Jesus: The Bread of Life (John 6:1-71)

There's something very important about bread - not only physically but even emotionally and spiritually.

In a book titled God's Psychiatry, Charles Allen recounts the fate of European orphans at the end of World War II. As that awful conflict was winding down, thousands of hungry and malnourished children were gathered up and placed in secure camps. They were housed, given medical care, and fed all the nourishing food their stomachs could tolerate. Despite the best of attention and care, they slept only fitfully. They seemed anxious and afraid. Their eyes darted about with apparent suspicion and dread. Then a psychologist tried a therapy that solved the problem and was adopted at all the centers with war orphans.

Each child was put to bed at night with a roll or piece of bread in hand. It was just to be held, not eaten. Thus the children went to bed with the assurance that they would have food for the next day. They could close their eyes and believe that their new, safe circumstance was real and would still be available when they opened them. The guarantee that they would not be abandoned as unwanted and forced to fend for themselves on the coming day gave the children contented, restful, and therapeutic sleep.

Holy God in heaven, our sin and its terrible consequences make us afraid. We often feel like cosmic orphans - homeless, helpless, heartsick for security. Thank you for supplying the Bread of Life who assures us of salvation, safety, and security for eternity. Help us to come to a fuller faith in your provision from reading this text together today. Help us to see Jesus more clearly and to trust him more completely. Amen.

Educating His Disciples

John 6 may well be the watershed of Jesus' career in this Gospel. Up to this point, the crowds have been swelling around Jesus; yet because of what some of them called a "difficult" teaching here that "offended" them (6:60-61), "many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him" (6:66). The drop in crowd size was so dramatic that it led to this exchange:

So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (6:67-69).
John doesn't record the great confession that Peter made at Caesarea Philippi (cf. Matt. 16:13-20). This situation parallels that declaration. Peter speaks again as the representative of the entire group. They believed in Jesus - but their faith was flawed, theologically inaccurate on many points, and would not keep them from failing their Master. Because it was authentic and sincere, however, it would be enough to save them - with the single notable exception of Judas, whose failure was not that of impulse but calculation. Thank God for the reassurance of that truth to our situation!

The miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand is the only one of his signs related in all of the Gospels. In the Gospel of John, the primary value of the account - given with fewer details than in the Synoptic Gospels - is to give the background necessary for Jesus' claim to be the Bread of Life. The things he taught in the Capernaum synagogue the next day after the miracle can be summarized in terms of three cardinal points.

First, spiritual matters must be of greater concern to us than the things that tend to occupy us most of the time. "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you," Jesus told them. "For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal" (6:27). Adults have jobs to do to earn a living and provide for their families. Kids have to go to school and do their homework. Golf or track or football can be great fun as well as good exercise. At the end of the day, however, the question is this: How have all these things affected my relationship with Christ? Have I kept my priorities clear today? The main quest of my life must be Jesus, not publications. Your primary concern must be Jesus, not promotions. Jesus, not money. Jesus, not romance. Jesus, not awards. Jesus, not a standard of living. Jesus is "the bread that came down from heaven" (6:58; cf. 33, 38, 41, 50, 51), and living by faith in him is the only thing that will endure into the life yet to come.

Second, redemption and eternal life are found in Jesus alone and not in our theologies, our formulas for worship, or our good works. "Then they said to him, 'What must we do to perform the works of God?' Jesus answered them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent' " (6:28-29). To the Jewish audience for whom these words were intended originally, securing eternal life was a matter of finding the right formula for their religion. All this centered in being able to prove they were right and the Samaritans, Gentiles, and non-observant Jews wrong. Jesus tried to reorient their understanding from ritual to relationship, from their works (i.e., performance) to God's work (i.e., providing a redeemer to accomplish what their good works never could). John apparently thought that his Christian readers sixty years later needed this lesson reinforced to them (cf. Rom. 3:21-26). Perhaps we need it even more today. The key to salvation is not what we do but what God has done already. Worry less about what you don't know and haven't been able to do than about neglecting the daily presence of Jesus in your life. Nobody is going to be saved by figuring it out and doing it right, but by his or her faith in Jesus Christ. That is, Jesus is heaven's manna sent into our desert lives; we are not going to be saved by a recipe, cooking method, and shelving system for bread but by eating what we have been given by grace.

