1. I AM the bread of life
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Let us pray. Eternal God, help us to see Christ more clearly, to love Christ more dearly, and to follow Christ more nearly, day by day. In the Saviour’s name we pray. Amen.
My wife tells me not to say such things, but the countdown to the end is really and truly on now. In the spring of last year I spent a couple of days away thinking and praying about the preaching calendar for my last year before retirement. This is hardly surprising, I suppose, but as I thought about the summer series I had the strong conviction that I ought to stick with Jesus.
One of the things that I have come to love about this church is that like the Convention of Churches of which we are a part, Blythwood has always spread a wide net. You have, with grace, put up with my affection and appreciation for some elements of the liturgy of the church that have been around for centuries. There are people with strong leanings to both the left and the right. There is however one matter of doctrine on which I have yet to find any disagreement, that is the centrality of Jesus Christ, who lived, who died and who was raised from the dead. When, during the seven weeks of the Easter season we begin worship with the ancient cry of the church, Christ is risen—he is risen indeed, I was convinced no one in this church family had to cross their fingers in any doubt.
What then would I say about Jesus? Why not look at what our Lord said about himself? The Good News according to John tells us about seven statements that Jesus made all beginning with the words, I am. Together I believe they provide us with a compelling portrait of our Lord. My prayer and my hope is that all of us in hearing about the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth and the life, and the true vine will be spiritually refreshed and that our faith will be strengthened for our service to the kingdom of our God.
Jesus said, I am the bread of life. As it usually happens certain verses of our text and other supporting scripture will appear on the screen, but you may also want to open your Bible to the sixth chapter of John. Do you know where we get the idea that Jesus’ earthly ministry was a little more than three years long? It’s from John’s telling of the story. He mentions three different celebrations of Passover and that festival happens once each year. Three Passovers=three years. One of those festivals is mentioned in verse four of chapter six of John. We are told that celebration was very close.
Let’s then get the context fixed in our minds. In chapter five we are told that Jesus heals a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years (John 5:5). This is understood by many people to not only be a spectacular event but something that just might be pointing to the activity of God among his people. The crowds around Jesus get larger.
Some of you have heard me joke about this before: as the time approached for the first annual picnic after I had become pastor of one congregation, I was reminded by a prominent member of that congregation that one of my predecessors had a particularly stellar record when it came to delivering good weather for picnic Sunday. To this day I am still not sure if she was joking.
Just as much as no one would expect me to deliver good weather for a particular Sunday, no one would have expected Jesus to find and buy enough food for more than 5,000 people. Equally, no one seeing that paltry snack of five loaves and two fish would expect that to be able to feed anyone other than the boy for whom it had been prepared. There is no other conclusion to come to then, except this—food from heaven had been provided and Jesus was the person through whom that food had come.
Try to picture the scene: there are people around you almost as far as the eye can see. No catering wagon has pulled up, no one rolled out two-dozen barbeques. You were aware of something happening where the rabbi and his disciples were standing and the next thing you knew there was take-out for everyone, as much as anyone wanted. Then it hits you: you first heard it from your grandfather, then from your father, now you tell the story to your children. When God’s people were wandering in the wilderness on their way to the promised land, manna was given to them by God, heavenly food to sustain their bodies. We can be confident of what was going through their minds. The great 20th century British New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce puts it this way: “As their forefathers had been fed miraculously in the wilderness in the days of the first Moses, so the one who had now fed them miraculously in another wilderness must be the second Moses, the great prophet of the end time whose advent so many in Israel were expecting” (The Gospel of John, p. 145–6). When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). They are ready to take Jesus and make him their king.
The next morning Jesus is not to be found. The crowd goes looking for him on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. What follows is a sort of debate about the bread that God’s people should be seeking and what sort of spiritual nourishment it is that Jesus provides. This is where we will spend the rest of the time we have today.
