Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Bread of Life

I am indebted to the "Saturday Night Theologian," as well as the writings of Jude Siciliano, D. Mark Davis, and (I am sure) many, many others.

John 6:35, 41-51

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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

They had come to the lakeshore looking for another free meal… looking for another floor show, miracles, signs and wonders… they had come to see if this man was the King they had hoped and prayed for so long, the one who would deliver them from servitude to Rome and establish Israel’s supremacy in the world.

They came looking for things that are temporary, for less than everything God had intended for them, and for the world. After all, as full as they’d been on the bread and fishes the day before, they had woken up hungry again. And if anyone should know how temporary kings and kingdoms were, it should be these people of Judea, whose history was full of the ups and downs, the triumphs and disappointments, of earthly kingdoms.

And I guess Jesus could have eased them into the whole idea of who he really was, of his greater purpose in coming. With the proper grooming, bringing the crowd along a little at a time, keeping them fed and providing just enough miracle-performing to keep their interest, Jesus would have eventually had everyone, if you’ll pardon the pun, eating out of the palm of his hand.

But even now, time was short. Jesus had an appointment to keep... an appointment with a cross. It was time to lift the gaze of the people from the earth, where they sought a replacement for Moses, a replacement for David, a return to the ease and power they had hear stories of all of their lives… because as glorious as it all sounded, as deeply engrained in their cultural DNA as the memory of kings and prophets and conquests and victories was, all of that had been and forever would be far too temporary, far too fleeting.

They remember the stories of manna in the wilderness, yet forget that their ancestors had grown sick to death of the monotony, eventually treating the daily gift from God as a curse. For every great king there had been countless bad ones… for every time the Kingdom of Israel turned their eyes to the one true and living God, there were far too many days spend bowing to Ba’al.

They wanted an earthly king, but what they needed was an eternal Kingdom. They wanted barley loaves, but what they needed was Jesus, the Bread of life.

Their sights were set too low, but they were, in the end, looking for the same things we all look for: Saint Augustine called it the “God-Shaped Hole,” the part of each of us that longs for our Creator. Augustine said that every person is created by God and for God, and so we remain restless until we find our rest in him. The crowd that day sought to fill their God-shaped hole with fantasies of enough to eat and freedom from oppression; not in themselves bad things at all, of course.

And today, we try to satisfy these deepest desires of human nature with work and wealth, family or fame, prestige and power. Again, not, in and of themselves, bad things. While far too many people in the United States go to bed hungry every night, for most of us there is plenty to eat, countless entertainment options, an inexhaustible supply of information, we don’t have to look very far to find that many of us are spiritually malnourished. Yet humankind continues to strive for temporary fixes to an eternal problem.

 We want success and comfort, when what we need is to fill that vacuum, that God-shaped hole.

If Jesus is the Bread of Life, then could it not be true that many of the things humankind uses to fill the God-shaped hole are in fact, the bread of death – a bread that, when eaten, only makes us hungrier and hungrier until we are exhausted? It seems that every entertainment, every recreational activity, every enjoyment can become an obsession, an addiction.

Blaise Pascal said, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in us a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This we try in vain to fill with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

Jesus looked at the crowd, and listened to their complaints – “who does this guy think he is? He isn’t from heaven, he’s from Nazareth! I know his mom and dad, for cryin’ out loud!” It was time to lift their gaze, by force if necessary, to the heavens, to see the eternal Kingdom, the living water and Bread of Life that God intended for them, and for the world, to forever enjoy.

Then he spoke. It was time to set the record straight.

“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.”

Food is necessary, but by itself, food is not sufficient to sustain human life. As miraculous and life-sustaining as the manna in the wilderness had been, the people who ate that manna eventually died. Jesus, the bread of life, frees us from the slavery of death. Death did not end his life and, in him, it will not end ours either.

What Jesus offers the crowd is nourishment that will not fade, a food that will sustain beyond mortality, true eternal sustenance – the Bread of Life.

It’s interesting that when Jesus speaks of eternal life he uses the present tense, not the future tense. Those who believe in Jesus have eternal life. The term has many meanings in the gospel, but it primarily means a life in communion with God – beginning now. The Greek word translates “life age-during,” which is awkward, but it refers not to a time without end as much as a state of being without time, and thus without beginning or end.

We who have faith in Christ understand that faith is not an escape from reality. Rather, faith provides hope, and fellowship with God in Christ assures us that God has not left us hungering and lost in one desert or another, but has come to nourish us, stay with us and with our human family. In Jesus our life has purpose and hope. We trust that God will not let us down.

Those of us who have faith in Christ, the Bread of Heaven, are called to be hope in a world of despair; compassion in a world of pain; loving in a world of chill; truth telling in a world of deception. In other words, to live the "eternal life" we already possess.

We cannot neglect the need for food. 34,000 children still die every day from starvation or preventable disease, and more than 20% of the world's population lives in abject poverty. As Christians, we can and should provide food for the hungry. However, filling the stomach is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for a meaningful life. The physical bread of life is necessary to sustain the body, but the spiritual bread of life is vital to sustain the soul. A person living in a dark room, who receives food and water but has no opportunity to hear music, view art, read books, or interact with people is not really living, but only existing. Similarly, many people in the world today go to work, go home, bounce from relationship to relationship, and do not really live their lives. They do not understand the value of partaking of the bread of life, of communing with God and with others who are part of God's fellowship.

So if people are starving for food, feed them. But then, when their bellies are satisfied, Jesus who is our Bread of Life calls us to share with them the joy that we have found in relationship with God.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for addressing the word eternal. I wish, with all my heart, that more Pastors would think about that word, and whether or not it means that God will punish some people without end. The thought of anyone being cut off from God, weeping and gnashing their teeth in pain for eternity, is gruesome beyond words, and I think it keeps so many from every being able to trust God at all. (and besides, how can a punishment have no beginning?)