Sunday’s sermon: “I am the bread of death?”

I’m a week behind in the lectionary at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ, so this Sunday I am preaching on John 6:35,541-51, with secondary texts of Exodus 16:1-26 and Numbers 11:1-15.  Thanks to the always-helpful Girardian Commentary on the Lectionary, which made me ask some good questions.  Here’s the draft of the sermon.

Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life.” This is another of those sayings that many of us know so well that we hardly know it at all.

It is interesting to me that the response of Jesus’ audience is to be offended.  The nay-sayers begin to say—and we should remember that anything in the Gospel of John should be read as being anti-Jewish—that Jesus says he is the bread of heaven!  What they are referring to is the manna that was brought down from the sky and sustained the Israelites through the long journey of the Exodus.

The thing is that this accusation and question—how could Jesus possibly say that he is manna from heaven?—remains on a literal level.  The story moves on, immediately suggesting that, of course that’s not what he really meant, but in essence, this is precisely what Jesus meant, and more!  Jesus says that the manna from heaven didn’t exactly solve the problems of the Israelites in the desert, and he matter-of-factly states the obvious:  “and they died.”  Instead, Jesus suggests that his teachings are exactly what feeds us and sustains us when the times get tough.  The way of Jesus is what helps us through the hard times.  But he is also saying something more than this, that by his example of following the walk of the cross, by following his road to death, do we find life.  This is quite a claim being put forward in this Gospel.

The Israelites were hungry and God gave them manna, a gummy substance to eat while they were traveling through the desert.  Some scholars think that the manna was really a kind of mushroom, or a kind of tree sap, or even an insect secretion.  I always have the image of manna being Frosted Flakes, because I remember in Vacation Bible School as a kid we learned this story and we had a tablecloth lined with Frosted Flakes as our snack, as we traveled through the church, hungry for something to eat.

But the point of Jesus making reference to manna wasn’t just to tick off the Jewish elders or to say something outlandish or to so pretentiously suggest that he is the answer to everyone’s problems.  Because the Israelites took the bread of heaven, the manna, realizing that this manna is what is keeping them alive, and even Moses gets in on the complaining, “When are you going to give us some meat to eat?”  Now, if you keep reading in the Old Testament, you know that they eventually got meat, but that didn’t entirely satisfy their appetites.  Had they stuck with the bread from heaven, maybe some of their other problems would not have followed.

So if Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is also saying that there is a bread of death.  What is the bread of death?  I think of the story of Satan tempting Jesus on top of the cliff, offering him the power of the world, as one form of the bread of death, and Jesus had the power to resist Satan and to say no.

But most of us aren’t given the opportunity to rule the world by Satan.  Most of us are tempted by other styles of bread with different varieties of death.  For some of us it’s food, and for some of us it’s alcohol or other substances, or money, or sexual addictions, or violence, or for some of us it’s the inability to have empathy in our relationships.  When we give into these addictions and abuses we are not being taken up on the highest mountain and we aren’t being offered the whole of the world, but we give into these breads of death to control the small piece of the world that we believe we can control, which if nothing else, is only ourselves.  And even then, by feasting on the bread of death, we believe that we regain control of our world, even while we know—and I believe that we really know that we’re doing this while we do it—that we are surrendering ourselves to the world, and not to God.

Those elements of our lives that are the breads of death are not the same for each one of us, and they are often personal to us.  They are our own obstacles to overcome, and our own demons to cast out.

But how it always works is that the breads of death never satisfy us, and they convince us that the bread of life isn’t good enough for us.  In the desert, after being miraculously fed manna, the Israelites said, “that’s it?  Where’s the rest of it? We’re ready for the main course!”  We consider the bread of heaven to be not enough, and we automatically think we need something more.

It’s kind of like candy, it fills us, but only temporarily.  Eating candy never makes you full, in fact, if you eat candy until you’re full, you know that it makes you sick.  The bread of heaven might not be flashy, and it might not be what seems to be the meatiest option, but it is what God provides to us, and it is our sustenance for the journey.  Meat spoils.  Trusting in God sustains us, and this is what Jesus offers to us.

A key word here in the scriptures is in verse 44, the line which reads, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”  Now, the word here for “draw” is elkuo, and is used eight times in the New Testament, meaning to bring close or gather toward onself.  In the Gospel of John, for example the word is used to describe the fishermen gathering their nets onto the boat, and in John 12:32, when describing the second coming:  “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

So, keeping this in mind, our bible reading today Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”  This is a statement of exclusion, usually meaning that those who do not recognize Jesus as the bread of life will be excluded from the Kingdom of God, or burned in Hell.  But I preach to you today that it’s not that simple, and you all know that I believe in a hell, but I don’t think that is what Jesus is talking about here; here he is “drawing” together, or offering an opportunity of new life though his coming death and resurrection.

This is to say that, when Jesus institutes his ritual of eating bread together and says, “Do this as often as you gather to remember me,” Jesus is drawing attention to the fact that because of Jesus’ death, and because of the cross, we are today, two thousand years later, invited to feast on the same living bread as those disciples.  And the challenge remains that we have the same challenges today as those first disciples to mistaken the living bread for the bread of death, and to deny the bread of life altogether.  But the remembrance of the cross through the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine (as we just did together two weeks ago) is our offering of grace to return home, to keep returning home, to often have the opportunity to say “yes” to the bread of life.

(As a side note, have you ever noticed that when we share bread and wine together, there is at least one point, or perhaps several, where the bread and wine are elevated up by me or whoever else blesses the elements? There are several reasons for this, but one we can take away from in today’s lesson is the notion that when Jesus, the bread of life, is raised, we as a Kingdom are drawn together around the sacrificial remains of Jesus—the body and blood, the bread and wine.)

We, like the Israelites traveling through the desert and quick to judge the God who is graceful to us, and say, “Is this all you’re giving us?  Give us some meat!”  And we are quick to forget that we are very fortunate where we are, and that we are given blessings and given so much around us that we forget—as is part of our current political discourse—that everything we have comes from somewhere and from someone, and sometimes the greatest bread of death we could consume is the idea that we are self-made individuals.  When we believe this, we have no sense of believing that we need to be “drawn” by the Father into the Kingdom.  We believe that we make bread enough for ourselves.

As we go out from this place today, as we scatter to our various comings and goings, we have choices to make.  Do we feast on the bread of life, or the bread of death?  And how do we know which is death, and which is life?  The answer may be different for all of us, but I believe the deeper question is this:  Does this draw me closer to the likeness of Christ, and does this draw me closer to my brothers and sisters as a community of faith?  Does taking this bread of life or of death enact or imply an act of justice?  We today know that public acts as simple as our choice of food, and the clothing we wear, are political and are indicative of acts of justice or acts of intolerance:  of breaking the body of Christ or of drawing together the kingdom.

Jesus teaches that, in verse 51 of our reading, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  In the death of God in Christ on the cross we may have new life.  Jesus died for us to follow the bread of his death, which is the bread of our life, and to lift it up throughout our lives as a means to draw ourselves together closer into community, and not to separate us apart.

Let us practice this now throughout all that we do.