Third, be careful not to judge God by the latest thing you have seen. When faith is na´ve and immature, it tends to demand of God what he has never promised. In other words, the person who could "believe" yesterday because he ate and had a full stomach will be tempted to "lose faith" today if he has an empty lunch box. "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?" they asked (6:30). What? Were those people suffering from short-term memory loss? Jesus had just fed the whole lot of them yesterday with a boy's sack lunch. Did they need another miracle - another free lunch today - to justify their continuation with him? The occasional miracle that certifies faith is not a God-in-the-box guarantee that you will get one whenever you have a crisis to face. Even Jesus himself wasn't spared from his crises - betrayal, flogging, humiliation, and death. But his Father sustained him through those times and raised him up in triumph over them all. Vindication after the fact rather than deliverance in advance has been the far more common response of God to persecution, sickness, and trials. This is the way faith should and must work, for otherwise we would all "believe" for the sake of the free meals, guaranteed good health, and certified portfolios.

Challenging His Disciples

Jesus challenged his hearers that day to trust him. "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry," he promised, "and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty" (6:35). Then, in contrasting the manna their fathers ate in the Sinai with the bread he was offering them, he said:

"Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever" (6:53-58).
Although some would disagree, I am convinced these words are not about the Lord's Supper. The eating and drinking of this text is about the daily appropriation of Christ as one's life and nourishment. Eating and drinking in this passage constitute a powerful metaphor for the nature of faith. No one will eat or drink what he cannot trust; no one will enter life who does not trust what God has done through Christ above material things, more than religious ritual, and beyond what the circumstance of the moment feels like.

Think about it. Some people think twice now before opening their mail. Would you sit down for a conference with al Qaeda leaders and eat or drink whatever they offered? Will you even go to certain restaurants whose low health department scores and food-handling techniques have been plastered on TV last night? When you swallow something, you are accepting all the implications that go with your act.

Don't we use the verb "to swallow" in just that way? Don't you see the obvious metaphor for faith here? "Hey, Rubel, get me five thousand bucks in an hour, and I promise to turn it into fifty thousand in just three days!" says some huckster. And my response? "Do you really think I'm dumb enough to swallow that?"

Conclusion

"Hey, Rubel, you want to go to heaven?" someone asks. Assured that I do, he continues, "Then quit worrying so much about your house or your car or your brand-name clothes. And don't get so hung up on your peculiar interpretations of the Bible or your church's way of doing things. By all means, don't equate your spiritual situation with your mood, your health, or your job. Just trust me to make things work right at the end. Will you do that?"

"That's a lot for me to swallow!" I tell him.

"But that's the way it works," says Jesus. "Do you believe me? Can you swallow what I've offered you? I've never failed anyone who has, and I won't fail you."

* * * * * * *

Behold, a beggar went into a bakery and said, "Sir, I'm starving - along with my family. Would you take pity on me and give me some of your bread?"[1]

Moved with compassion, the baker asked the man to sit down with him at a tiny corner table. He came to the table with arms loaded with books and manuals - and proceeded to explain the fine points of winter wheat, the process of milling, and the calorie and carbohydrate values of bread. He insisted on taking the beggar behind the counter and showing him his ovens - explaining that they were the best money could buy. He then explained in great detail the role of yeast to baking. And he became animated to the extreme in warning the man against the dangers of eating bread from certain shops along the same street as his, for their recipes were corrupt and their bread far less nourishing - if not utterly dangerous by virtue of unauthorized chemicals and preservatives they used. He warned again and again that the bread from those shops wasn't made "by the book" - a phrase that seemed very important to him.

During this rather lengthy process, the beggar dared to interrupt more than once to say, "But, sir, I'm so very hungry. Perhaps I could have just a little bread to eat and we could pursue the topics of ovens, yeast, and baking pans later?" But the baker droned on about his passion - getting particularly excited when discussing pumpernickel, it seemed.

After a while, the beggar rose, turned for the door, and started to walk onto the street. "But I thought you were hungry!" shouted the baker. "Didn't you come here and tell me you wanted some bread?"

He didn't even turn to reply, but the baker heard him say, "I think I've lost my appetite." So the baker turned back to his baking, but only after a throat-clearing and heart-exposing "Harrumph!" and muttered something to himself about how sad it is that the world just doesn't seem to be hungry for bread anymore.
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[1] The conclusion to this sermon is an abbreviated and adapted version of a parable by Max Lucado in A Gentle Thunder (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995), pp.41-42.



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