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A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on August 9, 2015.

11th Sunday after Pentecost: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ps. 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable,

O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

       A friend of ours from California visited recently, and one thing we did together was go out for a meal. A local restaurant, Bilbo Baggins here in Alexandria, had been recommended to her, she being a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien and the Hobbit series, so there we went. Of course, as it is in most restaurants, the first thing that comes to the table along with water is some kind of bread. And usually, my wife Chrissie and I decline bread when it is offered, but I think this came without asking, and dining with our friend, we wouldn’t have said No unless she had.

       When it came to the table, I was glad there wasn’t much bread because it looked really good. There were those individual pats of butter and the bread looked so fresh, soft and yummy. So the invitation was right there! Of course, I had some and it was very, very good.

       Bread isn’t really considered a luxury, except perhaps by those who have none. Bread is not dessert or a feast or even a delicacy, but to those who hunger for something and lack everything. Bread is an everyday staple, available to most, but not to all. Bread is basic nourishment, but even Jesus said while tempted in the wilderness, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Sadly, some have to. They have no choice. It may be all that they have, if that. Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, remembered in his book, "Man's Search for Meaning," the ration of a 5 oz. piece of bread as the only food given prisoners for four days.      

Most every culture on earth has some sort of bread, whether it is pita or tortilla or naan. There are breads with yeast, breads without yeast, and sometimes its soda bread. Bread isn’t just for holidays or special occasions. Sometimes, it is given to new home owners or to visitors as a sign of welcome and hospitality. Bread is the substance of everyday life. Jesus taught us to pray for "daily bread."

       Today we’re in Week Three of Chapter Six in John’s Gospel! And throughout this chapter, we see how people respond to Jesus. And from what we have read, I would say they are hungry throughout this chapter – hungry for bread certainly – and although they don’t know it yet – they yearn for the true bread of life which will fill and feed their hearts, minds, bodies and souls.

       Seven times in the Gospel of John, Jesus paints a picture of himself. He shows us what he looks like. Seven times Jesus says, “I am…”   The Light of the World, …the Gate, …the Good Shepherd, …the Resurrection and the Life, …the Way, the Truth, and the Life, … and I am the Vine.” But today, again, Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life.”

       We heard these words last week to end the Gospel, and again this week to open the Gospel. “I am the bread of life. They who come to me will never go hungry, and they who believe in me will never be thirsty.” This is one of the greatest passages of this Fourth Gospel and, indeed, of the entire New Testament.

There is so much excitement with Jesus having fed the 5,000 that it prompts the people to desire him as their king. Yet the next day, Jesus rebukes the people for having interest only in physical things and not in spiritual truths. Jesus had used the miracle of feeding the multitude to provide an object lesson regarding the bread of life, and the provision of God, using words which would much later be associated with the observance of the Lord’s Supper, our Holy Eucharist.

But this crowd, so enslaved to the needs of the flesh, continues to make their physical demands upon Jesus. He has fed the multitude with five barley loaves and two fish with leftovers more abundant than that with which they began. And yet they still do not understand what Jesus is saying to them about the God of abundance and provision.  

They call him “Lord,” expecting to gain earthly favor without submitting to his spiritual authority. They are hungry to have this “bread from heaven,” which they assume will be a continuous supply of physical bread. They have neither heard nor grasped that the One standing before them is the very source of life.

       With this first I AM, Jesus openly declares His identity. He is the “I AM,’ the One who faced and called Moses at the burning bush; the One, as John earlier affirmed, by whom “all things were made.” He is “food which endures.” Sooner or later, any serious dialogue with Jesus will bring us to the place where we must deal with who He is; we must recognize who we hunger for.

       This revelation of His identity serves also as His invitation. Jesus opens His heart, inviting any and all who hear to come and believe in Him. Not to satisfy a physical appetite, nor to assume that we can earn this bread. We can only come to Jesus as beggars, both hungry and needy, if we are to accept the “true bread” which He, the “I AM,” can offer. The inclusion of thirst in His statement emphasizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of all our needs.

       However, no sooner has the invitation been extended when Jesus speaks sadly of their unbelief. They have seen him and what he has done, changing water in wine, healings, and the multiplication of loaves and fish, but they have seen only with human sight. Therefore they have missed the message and failed to understand the meaning of the invitation.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I consider our lectionary, and I see “gaps” in the readings, especially a Gospel text, I begin to wonder what we might be missing out on. Today’s Gospel begins with verse 35 and then skips to verse 41 before ending with verse 51. I wonder if we have missed something that might be important. So let me opt back in verses 36-40 that were omitted today:

“But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

       See, I think this helps us see what the crowd was missing.

       In this passage, Jesus moves from the misunderstanding and unbelief of this crowd to the mystery of belief. It is by the sovereign grace of God that we come to believe. It is not by our own doing. For coming to accept and believe in the One whom the Father has sent is not a human decision based on convincing and reasonable arguments. We cannot talk ourselves into faith. Often in our church tradition we have overemphasized our human capacity “to come to Jesus or “to be saved.” Salvation then becomes “our business” because we put human choice in the center of that decision. While it is true that there is a response that we humans make, a sacred journey is often fraught with struggle, from indifference and unbelief to faith and acceptance.

