The apostle Paul writes: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” – Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
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 forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 6:35, 41-51
John’s gospel this morning starts off with what may be THE six most controversial words ever spoken by anyone in all of human history. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and people have been debating about what he meant by ever since. Was he talking about communion? Or did he mean something else entirely? Are we supposed to take Jesus literally? Or is he speaking metaphorically? And what is “bread of life” (as opposed to other kinds of bread)?
It’s a difficult passage. I’m not sure I understand it completely. I get it in part. But Jesus is talking about supernatural things, things belonging to the Kingdom of God. And I think asking what Jesus meant by “I am the bread of life” is kind of like asking the question,“what happens after you die?” (In fact I think the two questions might even be related.) But for right now, we only understand in part. Someday, as Paul says, “we will know fully even as we are fully known”. Until then we understand in part.
So let’s start off with what we do know. We can be certain at the very least that Jesus was not comparing himself to Wonder Bread. No insult to the makers of Wonder Bread, but that squishy white stuff would not have been recognized as bread back in Jesus’ time. In those days bread was made from whole grain: it was dense, and heavy, and it was enough to satisfy a person’s hunger.
So the first thing Jesus is saying is that he is able to satisfy what we’re hungry for. The deepest longings of our hearts and our spirits find their answer in Jesus.
Another meaning is, Jesus is drawing a parallel between himself as the ‘bread from heaven’ and manna, which is also bread from heaven. Back in the Old Testament manna was bread God gave the Israelites while they were traveling in the desert on their way from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Manna appeared on the ground every morning for 40 years while they were traveling. The strange thing about manna was people had to gather it every day – the stuff didn’t keep. God warned them about that, but some of them tried to store it up anyway, and they found out pretty quickly it got moldy and got worms in it. God’s intention was that the Israelites depend on God for their daily needs, every morning of every day.
Jesus is saying he is like manna. Manna comes from heaven, and so does Jesus. Manna is bread from heaven; and so is Jesus. Manna needs to be gathered every morning; and our relationship with Jesus needs to be renewed every morning, through prayer and through reading God’s word.
This is a lesson God felt it was important to get across to the Israelites in the desert, and it’s something God shows us too in the spiritual desert of our post-modern world. God directs our lives by the Holy Spirit one day at a time, one moment at a time. I think sometimes people get the wrong end of the stick about the faith… like it’s enough that they were baptized or confirmed when they were kids. And these things are important, but like manna we can’t hoard these experiences and then do nothing more. God’s mercies are ‘new every morning’ like the old hymn says, and our relationship with God needs to be renewed every day.
I mean, what would it be like if the person you married said “I love you” on your wedding day and then never said it again for the rest of the marriage? Would you feel loved? Of course not. Your spouse might respond, “well I said it once, and nothing’s changed. I’ll let you know if it does.” But that’s not a relationship. We need to draw daily from the spiritual relationship between ourselves and God, and that’s what Jesus is getting at. In fact this daily drawing strength from spiritual food was a major point John Wesley’s ‘method’ for which Methodists are named, and it’s part of what made the Methodist movement spread like wildfire.
So two things Jesus’ words point to are: satisfaction of spiritual hunger, and seeking God for spiritual strength for the day.
But I’d like to bring us even closer to the Lord’s teaching if I can. I’d like to take us back to that day, as much as possible, 2000 years ago. It’s not an easy scene to step into as Biblical scenes go. I mean it’s easy to imagine ourselves as onlookers in the stable at Jesus’ birth, or to imagine being part of the crowd when the loaves and fishes are being passed around. But as we try to step into this particular scene, whose eyes can we look through? Whose point of view can we relate to?
There are basically three groups of people here, three different points of view to consider: there are the religious authorities, there’s Jesus, and there are Jesus’ followers (both the crowd and the disciples).
Let’s start with the religious authorities. There are probably not a lot of religious authorities here in the congregation today, but it’s not hard to grasp where they’re coming from. On the whole they’re worried. Some of them are worried Jesus might start a rebellion. If they knew Jesus at all they’d know that isn’t true, because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, so he’s not interested in worldly power. But they have seen religious teachers inspire rebellions before, and it never ends well. Some of them are worried that there might be flaws in Jesus’ teaching, or that the people might misunderstand what Jesus is saying, and be lead away from the true faith. Most of them, while they wouldn’t admit it, are jealous of Jesus’ popularity.
So the complaint the religious authorities bring is this: “how can this man say he came down from heaven? We know his parents! We know he was born into this world in the usual way. So how can he say he’s from heaven?”
Ironically the religious leaders are looking at Jesus from a worldly point of view. This is not an isolated case. There are theologians even in our own day who reject miracles in the Bible, who argue that what we see around us in this world is the only reality there is and what we accomplish in this life is all that matters. Jesus does not deny the realities of this world, or his human birth into this world. But Jesus insists that heaven does exist and that there is a reality beyond this world, and the religious leaders (on the whole) don’t get it.
So that’s one point of view. The second point of view is the point of view of Jesus himself. Imagine seeing this scene, if we can, looking out through Jesus’ eyes. What would he see?
