August 8, 2021
In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching the crowds and his disciples about bread. A few weeks ago, we heard how he fed 5000 people with a few small loaves of barley bread. Last week, he described himself as “the Bread of Life.” Today’s reading repeats the last verse we heard a week ago, and then takes us further into the story, as we hear Jesus explain what he means by this radical claim.
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.
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ – John 6:35, 41-51
This passage might raise more questions than it answers:
- How is Jesus the bread from heaven? What does that mean, exactly?
- What does it mean to ingest the bread of heaven into ourselves?
Why would we want to?
- How does eating this bread give us eternal life?
- How do we live into eternity in the here and now?
- Does feeding on Christ turn us into what C. S. Lewis called “little Christs?”
- And maybe the biggest question of all for us: If I claim to be a follower of Jesus, and I’m doing everything I think a follower of Jesus is supposed to do, why do I still have this gnawing hunger inside me? Why am I not satisfied with the Bread of Life in my life?
Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus says.
First, Jesus makes one of his great “I am” statements. “I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus says, and the Judeans take exception to his claim to be “from heaven.” It might seem at first that they are misinterpreting the claim Jesus makes, but they are responding to a verse we skipped over in today’s reading. In verse 38 Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”
The Judeans aren’t complaining about the Bread of Life identity at all – they are more upset that Jesus clearly says he comes from heaven, when they all know he comes from Nazareth. They know his parents and his grandparents. They have his family relationships all figured out. So, they grumble, exactly the way the Israelites grumbled when Moses led them through the wilderness and they craved the food they’d left behind in Egypt.
Jesus argues with their grumbling by explaining that it isn’t his earthly family connections that matter. It’s his relationship to the Father, who draws believers to himself through the Son. Only the Son knows the Father, but he will invite anyone who believes into that Father-Son relationship for eternity.
Jesus repeats that he is the Bread of Life, and compares that to manna, which the Judeans’ ancestors ate in the wilderness and died. The true bread from heaven, providing eternal life to those who eat it, is Christ’s own flesh. John Wesley points out that, while the language reminds us of what happens in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is really referring to the cross on which he will die for the sins of the world.
So maybe all those questions we thought were important a minute ago can be boiled down into this:
- Is Jesus who he says he is?
- If I’m still hungry, could it be that I haven’t been eating real bread?
Retired Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, who teaches at Duke Divinity School writes, “Our hungers are so deep. We are dying of thirst. We are bundles of seemingly insatiable need, rushing here and there in a vain attempt to assuage our emptiness. Our culture is a vast supermarket of desire. … Can it be that many of our desires are, in the eternal scheme of things, pointless? Might it be true that [Christ] is the bread we need, even though he is rarely the bread we seek?” (William H. Willimon, Feasting on the Word: Year B, volume 3, 337.)
Why do we still hunger? How are we not satisfied? Could it be that we have not really ingested this living bread, but only tasted it? Could it be that we have not completely internalized Christ’s sacrifice for us, and made it the very center of ourselves? Have we held back from committing ourselves completely to Jesus? Has our love for him been superficial, limited to showing up on Sundays, or helping with a project, but not really devoting ourselves to a life of following Jesus?
A superficial faith is not enough to experience the abundant life that Jesus promises to us. Going through the motions of eating won’t fill you up. Jesus tells us that if we want the hunger in us to be satisfied, we have to believe he is who he says he is, God with us. We have to start living like we believe it. Our lives must have Jesus at the core.
How do we get Jesus into our core? John’s gospel opens with the familiar lines, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Spending significant time in the Word is one way we begin to become what we eat. Devouring the Bible, ingesting the Word, makes us into different people. Reading and re-reading God’s Word every day feeds your soul, just as the food you eat every day feeds your physical body.
For several years, I’ve followed a plan to read the entire Bible in a year. About the third time through, I started to notice things I hadn’t seen the first two times I’d read them. That’s how daily devouring of God’s Word feeds us over time. If you are interested in following a plan like this, you can download the Bible app onto your phone from youversion.com. They even have some shorter plans to get you started in the habit of daily devoted scripture reading.
But Jesus asks more of us than committing to a Bible-reading plan. Jesus asks us to go all in, to make him the very center of our lives. Not an aside, not someone we think about once or twice a week, and then go on about our usual business as if he didn’t exist. Jesus asks for our usual business to be rooted and grounded in him.
If you get by on a few songs Sunday and scanning through a page from a daily devotional book, you’ll have barely consumed enough to keep your faith alive. But Jesus invites you to feast, to thrive, to grow in love of God and neighbor, to be transformed and transforming. to become a disciple who makes disciples – not by any effort of your own, but by the grace he pours out on you when you give him your all.
The Bishop sent me here to help you find your purpose in Christ, and re-focus this ministry around that purpose. Over the next year few months, we will be working together to find our identity as a church, to discern a ministry focus that resonates with that identity, and to name the mission God calls us to join. This is an intensive process, requiring that we take a good hard look at ourselves. We will examine our strengths, our growing edges, and how those affect our dreams for the future.
It will be hard work. As we go through the process, we may discover that, as a congregation, we must change the way we do many things, in order to experience the kind of spiritual growth that satisfies our deepest hungers and invites others to join in the feast. Change isn’t easy. It almost always involves loss, and no one likes to experience loss.
Yet, that is exactly what Jesus has been telling us over and over – the things we give up are worth the cost. It’s only when we are willing to give up what’s dear to us that we can experience the full richness of God’s grace. This is a chance to go deeper, to become more like Christ, to ingest him fully, to begin living abundant, eternal life right now.
Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever consumes this bread will live forever. Christ gives his own life for the life of the world. He asks us to be like him, and do the same thing, giving all that we are to him. Take, eat, this is Christ’s body given for you, that you might become Christ to someone else who hungers for God.