       Yet Jesus' words, which comfort many of us now, were the very same words that disappointed the sensation-seeking crowds then, so much that they began to turn away from him. Picture them saying, Wow! Is Jesus serious? As John writes, the Jews said, “this Jesus, the son of Joseph … How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven’?”

       In Verse 41, the term “Jews” used by John is for those who constantly oppose Jesus, who now murmur against Him. The Gospel equates the Jews to the Israelites murmuring that same noise of unbelief while wandering in the wilderness. How can this seemingly ordinary man make such an absurd claim that He is “bread from heaven?”

       We must remember the miracle of Jesus’ birth is generally unknown. His “father and mother” are simple, small-town, laboring folk regularly seen at religious feast days and in ordinary family gatherings. To the people who know this family, this appears to be an outlandish statement to make! Jesus puts himself at the mercy of the crowd's ability to understand; we know he is a King, but to most of them, he was a mere, regular citizen.

But what is it about this bread that Jesus is talking about? He said, “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.” (John 6:53) It may be bread that sustains life, but what kind of life? Clearly, it is something more than physical existence since Jesus has already chastised the people for desiring such physical things. How might it relate to spiritual life?

       Over the years, I have known and participated in different feeding ministries. And the people I’ve met through these opportunities make me wonder how the people that Jesus encountered were hoping to be fed. What were they hungry for? They followed Jesus. How did they see Jesus? They pursued him, in fact, across the lake to Capernaum. I think Jesus knew they really wanted more than food. Jesus told them they should look for something more than loaves and fishes; He repeatedly urged them to seek the heavenly food He offered, the food of eternal life.

       Were they just looking to live to the next day, or seeking meaning in their lives? I've encountered people who care more that I have spoken to them, listened to their stories, acknowledged their needs for hope in this world. Is that what the crowd was seeking?

       John the Evangelist made it quite clear that the real issue and the ultimate stumbling-block to human wisdom is not on the level of physical marvel, but on the much higher level of the divine-human nature of Him who claims to be the bread of life. For Jesus speaks of himself as the True Bread, and about its profit and its price. And we know there is indeed only one who can claim to speak of God from ‘direct vision,’ the One who has come from him, Jesus the Son, the Word Incarnate.

       When the Jews begin to murmur, Jesus does not deal directly with the objection they raised. Instead, He returns to expound the nature of belief as the work and gift of God. Watch as Jesus puts all the various terms in the right perspective and relationship for the final time: bread, life, descent from heaven, manna, belief, eternal life, death; all these things are said to find their real meaning in Him, who is the real living bread that has come down from heaven. It is this bread that is available for the life of the world in the flesh of the Son of Man.

Jesus teaches to re-orient their understanding: He says He should not be likened to Moses, but rather that His proper counterpart in the Manna story is that of Yahweh, the Lord God who provides all things. In this part of the discourse, He forsakes the third person reference and the present tense, and speaks plainly about Himself in the first person as the One who will give meaning and hope, the bread of life to the world. Jesus knows this is the hunger the people have.

       Christian faith is faith in Christ crucified. The true nourishment, this bread of life which brings eternal life, is possible because of Christ's sacrifice. We are baptized by faith into His body, crucified with Him that we might live in Him, we abide in Him because He abides in us – all of these truths are sacramentally set forth each time we partake of broken bread and outpoured wine at this altar table.

       There is a distinct reason for connecting the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 to the death of Jesus on the cross – it is teaching relevant to the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist which is blended together, purposefully.

       We believe that with Jesus, there is abundant life. Jesus is our essential bread, supporting an essential relationship, providing the essential life that is found in this bread and this cup which calls us, feeds us, and sustains us. It unites us, inspires us, and empowers us. And it satisfies our hunger.

       It is God’s sovereign grace that invites us, chooses us, and marks out the way of this pilgrimage into faith. The initiative is God's, but we respond. Here we see the perfect harmony of the Father and the Son. Eight times in Chapter Six of John’s Gospel we hear Jesus speak of his having “come from heaven.” The Son is eager to please the Father, for the will of the Father is his will. So whoever the Father draws and gives to the Son, he receives and keeps. 'All' are kept! None are cast out!

       The salvation of those who are drawn, believe, and accept the invitation, is assured. Four times, Jesus speaks of keeping these till the end that “I will raise them up on the last day.” The unexpected good news in this is that it is not our feeble hold on Christ that is our assurance of salvation, but rather his sure grip on us who believe. The father is patiently working, gathering together his whole family of believers, a complete, inclusive community. This calling together of God’s people is the deepest key to history. “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world … then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).

       In the book, Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen shared this reflection about Jesus being Our Food and Drink (Oct. 4):

       "Jesus is the Word of God, who came down from heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit, and became a human being. This happened in a specific place at a specific time. But each day when we celebrate the Eucharist, Jesus comes down from heaven, takes bread and wine, and by the power of the Holy Spirit becomes our food and drink. Indeed, through the Eucharist, God's incarnation continues to happen at any time and at any place.

Sometimes we might think, 'I wish I had been there with Jesus and his apostles long ago!' But Jesus is closer to us now than he was to his own friends. Today he is our daily bread!"  

  Think about that the next time bread is placed on a table before you. AMEN.