The Bread of Life
This week we are starting a new series in the gospel of John, which will carry us through to Palm Sunday. During the season of Epiphany we explored the miraculous signs of Jesus that Jesus does in this story and what those things tell us about Jesus beyond the fact that he can do cool stuff. This week we are going to begin looking at another pattern in John. Throughout the book, eight different times, Jesus describes himself using a metaphor. He says, “I am the … something.”
Please notice there that I said Jesus describes himself using a metaphor, and there are two things I really want to stress before we get started. First is that this is a description and not an explanation. These are not technical specifications about the mechanics of Jesus. These are artistic renderings, sketches that draw your attention to one attribute and leave the others fuzzy.
They are descriptions. And they are metaphors. Don’t take them too literally. In fact, the more literally we take them, the less sense they make. Throughout the gospel of John, the people who try to take Jesus really literally are the ones who wind up confused. So this morning, I invite you to sit back and let the metaphor happen to you. See if you can engage this with something besides your analytical brain. Don’t try to figure it out. Just see what emotions you feel, what it reminds you of.
For some of you that sounds delightful. And for some of you that sounds ridiculous. That’s OK. Just do an experiment. This Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the season of spiritual experiments. Description. Metaphor. Let’s see what happens.
One thing that makes the gospel of John challenging to preach is that it has a lot of long passages, and most of them have some kind of connection to another long passage. These passages don’t lend themselves well to sound bites or small bites. John doesn’t want you to have a Jesus snack. The gospel of John invites you to sit down and eat a meal. Which in some ways is very true to life. Our lives are full of long, complicated passages that all connect to each other. Real-ationship, which is what John encourages us to have with Jesus, real-ationship takes time. We can’t just drop in and out of each other’s lives and expect to have something meaningful. Same way for this gospel. If we try to just take little bit or have a snack, we wind up confused and unsatisfied. This morning, I hope we can make a meal of this metaphor. Let’s try.
So, to actually get to it. Like I just said, long passages connect to each other and we’re going to drop down in the middle of a story today so I want to give us some context. Thankfully it won’t be hard because you’ve already heard the stories that come right before it. We are in chapter 6 which starts with Jesus feeding a multitude of people outdoors at Passover. His disciples only saw scarcity. But Jesus creates abundance. With Jesus there is always more than enough. He distributes five flatbreads and two sardines to more than 10,000 people with twelve basketsful left over. The disciples pick up the leftovers because Jesus doesn’t want anything to be wasted or lost.
Later that night, the disciples start to cross the lake in a boat without Jesus and a storm comes up. Jesus comes walking to them across the water, invokes the divine name and comforts them. “I AM. Don’t be afraid.” And when he gets in their boat, the storm doesn’t stop, but they get where they are going.
And this is what happens next. We’re going to read a lot this morning, a meal, not a snack, so we’re going to take it in bites. This is John chapter 6 starting in verse 22.
The next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the lake realized that only one boat had been there. They knew Jesus hadn’t gone with his disciples, but that the disciples had gone alone. Some boats came from Tiberias, near the place where they had eaten the bread over which the Lord had given thanks. When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus replied, “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted. Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. God the Father has confirmed him as his agent to give life.”
They asked, “What must we do in order to accomplish what God requires?”
Jesus replied, “This is what God requires, that you believe in him whom God sent.”
They asked, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”
Jesus told them, “I assure you, it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven to you, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
They said, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!”John 6:22-34
Friends, this is the first course of a big meal. I’ve been sitting at this table all week and I feel like I’m just now starting to digest what’s here. And that makes sense. Because this is about building trust, and developing a real-ationship takes time. One snack chunk isn’t going to satisfy your hunger. So let me share with you what’s sticking to my ribs. I hope you’ll come back and read this whole chapter, eat this meal again, several times yourself this week and see what sticks to your ribs.
What satisfies me in this section is that Jesus tells the people that God offers them life and their response is, “How do we earn it?” What must we do to accomplish what God requires? Other translations say, What must we do to perform the works of God? Fair question. One we are familiar with. Our own mission statement is from the prophet Micah in answer to the question, “What does God require of us? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” But Jesus blows us away here. When the people ask what must we do to accomplish what God requires, to perform the work of God, I think to earn what God offers, Jesus says, “All you have to do is trust in me.” What? No. That’s all? All I have to do to please God is to trust in Jesus? Yep. You don’t earn it. You just trust. You just receive it as an abundant gift like manna in the wilderness, anticipating abundance each day as you remember that God has never let you down. (Doesn’t mean nothing bad has ever happened to you, but no matter how hard things get, God has never abandoned you.) That is a satisfying first bite.
