“The Bread of Life”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”
26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”
29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which[a] comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (NRSV)
John’s gospel begins with its unforgettable prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him…What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
From the outset, John invites his readers to engage their poetic sensibilities, because he will present Jesus far more as the resurrected Christ than some peasant rabbi from Nazareth.
While this holds true to some extent for all four gospels, it’s particularly true for John who layers everything in his story with multiple meanings. For instance, when the crowd, whom Jesus had recently fed on a grassy hillside says, “Rabbi, when did you come here,” we can almost feel John begging us to ask, What does “here” mean? Does it mean here on this side of the lake? Here in Galilee? Here in the height of Rome’s power? Here on earth? And it’s intentional when John’s Jesus doesn’t really answer any of those questions.
You’re not looking for me, says Jesus. You just want more bread. Quit wasting your time! If you’re going to run all over the place looking for bread, be sure it’s bread that lasts.
When the crowd continues to push Jesus for oven-baked bread, he says, I am the bread! The Bread of Life! Follow me. Trust me. And you’ll never be hungry or thirsty again.
Never hungry or thirsty? What would that feel like? When people lose the urgency of hunger and thirst, they’re either freshly in love, clinically depressed, or actively dying. Hunger is one of those physiological realities that makes us human. We must eat. Eating reminds us of our mortality. Indeed, one reason we pray before eating is to acknowledge that our lives are dependent upon not just the food we eat, but the deaths we eat. Whether it’s a cow, a fish, a tomato, or tofu, every time we sit down to eat, something has died so that we might continue living.
Again, though, that’s not the kind of hunger Jesus wants the people to feel. He’s talking about a deeper hunger. I am the bread of life, he says. I am the loaf that has been mixed, kneaded, and risen.
The crowd seems unable to digest all these metaphors. And here John frustrates me a little. He treats the people of Jesus’ day like metaphorically-challenged oafs. But let’s remember that the community to whom John writes lives a century out from the experience of Jesus. So, the people about whom John writes haven’t heard, much less made sense of the whole “In the beginning was the Word” theology. They don’t get it—not yet. And that’s okay.
In a few moments, we will celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We’ll give thanks for the life, death, and new life that gives new life to our own lives and deaths. We’ll talk about Jesus being our host. We’ll use flesh and blood language. If not all of this makes sense, if we don’t get it, that’s okay. In the Church, we try to talk about holy and eternal things by using something as limited and limiting as human language and physical symbols, and our language and symbols point beyond themselves to deeper layers of meaning.
Years ago, on one of my mission trips to Malawi, I noticed an elderly, Malawian woman sitting on the ground, alone, in the sun, just outside the hospital where we were working. The woman was clothed entirely in black. The skin of her face and hands was a dark, leathery maze of deep lines and creases. She gazed into the distance with a vacant stare that could have been deep sadness or deep prayer–or both.
She held a single piece of bread that had obviously been part of a larger loaf. It wasn’t even a handful, but she held the little chunk of bread in one hand and pulled pieces off of it with the other. She raised each bite slowly to her mouth and chewed just as slowly. The aching humility of the sight caught my attention and my imagination.
Now, I may have burdened that memory with a weight that the moment did not have; but, for me, it was like a rose petal, one thin layer of something that was more than it seemed because it was part of a larger and more beautiful whole. On the one hand, that moment reminded me that we’re all more deeply connected than we might seem on the surface. So, in the real-time, concrete details of that moment, I sensed something holy, something sacramental, at work.
On the other hand, that one small piece of bread may well have represented the woman’s rations for the day. It may have stood between her and a hunger from which she might not recover. And because Malawians are generous, community-oriented people, she may have had such a small piece because she had shared the rest of the loaf with others. You and I often live to eat, so, we can’t really imagine what a small piece of bread represents to people who are so hungry that Jesus calls them “blessed.” (Luke 6:21)
When we take communion, we’ll eat a wafer so thin we may barely feel it in our mouths; but it is the Bread of Life for us. As the body of Christ, it stands between us and a hunger that no other bread can satisfy. We’ll also take a sip of grape juice from a cup no larger than a thimble; but it is the life-blood of God’s covenant of grace.
As we saw a few Sundays back, the bread Jesus offers is given not just to satisfy, but also to make us hungry.1 And when we feel that satisfying, spiritual hunger, a new world opens up—the world of God’s Household. And God’s realm is often a wafer-thin place, but transformation happens there. Even the simplest, most ordinary moments become moments of extraordinary holiness and possibility. And the simplest and most ordinary human life—our lives—can become revelations of the love and grace of God.
I can’t make you believe or understand any of that. I can’t make you experience the grace of this table. I can only invite you to come to a simple meal where Christians have—at least at times—experienced a taste of God’s holy realm.
So come. And even if you don’t feel that you had some new experience of grace, keep coming. And I pray that as you continue to visit this table, bringing with you the joys and sorrows of your day-to-day lives, you will taste something more filling than a crumb of bread, something more satisfying than a thimbleful of grape juice, something that calls you to trust and empowers you to follow God’s Christ in his gracious ways of forgiveness, justice, and peace.