John 6:35 (NRSV)
35 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.
John 6:41–51 (NRSV)
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 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’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 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. 45 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. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.”
Over the course of the past month I personally have been focused almost exclusively on the imagery we find in scripture. This is largely a result of being the Elder for our Area for the past six years. This year we wrestled with the ideas surrounding the use of the sign, symbols, mysteries, or traditions of the Christian faith. The thing about these discussions and the debates is that most fail to dive into the greatest mystery involved. By in large the arguments have only focused on the superficial and surface of the symbols.
This portion of John is the turning point in Jesus’s ministry. Prior to this there was some resistance to the message Jesus was presenting but after this there was an organized effort to silence him. It is from this chapter on that the Gospel writer, John, begins to refer to those that oppose Jesus as “the Jews.” This is not insignificant, and it is not antisemitic as many scholars have attempted to say. John is simply identifying the division of faith. There are those that remain loyal to the traveling teacher known as Jesus, and there are those that hold to the safety of tradition and heritage. The reason for this revolves around one small statement uttered by Jesus, I am the Bread. We might not quite understand why this is such a scandalous statement, but that is because we were not Hebrews from the first century.
Bread is an interesting substance. In human civilizations a form of bread is a staple of life. I say a form because bread, the cooked combination of grain flour and water, is found in nearly every meal around the world. It might come in a loaf sliced in convenient and uniform sizes placed in a bag, it might come in the form of a noodle topped with a sauce. It may have been fermented and allowed to rise or it might be one of several varieties of flat breads like a pita or a tortilla. Bread, even if you adhere to a low carb diet, is a staple of life. Bread is clearly important, so important that even in the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples, he says that we should be unashamed to asked that God our Father in Heaven provide this most basic need of life.
Bread is not only the foundation of life, but it is the symbol of our livelihood. In our American culture there is a clique about bringing home the bacon. This saying is a testimony of wealth and the ability to provide for one’s family. In most cultures bacon would not be used in the statement, but bread. The fact that bacon is used in our society is because we as a collective whole are wealthy enough to have an addition of meat to our diet. Of course, at the time this saying emerged bringing home the bacon was a luxury. Meat was a blessing, a benefit, because the profit of our labors provided enough to buy bread and allowed for the addition of meat even dire economic situations. To have bread means we will survive another day. Our existence is secure because we can obtain the basic substance to sustain life. Give us this day our daily bread, not only means feed us but allow us to provide what is necessary to take care of the needs of our families and our communities.
Bread has an even deeper meaning than just survival and livelihood, it also denotes blessing. And it is this point that Jesus faces opposition. The word used to speak of bread in this sense is not just the bread of survival, which was often made of barley flour, but this was bread of blessing made from wheat. Again, our culture has an inability to understand the significance of this simply because our bread is predominately manufactured with wheat flour and the breads baked using other grains is often seen as a luxury. We pay more for rye bread, when rye in many places is a flour of poverty. But this bread of blessing, was something reserved for special occasions and purposes. This bread was the bread that was placed on the table before the Lord in the temple, it was the bread that was often reserved for the sabbath meal, it was the bread that reminded the people of Israel that God provides. It was placed in this high place because the color of wheat bread more closely resembled the color of manna.
This bread of blessing was important because is there to remind Israel that they were not alone, but they were the children of Abraham. It also reminds them that they are not self-sufficient, that it is from the hand of God that they have their hope and their blessing not solely from their human efforts. This bread of blessing with its fair hue, pointed them back to the wilderness where their ancestors relied on God for absolutely everything. It was the blessing of God that sustained them through the forty years of wandering. It was the blessing of God that gave them the land of promise. It was the blessing of God that provided for their return to this land after exile. It was a blessing from God that they were alive because without God Israel would have ceased to exist and their heritage would be bleached bones under the sands of a desert. Every sabbath day the head of the household would stand before the family and bless the bread and break it. Not just out of thanksgiving but out of deep remembrance of the blessing and promise that God gave to those that had gone before them. They would bless the bread out of the longing and hope for the generations that would go beyond them. They would bless the bread with the focus of Immanuel God with us, where they would be His people and He would be their God not just in name but in a fulfilled reality.
The significance of this bread goes very deep. It is what sustains and gave life to Israel. It is what connected them to God. It is what provided their identity as God’s people. It is what provided their purpose. For forty years the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness and they existed by eating manna. They survived on this substance that came every morning provided them with nourishment and vanished. They would go out and gather just enough for their family each day, and if they tried to gather more it would spoil by the next morning. So, every day they would gather this substance and make bread. Every day again and again they ate manna a heavenly substance provided by the hand of God. And on the 6th day and only on the 6th day they could gather a double portion, so they could honor their God by resting on the 7th. Every day for forty years God provided for Israel, up to the day they crossed over the Jordan and entered the land He had promised to their fathers.
God provided for them. God blessed them, yet Israel was not thankful. They grumbled in the wilderness. They complained that the only thing they had was bread made for manna. In fact, the very name manna has an almost negative name. Manna literally means, what is it. Israel woke up seeing this blessing and the only thing they could say is, “What is it?” They grumbled. This substance that was providing for their every need to survive just appeared every morning and they respond not with thanksgiving but with grumblings.
What is it? That is the mystery of manna, but it is not only the mystery of manna but life. Jesus once said that the kingdom of God is like a seed. By saying that Jesus is saying that the answers to life and the universe are found in the very grains that provide for the sustaining of life. In so many words Jesus was saying that the answers to what is it are found in bread. What is it, that gives life? What is it, that provides success? What is it, that gives us meaning and purpose? What is it, that provides satisfaction? What is life? Life is simple it is wrapped up in a seed. It is wrapped up in a mysterious substance that fell from the heavens. Life is bread.
