of those would be “miracle fixes”.   Throughout human history we have always looked for a miracle plant, elixir with amazing medicinal properties, the perfect diet, and sometimes a literal fountain of youth.    In recent memory one of the ways this certainty has shown its head is through a constant stream of fad diets.  I know this has been true throughout my life, and probably most of yours as well.  For as long as I can remember, there has always been a new way to lose weight, get more energy, and completely changing your life by only doing one thing.    In recent memory we have seen the Adkins diet, the South Beach diet, and the Paelo-diet all have their rise and falls.   The fad diet that is really, really gaining in popularity is being gluten-free.    In fact nearly a third of all Americans are either gluten free or are actively trying to dramatically decrease the amount of gluten they consume.   What is truly odd about this newest craze is why it is a craze in the first place.   For 98-99ish% of the population gluten has no adverse effect.  Gluten is simply a protein found in grain and wheat based products which gives things like bread and pasta structure.   Gluten is literally the component that makes bread, bread.  Without gluten, it would cease to be bread and hold together.  

            The rise in a gluten free diet is an odd phenomenon.  It is based in celiac disease, which is a condition that only effects 1% of the population.   Individuals with celiac disease have a reaction to gluten which makes it difficult for their body to absorb nutrients from food.  In the past decade or so, doctors have gotten much better at diagnosing celiac disease, and the best way to treat it is to switch to a gluten free diet.   Individuals with celiac disease who switch to gluten free often do become noticeably healthier.   This transferred into a bizarre health craze.   People who have no problem digesting gluten started thinking they would get healthier if they also dropped gluten, but this is simply not the case.  Simply dropping gluten is not a miracle fix.   People who go gluten free and also dramatically change their diet by increasing the vegetables they consume do see benefit, but this has more to do with better nutrition not less gluten.   People who simply replace bread and pasta with gluten-free alternatives but make no other lifestyle changes do not see any real benefit from being gluten free.   In an article about the meteoric rise of being gluten free, nutritionist Yoni Freedhoft said, “The rise of gluten free is a result of people wanting simple solutions to complex problems.”    For people with celiac disease, a wheat allergy, or an even more rare medical condition then avoiding gluten is a necessity.  For the vast majority of people though gluten is a dietary non-issue, simply cutting it out of a diet is not a magic fix.   In fact according to nutrition experts, gluten-free pastas and breads are actually often worse for a person’s body than regular gluten products.   The end result is that going gluten free only improves someone’s health if they make a true lifestyle change.  Eating the same but switching out gluten products for gluten free versions will in the end have no real positive effect. 

            In light of this morning’s scripture, where Jesus claims to be the bread of life, I have to wonder if some people have a gluten free faith?    Remember, gluten is the substance that gives bread its shape and its texture.  It is ultimately what makes bread, bread.   When it comes to our faith, the bread of life, Jesus is our gluten.  It is the element that makes our faith, faith.  It is what gives our faith its shape and its texture.    However, just like eating healthy requires true lifestyle change having a vibrant, abundant life rooted in faith also requires a lifestyle change.    It requires following Jesus and allowing Jesus to be the thing that gives our faith substance.   As this morning scripture shows, there are people who want the benefits of faith without that substance.  

            This morning’s scripture sort of picks up in the middle of the story.   This story follows the feeding of the 5,000.   In this miracle Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and used it to feed 5,000 men plus all of the women and children gathered there.  This amazed the people, and John 6:15 says “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”   The people though were dedicated to finding Jesus, so they crossed the Sea of Galilee themselves to go and find Jesus.   This morning’s scripture picks up after the crowd finds Jesus.   The crowds seek out Jesus because they want more of his power, they want more signs, and they want more immediate blessings.    Jesus is not having it though.  He calls them out immediately, and this leads to him stating that he is the bread of life.    Jesus makes the comparison between himself and the mana given to the Israelites in the desert.   After being freed from slavery, the Israelites wondered the desert and God daily provided bread from heaven for them.  God sustained them and gave them life.  Jesus as the bread of life, does the same thing.   Jesus, as the one the Father sent to redeem and save us, gives us and sustains us for an eternal life.  Jesus goes as far as to say in verse 51 “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats this bread will live forever.  The bread of life is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.”   

