A Sermon on “The Bread of Life”

“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. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 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. 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.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 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? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 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. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ 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. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” – John 6:24-35

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

An author by the name of David Foster Wallace wrote an essay a few years ago that mused on the presidential election in 2000. In this essay, he wondered why so many voters, especially in the younger generations, seemed so disinterested in politics. He concluded that, more than anything else, the younger generation found politics disheartening and frankly, were quite bored by it. They were put off by talking heads that seemed to say nothing of great significance. They were cynical about people who talked about “serving a higher cause”, but who appeared to only be in it for themselves. Above all, they were disappointed, because where they were looking for genuine leaders; all they found were power-hungry opportunists.

Wallace then describes what he sees as authentic leadership:

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do, but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. … Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please…. In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own. [Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Pg. 224-225]

This is the kind of leader that we hear about in the letter to the Ephesians today. It’s the kind of leader the early church needed – someone who can motivate the earliest followers of Jesus “to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” By ourselves, we simply cannot do the things that God calls us to do. By ourselves we’re selfish, stubborn, and blind. But when we follow God’s call, incredible things can happen.

That’s where our writer of Ephesians meets today’s gospel text from John. We pick up where we left off last week in John. Jesus and his disciples have just fed the 5,000. Jesus has just walked on water and gotten their boat to the other side. The crowds were confused about where Jesus had gone so they started off to hunt him down and they find him. Jesus starts in on them right away. I can imagine the crowds were pretty confused. They ask him, “When did you get here?” He answers them by ripping into them. He says you didn’t come here because you saw the meaning behind what just happened back there. You’re here because you got enough to eat back there and you’ve come back wanting more. He essentially accuses the crowds of using Jesus as a means of getting food, while completely missing the deeper meaning behind the things he does.

We do this too, don’t we? We come to Jesus when we need something from him. We feel the need to escape our present pain or suffering – whether that’s a broken relationship, a lost job, a sick loved one – so we come to church. If we’re not careful, the church can become like a painkiller. When we gather together as a community, we sing songs, we hear readings, we experience communion, and that can leave us feeling pretty good. It can give us that escape. It makes us feel good for a while, but then we are forced to again face that downward spiral of broken relationships, lost jobs, and sick loved ones. We have to come back to church and get that relief again.

That’s what these people who come to Jesus are looking for. Jesus gave them relief from their hunger, and so they’re back for more. Jesus is well aware of this and says,

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures, which the Son of Man will give you…. Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Now if we would’ve been reading John’s gospel straight through, we would start to see some patterns, particularly with the Samaritan woman at the well a mere two chapters previous to this. Tell me if this sounds familiar. Jesus says to the woman,

‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Then what comes next? … The woman says to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Flash forward back to John 6, our Gospel for today. These men come looking for bread that spoils. They look to fill a hunger that will keep coming back. Jesus tells them of a bread which comes from heaven and gives life to the world. And what is their response? “Sir, give us this bread always.”

“Sir, give me this water.”
“Sir, give us this bread always.”

When we were in New Orleans a couple weeks back, one of our dome speakers spoke to us about bread and water. His name is Shane Claiborne and he talked to us about his work in Philadelphia with his activism and work with the homeless population. The city had passed an ordinance outlawing the feeding of homeless people in public spaces.

So one night, Shane and his friends went down to the park with bread and wine. Surely the officers wouldn’t arrest them for communing people in a public park. The cops stayed back. Soon enough people got the idea and started to add on to the communion line. The people who were living in the park could come through the line and get bread and wine, the some pizza, a sandwich, some fruit, a bottle of water and other food. Bread and wine have a way of turning into more food than we could ever imagine.

It’s in this bread and wine: Two of the most ordinary substances in the world, yet when they come from Jesus, they are sustaining and give us life. Why? Because Jesus says in the following verse, “I AM the bread of life.”

Wow. What happens here is that Jesus says that he, in himself, his very own body is the only bread that will last forever and does not spoil. It’s in these incredibly ordinary things – bread, water, and wine – that Jesus pulls back the curtain a little bit to reveal who God is for us.

Jesus is the bread of life whose life ends, ultimately, so that ours may begin.

But what do we do with that life? I think that’s where the writer of Ephesians comes back around. We are nourished and sustained by the bread of life, the very body of Jesus, so that we may go out into the world emboldened to speak out of our own brokenness, suffering, and need for daily bread so that others may experience the living water and the bread of life.

And this is a journey. There are some days we’re better at this than others. I think of the John Mayer song “In Repair”. The refrain of this song proclaims, “I’m in repair, I’m not together but I’m getting there.” Those words describe us all. None of us has it completely together all of the time. None of us go through our life unflawed and whole. But by the grace of God we are given the bread of life to enable us to put one foot in front of the other as we go out into the world to spread God’s mercy and hope. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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