Real Bread – Sermon on John 6:35, 41-51 Pentecost 11B

August 9, 2015 
“You are what you eat.” Where did this saying come from? As near as we can tell, the idea probably started in the nineteenth century in France or Germany. The actual phrase didn’t emerge in English until some time later. An ad for a meat market in 1923 stated: “Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.” 

I’m not sure where the meat market got its statistics, but this does seem to be the first time the phrase “you are what you eat” made it into print. The simple idea that we need to eat wholesome food in order to stay healthy suddenly had its own catch phrase. 

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?

If “you are what you eat,” 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, until we realize 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 so much about the Bread of Life identity; 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:

1. Is Jesus who he says he is?

2. If I’m still hungry, could it be that I haven’t been eating real bread?

Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, who currently 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 our selves? 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.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Friday Five has made available a link to a Bible reading survey. This short questionnaire asks a few simple questions about your own personal Bible reading habits. The goal is to get an honest picture of our whole congregation’s current status. Some of you don’t have access to the Friday Five, or maybe you don’t spend much time on the internet, so there’s a Bible reading survey in your bulletin today, and I’d like you to take it out right now and take a moment to answer those questions as honestly as you can. No sugar coating or giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. The ushers will collect them in a few minutes. If you need a pencil or pen, raise your hand and the ushers will bring one to you. (Pause for survey completion) When you’ve answered the questions, hold up your paper so the ushers can collect them. Thank you.

In a few weeks, we will begin to follow The Story as a way to engage our whole congregation in reading God’s Word the way you would read a best-seller. As we look at the over-arching story of God’s action in and among his creation, we will also see the under-story, the way in which humans have responded to God’s story throughout history. And we will examine how our individual stories fit into God’s great story.

We’ve ordered books for every age group, so that whole families can read The Story together, so we can all partake of the same feast. We think it’s important that children, youth, and adults each have a version of The Story appropriate to them, to encourage regular Bible reading. Over the next few months, I hope that your own Bible reading habits might develop into something that, like any really good habit, you just can’t live without.

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.

You are what you eat. If you get by on snacking a few worship songs on Sunday and nibbling a little Bible study on Wednesday nights, 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.

Over the next year and a half or so, our church will participate in the Minnesota Conference process for church growth and vitality called Healthy Church Initiative. Being good Methodists, it won’t be long before we start calling it by its initials: HCI. This is an intensive process, requiring that we take a good hard look at ourselves, and open our church up to some close scrutiny by outsiders. We will examine our strengths, our weaknesses, and how those strengths and weaknesses affect our dreams for the future.

We have been invited into Healthy Church Initiative by Bishop Ough, even though our congregation is slightly smaller than the recommended size for this process. The bishop thinks we have the capacity to benefit from the work that it will make us do. And 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.

This is a chance to go deeper, to become more like Christ, to ingest him fully, to begin living abundant, eternal life right now.

You are what you eat. You become what you consume. Take, eat, this is Christ’s body given for you, that you might become Christ to someone else who hungers for God. Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of 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. Amen.

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