It is important to Jesus that he first establish something about the motivation of the crowd. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase, The Message, gets closer to the original than most translations. Jesus answered, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free. One commentator suggested that what Jesus said was likely more earthy than that, something on the manner of “you made pigs of yourselves yesterday and are hoping to do the same today.”
What happens next is, I think, quite remarkable. Jesus points out why the people should be looking for something more than what Moses offered to them. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” The contrast being made, of course, is that even though the manna was a gift from God, even though it can be regarded as heavenly food, it only lasted for a day and would only satisfy one’s hunger for a day. Each day God’s people had to collect more, for each day they were hungry. The expectation at the time of Jesus was that when the Messiah came the manna would once again be given to God’s people. The crowds ask Jesus for a sign. Jesus tells them that they have not understood how the signs point toward him. Through Moses God gave a daily bread; but this gift, as great as it was, by its insufficiency pointed toward the need of a greater gift. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
In an earlier conversation in this gospel Jesus had spoken with a woman beside Jacob’s well in the Samaritan city of Sychar. He had spoken to her about living water, contrasting that with the water that she came to draw from the well each day. She, of course, wanted to know how to get that water.
The crowd around Jesus want the bread he is offering. But John wants us to know that the relationship between Jesus and this crowd is an uneasy one. They had been fed the day before and yet they tell Jesus that in order to believe in him they need to see another sign that would give them some assurance that Jesus is the one upon whom God the Father has set his seal. Let’s pause for a moment with that description. In the ancient world a seal was a sign of authenticity. If a king made a decree that pronouncement would be written in a document and the document would be authenticated by the insignia of the ruler. I hope this doesn’t sound flippant--Jesus is the genuine article sent from the Father!
Jesus is the giver of this spiritual bread and he is himself that spiritual bread. What does this mean to us? Tom Wright, the former Bishop of Durham in the United Kingdom maintains that the key to understanding this text is connected to it being identified with one of the three Passovers mentioned in this gospel. The first is when Jesus is in Jerusalem and chases the buyers and sellers out of the Temple. Our text today is the second one; the third is when Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the last time in order to give his life for the life of the world.
Let’s think this through. To the woman at Samaria, Jesus says that he is living water. To the crowd at Capernaum, Jesus says that he is the bread of life. Every day most, if not all, of the people to whom Jesus spoke, made their way to the local well in order to draw water. These people had two choices, draw water or die of thirst. Every day someone in each of the families baked enough bread for that day. Again they had a choice, provide bread for themselves and their family or die. I think it is important for us to see that this is their stark choice. I am sure that is why Jesus uses this imagery from the common life of those who heard him.
Jesus is telling us that he is the one who, through our belief in him, sustains and nurtures our spiritual lives. I want to come back to that thought in a minute, but first look at what Jesus says about the Father’s desire for our spiritual lives. 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. Spiritually we both survive and thrive when we feed on the one who is the bread of life. The wonderful news is, this is God’s will; God desires to give this spiritual food to us. Human beings, I believe, experience spiritual hunger. The good news is there is food for us, food that satisfies always!
Some of you have been kind enough to tell me that I will be remembered by you as one of the pastors who emphasized the importance of consistent reading of God’s Word for your personal devotional life. There have been many failings to be sure, but if that is one of the things that I have done at Blythwood, that then is something done right. Let me tell you why.
It’s like this. Have you had this sort of experience? It’s a winter day. I have been at the office and in the afternoon it has started to snow. There’s enough of the white stuff on the ground to make walking slippery by the time I walk to Yonge Street to catch the bus. Today there are no slow-downs on the subway from Lawrence to Finch but the storm turns the usual forty five minute bus trip to Markham into seventy-five minutes. The walk from the bus stop to my home is just a little more than a block but the snow is falling hard and the wind has already whipped up some deep drifts. I pull my collar tight but I still feel the cold.
And when I open the door the smell of lamb stew greets me. We call that sort of dinner comfort food! That’s why we feed our souls on the bread of life: Jesus and the word about Jesus is comfort and consolation and counsel to our souls.