Let’s pick up the story again.
They said, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!”
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I told you that you have seen me and still don’t believe. Everyone whom the Father gives to me will come to me, and I won’t send away anyone who comes to me. I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of the one who sent me, that I won’t lose anything he has given me, but I will raise it up at the last day. This is my Father’s will: that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”John 6:34-40
When Jesus fed the multitude he said “Let nothing be wasted or lost.” Nothing that Jesus gives us should be wasted or lost. And now Jesus says that nothing that the Father has given him will be lost, but will be raised up on the last day. Honestly I’m not even sure I can explain to you why that is sticking with me so much. For some reason though I’m coming back to it again and again. “This is the will of the one who sent me, that I won’t lose anything he has given me, but I will raise it up at the last day.” I’m still chewing on that. Remember this is a meal, not a snack.
Let’s keep going.
The Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
They asked, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus responded, “Don’t grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets, And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God. He has seen the Father. I assure you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”John 6:40-51
“I assure you, whoever trusts has eternal life.” First we heard that to do the work of God is to trust Jesus. Now we hear that to trust Jesus is to have eternal life. Now. Right now. Not whoever trusts Jesus will have eternal life. Whoever trusts Jesus has eternal life right now. I’ve talked about this before, but that doesn’t actually mean life that lasts forever. Ask me later if you didn’t hear that sermon; it was two years ago. We could say instead transcendent life, real life, true life, life beyond life, life that transcends this daily grind, living now as we will live in God’s future when God restores all of creation and heals the world. Whoever trusts in Jesus now accesses that transcendent life now. Whoever trusts Jesus now finds lasting joy now and participates now in God’s plan to heal the world. To do the work of God is to trust Jesus. To trust Jesus is to have transcendent life. Transcendent life comes from eating the bread of heaven. Gorgeous. I love it. I’m here for that.
And the bread that Jesus will give for the life of the world is his flesh.
And now I’m weirded out. And what do we do when we are weirded out? We keep reading. Always keep reading. Always keep reading. Here’s the last course of the meal.
Then the Jews debated among themselves, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate [the manna in the wilderness], and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.John 6:52-59
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Now, before we decide that we are really don’t like this stuff about eating flesh and drinking blood, remember what I said at the beginning. This is a metaphor and the more literally we take it, the less sense it will make. It’s right there in the story. The people take it literally and get distracted and miss the point. Let’s not do that. Make a meal of the metaphor. This is all about trust.
To do the work of God is to trust Jesus. To trust Jesus is to have transcendent life. Whoever eats the bread of heaven will have transcendent life. Whoever eats Jesus’ flesh and drinks his blood has transcendent life and Jesus will raise them up on the last day. It’s all the same thing! Jesus is playing with the metaphor, presenting the same food in different forms to tempt your palate, offering many ways of saying the same thing in hopes that one of them will connect with each of us. To do the work of God, to take in the flesh of the Word Made Flesh, to eat the bread from heaven, all of that means to trust. Those who trust Jesus have transcendent life. Those who eat the bread of heaven have transcendent life. Those who eat the flesh of the Word Made Flesh and drink his blood have transcendent life. Those who trust Jesus will never be lost but always kept and will be raised up on the last day. The Father lives, Jesus lives, those who take Jesus into themselves also live, really truly live. Abundantly transcendently live. What a feast!
If you heard Communion imagery in there, you were supposed to. The gospel of John doesn’t have a last supper story. This is it. Because it’s not about Jesus’ death, but about his life. It’s about how we connect with his life, how we take it in and make it part of ourselves.
What would your life look like if relationship with Jesus were as essential to you as eating every day? What if Jesus were your daily bread? What if taking Jesus in reminded you that you follow a God who breaks the rod of slavery and oppression and never deserts God’s people? What if taking in God’s Word Made Flesh reminded you that you are part of something larger, a plan for goodness that absolutely cannot be stopped? And even if you die before you see it, God will raise you up on the last day so you shall see for yourself that nothing and no one entrusted to Jesus has ever be lost. What a feast. Amen.