In the past 48 hours, Jesus has seen crowds of people, hundreds, bringing the sick, coming to him with suffering and faith mingled in their eyes. He sees in them a spark of faith and responds in love. He reaches out a hand, with no fear of infection or contamination, and touches lepers, the blind, the lame, the bleeding, and he heals them all. He is exhausted by the work and he takes a short break, but then the crowds find him again and now they’re hungry. So Jesus takes two fish and five barley loaves and feeds 5000 men, plus women and children. And now they want to make him king… by force if necessary.
Jesus needs to communicate to the crowd that his kingdom is not of this world. That his mission is to open the door for them into heaven – for all of them. Just like the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness until they got to the Promised Land, God’s people now need to eat the ‘bread from heaven’ until we get to the Promised Land.
So Jesus begins to teach spiritual realities. He says “I am the bread of life.” He is not speaking of physical bread. He says, “Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they died; but whoever eats this bread will never die.” Jesus is not speaking of physical realities. God’s people do get hungry, and God’s people do pass through death. There are real physical needs in the world, and God’s will is that we should help to meet those needs as much as we can. But Jesus is speaking here of eternal realities.
Jesus then says, “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.”
There is only one person in all of history who can say this and not be a madman: the Messiah of God. No one else can promise resurrection and deliver.
CS Lewis once wrote:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. […] You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
CS Lewis is right. In this passage Jesus is not leaving options open. He doesn’t intend to. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” there is only one possible way that this can be both true and sane, and that is if he is speaking of heavenly realities, of the Kingdom of God. Jesus then takes it one step further: he says: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus is speaking of the fact that he will die on the cross –his life, his flesh, will be given for the life of the world.
Jesus’ words challenge the people in a whole new way, and he knows it.
And I can’t presume to go any further into the story from Jesus’ point of view, to know what he was thinking and feeling.
So let’s turn finally to the point of view of Jesus’ followers. I think this is probably where all of us can relate to the story most easily.
As Jesus’ followers in this story we have witnessed Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry. We are excited to be part of this crowd. We’re feeling inspired, like we’re being drawn closer to God. We hear Jesus answer the religious leaders who are trying to debunk him. Unlike them, we hear Jesus teaching with authority. We can feel the momentum building as we accompany Jesus from one mountaintop experience to the next.
When Jesus sits down and starts teaching, he says, “I am bread from heaven” we feel a little confused, until Jesus explains it. Of course he’s speaking of spiritual things. He’s saying that believing in him is how we get into heaven, and we’re right there with him. But then Jesus says, “the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh” and it’s like a splash of cold water in the face. What is he talking about?
These words would have sounded as shocking to ancient ears as they do to ours. What is he saying? And then Jesus goes even further:
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)
You and I in the 21st century have heard these words many times, usually in connection with communion. But if we step into the story as Jesus’ disciples 2000 years ago, these words have never been spoken before. The Last Supper hasn’t happened yet, so there is no communion to relate them to. Jesus is speaking of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of someone we love. And we would have understood that Jesus is speaking metaphorically – he has to be, because for Jews drinking blood and eating flesh with the blood still in it was unthinkable. It was one of the worst things a person could do, on the same level as murder. But even speaking metaphorically these words are shocking and confusing.
It’s no wonder John tells us:
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” (John 6:60) and “…many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with [Jesus].” (John 6:66)
Suddenly those huge crowds melt away, until only a few people are left. Jesus then turns to his remaining followers and says, “Do you also wish to go away?”
And Peter answers on behalf of all of us:
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
That’s really what it comes down to. Jesus has the words of eternal life. Jesus, the bread from heaven, brings us life from heaven.
Jesus’ teaching, difficult as it is, is the foundation and cornerstone of our faith.
As we step now back into our post-modern point of view, there’s just one rub: All this talk about the ‘promised land’ and the kingdom of God being ‘not of this world’ sounds a bit like what they used to call ‘pie in the sky when you die’ preaching. I have two answers for that:
- Heaven is our home. God’s kingdom is our destination. As the apostle Paul writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:19) Yes, we need to live in this world, but we need to know that we have something to hope for beyond the craziness of this world. And with that in mind, secondly…
- The words of Paul from our reading from Ephesians today take on a whole new luster in light of Jesus’ words, because they teach us how to live in the light of eternal life. If heaven is our destination, then we can, as Paul says, without fear, speak truth to our neighbors, deal with anger, do an honest day’s work and give to the poor, speak words that build others up, treat others with kindness, forgive others, live as imitators of God. We do these things because they please God, and because they build us into the people who will spend eternity in God’s kingdom. We love because Christ first loved us, and that is the economy of the kingdom of heaven.
So Jesus is the bread who comes down from heaven. He is the bread of life that satisfies, and that gives us the strength to live as God would have us live. But more than that, feeding on Jesus grows us into people who will one day spend eternity in God’s Kingdom.
Let’s pray together.
Lord Jesus, you have said that no one can come to you unless the Father draws them. Draw us to yourself, O God. Draw us to Jesus more and more with every day. Lord, we don’t always understand what you mean, but we know you have the words of eternal life. Keep us, and all we give you, in your loving hands until your kingdom comes, to your honor and glory and for our eternal joy. AMEN.