Jesus stood before his countrymen that day and he said, “I am the Bread of life.” When Jesus made this statement, he was using the form of bread that directed everyone’s attention to this sacred bread, this bread of blessing. Jesus is not simply saying I am the substance that keeps you going, but I am the very meaning and purpose of life. He is saying that he is life. That he is the very one that gives life and without him we are bleached bones covered in the desert sands. He is saying I am the substance you honor when you leave bread on the table in the temple. He is the one that provided for and is the source of their heritage and their future. Jesus is THE BREAD!
Can you see why this was the turning point, the point of division between the disciples of Jesus and the Jews? By Jesus saying that he was the bread, he is saying that all their honor and worship from the time of Moses, was directed to him. He is saying that He is the source of their life, their blessing, their honor, their purpose, and their very existence. Everything they have is because of him. Everything they hope to have is through him. Everything they once had was because of him. And everything they lost was because they rejected him the very What of life.
And the gospel writer says, “the Jews grumbled (or complained).” They said, “WHAT?” They said we know who this guy is, we know his parents, we even know where he came from. We are not followers of him, we follow Moses. They grumbled just as their ancestors did in the wilderness, because they could not understand what was before them. They understood what was behind them, they understood slavery and bondage. They understood torment and suffering. They understood being set apart and persecuted. They understood being strangers in a strange land, being challenged around every corner of history just to survive as a people. They understood that sticking together and keeping their traditions had sustained them through the darkest days and has even to this day. It sustained them through the bondage in Egypt, through the exile in Babylon, it held them together through the furnaces and the chambers of the camps, it has given them hope through the wars and the negotiated peace. They have survived, their survival has come with a cost. They still wander, and they wonder what. They still look for messiah. And some have been looking so long that they have decided that messiah is not a person but a state of mind, and they wander. They bless the bread according to tradition and they ask what.
When John speaks of the Jews, yes, he is speaking of those that oppose Jesus, those that oppress the disciples, but he is also speaking of those that miss the answer to the ultimate question. They are not to be hated, they are not to be pitied either. They are that perpetual statement in human existence that God’s promises are true. God has protected the children of Israel, he has sustained them and provided for their livelihoods, he has even blessed them abundantly. He has done this so that they as a group within humanity will be a light to the rest of the world, and a beacon of hope. But it is not because of them, but Him. They wandered through the wilderness eating the blessing of God, knowing that man does not live by bread alone, but on the Word of God. God said he would feed them and he did. And as he fed them they asked what? They wandered and eventually they settled in the land given to them by the very hand of God, promised by the Word that was spoken to their father Abraham, and they continued to ask what? They turned from their provider and God, they chased after other gods, the gods of other nations that knew nothing of the one true God and Israel continued to ask what? They were conquered because of their rejection of God and they ask what. God brought them back to the land and even came and lived among them after the exile and they grumble and ask yet again what? God has kept Israel because they are very human, and through them He could reveal himself. They have always been just enough. The entire world knows Israel, but it has only ever been a nation of just enough. It is a tiny nation yet has just enough. Just enough power to remain, just enough influence to survive. Even when they have been hated and persecuted they maintained just enough. They maintain just enough what, bread. They have maintained just enough bread to survive and remain, and they will always have just enough to remain a testimony that God will not forget even though we might.
But just enough was not the plan that God had for Israel. His plan was that they were to be a light to the nations. That they were to be a blessing to all people. God told Abraham that his descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky, and grains of sand. Is that a promise of just enough? The promise of Israel comes not from the people of the promise but the person who was promised. It was through the one from Israel that the light would come. It was this promised one who would answer the question of what. I am the bead of life, who ever eats of me will never hunger. Jesus stood before his countrymen that day, after feeding a multitude, and said these words. He stood there after they had seen God provide bread through him, and he said I am the Bread. It is through Jesus that we find our hope and our answers. It is not through the following of traditions and rules of the past or the present, but Jesus. It is Jesus that answers the questions. It is Jesus who gives us meaning and purpose. It is Jesus that sustains us and gives us a hope for a future. And when Jesus becomes our life, we no longer ask what in confusion, but exclaim what as a child opening a gift on Christmas.
There is so much packed in such a simple thing. All it is, is bread. That simple substance that sustains life. Yet that little slice of bread also provides so much more. What is life? It is bread. A bologna sandwich when we have too much to do. It contains pumpkin to celebrate. It is flattened and covered with sauce and cheese to celebrate the win. It is the gift to someone in sorrow. It is covered with peanut butter and honey to bring pleasure and grilled with cheese to bring comfort. Life is what? Life is the sharing of bread with others. Bread is more than a ceremony, or a meal, bread is life and hope. Bread is Jesus, who came down from heaven becoming man so that he could take us back to God. Jesus is bread, because he is our source and meaning of true life.
This all brings me back to those many conversations I have had over the years. The conversations I have had with brothers and sister of Christ of different faith traditions that ask why we believe the way we believe. The conversations we have among ourselves as to why we believe what we believe. The debates that I have had with people that say we must practice our faith in a certain manner for it to be true and authentic faith, and those that want to say if we practice it in a certain manner we cease to be who we are. When I study and observe my faith, when I read about the explanations of faith passed down from those that first started and those that have carried on the society we call Friends. I believe that they had and still have it right. All of life is a sacrament. And that is because All that gives life is Jesus. Everything that sustains us is a direct blessing from God and should be used to express our gratitude of him, as well as to extend that hope we find to others. Life is a mystery, an ever-present question of what, but we find those answers when we look to Jesus. He is the bread of life, that cannot be contained in a slice or a wafer but can only be experience in every moment of every day. Our ever-present question became our ever-present answer. And what? Became WHAT!