“The Bread of Life”
“The Bread of Life”
Dr. Thomas W. Currie
August 8, 2021
Let us pray: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So may we feast upon your word this day, that we might also eat our fill, and be strengthened to share such food with your children, offering not just bread but hope, that together with them we might be nourished with the bread of life. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.” Jn. 6:35
So the topic for today is supposed to be about feeding the hungry. And indeed, our scriptures in John 6 and Psalm 34 both have a good deal to do with food. The problem is that neither text has anything to do with our feeding the hungry. Instead, both texts focus on Someone who is feeding us, indeed, on our eating what he has prepared.
In the 6th chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus feeds the 5,000 with nothing but five barley loaves and two fish. This is the one miracle of Jesus that is recounted in all four of the gospels. Clearly, the authors of the New Testament wanted us to know that Jesus fed people. Yes, he taught them, healed them, even preached to them, but feeding was central to his ministry. Indeed, at the climax of his Passion, he takes bread and breaks it, and gives it to his disciples, and tells them that he is feeding them with his own life. So, here, he feeds the 5,000 with 5 barley loaves and two fish.
And it is interesting to see their response. In chapter 6 there are two main responses to Jesus’ action of feeding. The first is, perhaps not surprisingly, to politicize it. The man just fed 5,000 people with nothing but 5 loaves and two fish. Wow! If he can do that, think what that would mean for all the hungry people in the world; think what that would mean for our own people. A person who can do that ought to be in charge of things, ought to be king. Perhaps the proper response to this miracle is to make him king.
Just about the time the people had come to that decision, Jesus eludes them, resisting their efforts by ignoring them and making himself scarce. He shows massive indifference to this political solution and retreats to a mountain, we read, “by himself.”
There is an echo of this story in the synoptics where Satan tests Jesus in the wilderness, telling him that if he is really the Son of God, all he has to do is to turn stones into bread and everyone will follow him. On that occasion, too, Jesus resists such a temptation, saying bread alone is not what gives life to the world.
Here he elaborates, telling his disciples that the only reason the people wished to make him king was because their bellies were full. They missed something; they missed the sign. They thought the bread was the main thing and failed to see it as the sign it was. It was an important sign, a sign of something else, but only a sign.
John’s Gospel is sometimes called a book of signs, and these signs all point away from themselves to Jesus. Yes, he provided bread for the 5,000, but only to say, “I am the bread of life.” He proves a shepherd to his people, only to claim, “I am the good shepherd.” He opens the door to everlasting life, only to say, “I am the door.” He walks with his disciples, teaching them, living with them, only to say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He raises Lazarus from the dead only to say, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Here the sign is bread and we must see the sign but we are not to worship the sign but the one to whom the sign points.
Which brings us to the second response, one that is not political so much as it is skeptical and perhaps even a bit despairing. This response is not from the crowd but from those of his own people who knew Jesus well. “What does he mean he is the bread of life, that he came down from heaven to feed a hungry world? We know who this guy is. He didn’t come from heaven; he came from Nazareth. His father is Joseph. His mother is Mary. He’s nothing special. In fact, if he keeps talking about being the bread of life, he’s bordering on the ridiculous, even blasphemous. He is best ignored.”
Two responses: one seeking to turn Jesus into some kind of cause, the other belittling him and hoping he will just go away. One enthusiastically embracing the political, the other content with its own indifference and perhaps also, its own comforts.
Often in John’s Gospel, the people or the disciples or the scribes and Pharisees see something in Jesus that they latch onto and think that is what he is talking about, and then he has to explain to them that they have missed the point entirely and need to look in a different direction. Yes, he can feed the masses, but the gift is not merely the bread. Yes, he is the bread of life, and nothing less, but what that means, what it is to be the bread that comes down from heaven, what it means to feed the whole world is not a conjuror’s trick or some small-town show, nor is it something to be yawned at. What is on offer here is hope. The enemy here is death. The danger is not that we will starve from not having enough. It’s more serious than that. The danger is that we are already starving for lack of hope; that we are living malnourished lives of hopelessness; that
death stalks us not as some alien creature but as the slow despair that creeps into our hearts and tempts us, even draws us into a quiet, even comfortable darkness.
I am not a big fan of Henry David Thoreau but I think he was right when he observed that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Of the two responses to Jesus in John 6, one almost admires those who want to make him king. At least they saw something in him that stirred the heart and was indeed miraculous. Those who complained that he was only Joseph’s boy do not seem to have even the energy to hope. They are not able even to be wrong.
Jesus’ work of turning himself into food for us suggests not only that we are starving even as we stuff ourselves with junk food, but that our world is starving too and is in fact, a kind of lonely place. There is something wonderful about eating a great meal together. If you have seen the movie, Babette’s Feast, you know what an unexpected gift it is to share a delicious meal with friends old and new. If you have ever seen Renoir’s painting of the luncheon of the boating party, you can almost feel the delight of those sharing in a life together.
Like many of you, my wife and I participate in the church’s contribution to the Meals on Wheels program here in Georgetown. My wife dragged me into this effort. I thought I had more important things to do, like figuring out how the Astros can start hitting again. Anyway, I go. And it is true that we take food, good, nourishing food to all sorts of people. But what I have noticed after a while is that as important as the food is, and indeed it is very important, the gift is the human contact. When we ring the doorbell of an ancient lady, sitting in her government sponsored apartment, we are the biggest thing that will happen to her that day. We may not be the bread of life, but we are a sign of his nourishing presence, a human contact, a meal that claims we are not alone.
And in truth, it is not difficult, not even much of a chore. Sometimes one gets a glimpse of how bread can embody both memory and hope.
Mr. Lopez (not his real name) lives by himself in a nice neighborhood, but an old and ill-kept house here in Georgetown. He sits every day on his front porch waiting for us to come by. His wife died a few years ago. When I come with the tray of food, he always greets me and calls me “Young man,” which is partly why I am devoted to him. The other day my wife and I were delivering and we had our granddaughter with us, who was helping us. When we got to Mr. Lopez’ house, my granddaughter and I went up to the door and he greeted us both. We gave him the food but he told us to stay for a moment. He disappeared into his house only to return with two paintings, an 8X12 oil on canvas, and a much smaller one which he gave to my granddaughter. They were the work of his wife and were in his words, “impressionistic,” lovely sketches of flowers framing a window on their house. His wife had painted these and he wanted us to have them. They were beautiful.
Now, who was giving bread to whom that day? Who was sharing hope in this world for the nourishment of life? Who had heard of something called “the bread of life,” and wanted neither to politicize nor dismiss it but merely, merely (!) to share it.
That painting by Mrs. Lopez sits over my left shoulder in my study at home. It is a sign. Only a sign. But it is a sign that points me to the One who is the bread of life and who gives life and hope and beauty to this world every day.
I don’t care so much about the virtue of being a good sheep and I don’t really want to try to convince people not to be bad goats. Truth is, I suspect that the sheep and goats are pretty well mixed together in all of us. In any case, I would rather just sit at table with the One who insists on feeding sheep and goats out of his own life. I suspect that eating hope in the bread he gives, will enable us all to do extraordinary things, not least to learn how to love our neighbors. For he will not feed us apart from them. But the gift will be to be in his company with all whom he calls, and to be found in his service.
Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine:
Never was love, dear King, never was grief like thine.
This is my friend in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend.
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.