            In this morning’s scripture Jesus makes the connection that he is the one that connects people to God the Father, that He is the one who sustains that connection, and that through that connection we have eternal life.   Essentially Jesus, claims to be the messiah sent by God.   While that is where our scripture reading for this morning stopped, in verse 52 the crowd begins to nitpick.  They try to tear apart Jesus’ bread of life analogy by taking it literally.  Verse 52 records, “Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, how can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  When we partake in the sacrament of communion like we are going to do next week, we symbolically do this as we remember the sacrifice Jesus made.    To eat the bread of life though, is not to physically eat bread.  When we eat something, we consume it.  We make it part of us, it sustains us, by giving us energy and life.    This is what it means to eat the bread of life.  We make Jesus, his body and blood- the essence of who he is, part of who we are.    We allow Christ to give us substance and shape from within, we are changed from the inside out.  For the crowds in Jesus day, this was a hard teaching and hard lesson.   In fact in John 6:66, at the end of the section that this morning’s scripture comes from it concludes with: “From that time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”   

            The problem that the crowds had is that they wanted a gluten-free savior.   They wanted the miracles without commitment, they wanted God’s power in their life without discipleship, and they wanted a changed life without having to actually change.   They were hoping Jesus was offering a miracle fix.   They wanted all of the benefits of living a righteous life in connection with God, without out having to actually do it.   This is still something that a lot of people want.   There are no shortage of books and programs that can tell you how to have your best life now.   Lots of people would love to sell you the secret to peace, to joy, to gentleness, kindness, and contentment.   A lot of these books and programs may even use very church sounding words, but they are trying to sell us on getting stuff, not on loving Jesus.    A firmly rooted peace, the assurance of a love that surpasses all knowledge, and a joy unending are not commodities that can be bought or sold.  These are not things that can be packaged up and acquired by following a step by step program.   Those things that we so often chase after are the natural result of eating the bread of life.   They are the natural result of coming to Jesus and believing in him.   

            Fad diets are so appealing because they sale the false assumption that one simple change is a miracle fix.    Unfortunately, for too long Jesus has been marketed like a fad diet.   There has been a tendency to treat a faith in Jesus like a miracle cure.  Finances bad?  Turn to Jesus.   Relationships sour?  Turn to Jesus.   Need healing?  Turn to Jesus.   God can provide in those areas, but we have to ask ourselves the soul searching question:  Do we follow Jesus because we like Jesus’ stuff and blessing or do we follow Jesus because we love him for who he is?    It is of utmost importance that we do not have a gluten-free faith, a faith that is Jesus-free.   Our faith needs to be centered less about getting stuff from God through Christ and more like being like Christ.    We need to consume the bread of life, we need to make Jesus part of who we are, and be transformed from the inside out.   We need Jesus, his life, his teachings, and his example to give our lives substance, structure, and meaning.    Interestingly enough, when we begin to do this our faith naturally becomes less about what we get out of it and more about what we can give to others. 

            Jesus said “The son of man did not come to be served but to serve.”   This is a radically different attitude from the crowd that came seeking Jesus out when he declared that he was the bread of life.   That crowd was looking to be served, when we take following and believing in Jesus seriously our attitude should start to look more like his.   There is an old story that illustrates this point.   Bobby was a student with special needs.  In those days, his disability was not severe enough to remove from a general class room, but it was clear that he was different from all the other children.  It broke the heart of Bobby’s mom to see him so shunned.   One day Bobby came home very excited as he announced, “Valentine ’s Day is two weeks away and our teacher said we could make valentines and give them to other kids in our class!”   Bobby’s mom’s heart sank as she saw this would be another time her child would be excluded.  This is from a time when Valentine ’s Day was still a time when giving valentine’s to people was optional.  Students did not have to give one to everyone, but rather they could pick who they gave valentines to.   Bobby continued, “I am going to make valentines for every person in my class!”   For the next two weeks Bobby worked hard cutting, pasting, and crafting valentines.  Each and every one of them was a true labor of love. 

            On Valentine ’s Day he was so excited that he could not eat breakfast, but he was also a little worried.  As he left for school he told his mom “I hope I did not forget anyone!”  Bobby’s mom spent the day preparing herself to comfort her son.  She was afraid he would be crushed by the response or rather the lack of response that he got from the other children.  When she heard Bobby come home after school she was prepared for the worse.  Instead, she found beaming with a smile from ear to ear.   Surprised, she asked “What is it Bobby?  How did it go?”   With a shout of pure joy, Bobby said “Guess what, mom!  I didn’t forget a single kid”

            When we make Jesus the center source that gives our faith and live substance and structure then our hearts and minds are changed from the inside out.  We begin to see the world more like Bobby, and our focus is on how we can love and how we can give instead of what we get.   This is because through Christ we are reconnected to God, and the love of God flows through and out of our life.    May knowing Jesus be more important to us than being blessed by Jesus.   May we love Jesus for who he is and not for what he gives us.   May he be our center, our structure, and our everything.   May we with all our minds hearts and souls pass the bread because Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life whoever comes to me will never go hungry and whoever believes in me will never go thirsty.”