Pentecost 10 (August 13, 2006)
35Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." 41At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."
You have to love the language of Jesus. 1/3 of the red letters of the New Testament are done in a parabolic / story form. He says profound things and we are left wondering “how literally are we to take this statement?” The Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans, commoners, even the disciples themselves are often left wondering the same thing. Surely he’s being metaphorical, but how metaphorical? Surely he can’t mean exactly what he’s saying, and yet he seems to mean exactly what he’s saying. “I am the bread of life. Eat my flesh and live. I give my flesh to the world.”
Let me speak from context. The Jewish people should be reminded of certain events in their Exodus history. Eating was synonymous with living. When Moses leads the people out of Egypt he takes them from a place where slavery was a way of life, but where food and water were a constant. The people of God did not have freedom but they did have breakfast, lunch and dinner. After all the plagues were finished the people were in the desert. But with freedom came something else – “grumbling”. The most powerful, deafening word of the Hebrew Bible – grumbling. Grumbling because they were tired. Grumbling because they were hungry. Grumbling because freedom had seemingly cost them breakfast, lunch and dinner. The pathetic statement of disbelief is confessed often in the desert, “It would have been better to stay as slaves in Egypt then to die here in the desert.” Was that God’s plan for his chosen people? Was that God’s plan for the great, great, great grandparents of the Messiah? Was God so short-sighted that he only envisioned a plan for escape without a plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is the truth about fallen man: We can see miracle after miracle (plagues creating a way out, the sea opening a pathway for us, answered prayers, miracle births) but sometimes the simplest things bring out the grumbling.
Of course God had a plan. Nobody ends up dehydrating in the desert – water can come from rocks. Nobody ends up starving – manna falls from the sky. In fact, they get extra manna before the Sabbath so nobody has to exert any effort and work on the Holy day. But that’s not good enough. The grumbling starts again and prayers of thanksgiving turn to finger pointing. “We’re tired of this food.” Tired of miracles, tired of God’s intervention, tired of freedom? What exactly are they complaining about? What shocks me about God is that he doesn’t just answer the prayer of righteous people, but sometimes even answers the prayer of the grumbler. So here’s your water, here’s your manna floating down from heaven every day to keep you alive in the desert, and just so you know I love you, how about quail fajitas? And you would think that at some point all these miracles added together would have meant something to the people. I know I’m guilty of the same. Clothes overflowing my closets and yet never content. Food overflowing at my table and yet I want more salt, more pepper, and bigger portions. A beautiful roof over my head and yet jealousy that drives me to want to switch with my neighbor. And in less miraculous fashion I acknowledge that all of this is given by God himself because he loves me.
In John 6:35, Jesus declares , "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. If you thought manna and quail fajitas were amazing, how about never hungering again, how about eternal life? In verse 41, his enemies react by grumbling. More grumbling from God’s chosen people. The same story being lived out once again. God’s plan is not our plan. It’s sad but true. In Deuteronomy 8:3-4, God is showing his love. “I fed you when you hungered to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet didn’t swell during those 40 years in the desert.” The hand of God was all over the people. Freedom from slavery, seas opening up, water, manna, quail fajitas, clothes that won’t wear out after 40 years, even feet that don’t swell. Why do we so quickly forget?
Jesus does the same thing. Just before this in the lectionary we read about his miraculous feedings. Taking bread and fish for a few, and turning it into a feast for thousands. He cooks fish on the shore for the disciples when they can’t catch a thing; he overflows their nets when their human skills let them down. But if you stop there you would have completely missed the point. God’s deliverance of His people wasn’t about manna, and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were not about bread and fish. Something better is entering into our world. God’s plan is more profound then we ever could have imagined.
Verse 37 – “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." Brilliant. Dead on. That is what the cross and tomb are all about. Jesus is the bread of life not because he merely feeds us and teaches us, but because he’s the savior who gets us out. A savior who comes after us. Think Exodus – we’re grumbling about food and he’s trying to rescue us from sin, death and the devil. We’re hungry and he’s trying to rescue us from slavery.
When we read these words we also are reminded of the Lord’s Supper. Dining with Christ at His table. When we connect with Jesus we always get forgiveness. It’s a special meal with God so we need to make sure we are prepared for it. Dinner with God. Bring out the nice china. Serve filet mignon. This should be the heartbeat of the church. We spend so much time singing, and listening, and confessing, but at the Supper we commune together. With each other, with all Christians before and after us (Peter, James, John, St. Francis, Mother Teresa, even the great, great grandkids we’ll never meet). We commune with God himself. I’m not just communing with God, I’m communing with you. That should change how I treat you. If you tear someone down, you are tearing down God. It tears down the love he gives. It tears down the friendships he’s trying to create. It tears down the bread of life communion we’re called into.
Early Christianity took the Lord’s Supper so seriously that they were often referred to as cannibals. In Roman documents the threat of this religious sect that practices cannibalism by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their crucified leader produced much persecution. The language is surely graphic because the cross is graphic. Jesus died for me. Jesus is present in this meal for me. Jesus is forgiving, atoning, and changing everything about life for us. There is nothing simple about Jesus being the bread of life.
Tony Campolo tells a true story from one of his many trips to speak at conferences. He was in another time zone and couldn’t sleep so he went out at 3am and found a donut shop. In the donut shop was a group of prostitutes who had just finished a night of work. He overheard a girl named Agnes saying that tomorrow was her 39 th birthday and then hearing the others make fun of her. She responded by saying that she didn’t want a cake or a party – in fact, she had never really had those before. When they left Tony asked the shop owner if they came in every night at the same time. When he found out they did, he came up with a plan to decorate the donut shop and the shop owner’s wife even baked a cake.
The next night at 3am Agnes came in with her friends and everyone jumped out and screamed surprise and began the happy birthday song. When they went to cut the cake she asked if she could wait – she just wanted to take it home and look at it. When the night was over Tony said a prayer for the girl. The donut shop owner finally realized that Tony was a pastor and asked him what kind of church he pastured. Tony said, “I pastor a church that throws 3am birthday parties for prostitutes.” The owner responded, “No way, if a church like that existed I would go to that church.”
What kind of church are we? The Gospel is more food-related than we ever imagined. If Jesus is the bread of life, who needs to eat? If Jesus is bringing eternal life to the world, who needs to live? So here’s to birthday parties at 3am and here’s to the cross and tomb of Christ the crucified. May the parties of God continue to invite, to feed, and to change.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Jim Mueller, Pastor