Sunday, January 19, 2014

I Am…The Bread of Life

19 January 2014                                                                    Steinbach Mennonite Church
Jesus the Bread of Life
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” 26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Yesterday I went to Chuck’s funeral, held at the E Free church. Chuck was my colleague and friend, and we carpooled to school and back for many years. Thirty-three years ago I went to another funeral—for the fiancé of Rose, one of my classmates in seminary at AMBS. He died at about age 30 from a disease of the blood. As we grieved together, we sang #472: “I am the Bread of Life. He who believes in me shall never die.” So I always associate this passage with the death of close friends.

I don’t think you ever get used to death, whether you’re 30, or 60, or older. But Jesus turns our thoughts in a radical direction: Even while our bodies die, we live forever! Physical bread, such as Lois baked in our house yesterday, sustains physical life; but for real life, eternal life, you need the “bread of Heaven”. Let’s talk about that together.

The Whole Series
Last week Randy started our series with John 8: Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

Jesus is intentionally echoing God’s words to Moses in Exodus 3. Moses asked, “Who should I say sent me? God replied: I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” So when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am!” the people hear him say, “Before Abraham, God!

Randy reinforced the point with the way that John 1 echoes Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created …”, which becomes in John, “In the beginning was the Word…. And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Jesus is the Word of God, who is one with God. In chapter 8 Jesus makes this same point about himself.

John then uses this formulation, “I am”, repeatedly through his gospel in order to tell us who God is, as revealed by Jesus. Others will explore these attributes of God as we move through the coming Sundays of Winter. This morning, we explore what it means to be “the Bread that came down from heaven”, “the Bread of Life”.

John 6
John 6 begins with the feeding of the 5,000. This miracle appears in all four gospels. In Matthew Jesus healed the people, then fed them. In Mark Jesus taught the people. Then fed them. In Luke Jesus healed and taught the people, then fed them. But here in John we don’t know what Jesus did when the people came to hear and see him. They came because of the miracles of healing they had heard about, but John’s account moves directly to the problem of a crowd without food.

In verse 5 Jesus asks Phillip to consider the problem of finding enough bread to feed the crowd (5,000—just counting the men). This question focusses the theme of the chapter on bread. The question that runs underneath the narrative is: What is your bread? What do you live on? You remember the way that the disciples wrestle (unsuccessfully) with the issue of feeding the people, and how Jesus multiplies the loaves and the fish to feed everyone.

One lesson from the event is that Jesus can meet our physical needs, but that is not the primary lesson that Jesus wants us to learn, so he keeps going. Between the feeding of the 5,000 and our passage, the disciples try to sail across the lake in their fishing boat. Jesus comes to them through a storm, walking across the water. A basic point in this event is the way that Jesus reinforces his nature as being more than simply human.

So we come to our passage this morning. The crowd has been looking for Jesus and they find him and the following conversation ensues.
25-29: The crowd wonder what Jesus is doing. He tells them that they are looking for his physical blessings (healings and the bread and fish); instead they should look for God’s food: eternal life. The people ask, “What is God’s food?” Jesus tells them that it is to believe on the one God has sent (namely, himself). 30-34: They ask for a sign, remembering the sign of manna in the dessert, which showed that Moses was truly God’s leader in the Exodus. Jesus says that Moses only brought manna; but the Father gives “the bread of Heaven”. They ask for this bread—setting the scene for Jesus to reveal himself more fully. 35-40: Jesus replies, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

There is more here for us to look at. In the rest of the chapter the Jews wonder how Joseph’s son could be this divine ambassador, and Jesus repeats his identity (51, 53-58). The identification of the bread from Heaven with his own flesh makes it clear that he sees himself as a divine sacrifice for the sins of the people. Many desert him, because they recognize his claim to be one with God. Jesus asks the 12 if they will leave him also, and Peter makes his bold response: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

But we leave the rest aside and come back to this basic assertion, “I am the Bread of Life.” Jesus tells us that in him there is life, and without him there is only death. There are two basic thoughts that this leads me to.

1) Sometimes you may hear people say, “Jesus was a wonderful teacher, but since his time Christians have turned what he said about himself into the claim that he is God. He was really just a good man and a good teacher. This passage is one of the basic responses to that claim.

C.S. Lewis has observed that Jesus made such outrageous claims about himself that there are only three real possibilities. One: He was a lunatic, on the level of someone who claims to be a poached egg. Two: he was a liar and therefore a terrible scoundrel, a really bad man. Three: he was telling the truth.

Consider: If he was a lunatic, then the crowds would not have followed him. All of his teaching and all of his miracles made a powerful impression on people. They knew that whatever else was true about him, here was a man in possession of his senses. He was no lunatic.

Further, if he was a liar, how could he teach the way that he did? The man who taught in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5 to 7) was no liar. Non-Christians also recognize the power of his teaching, so that Gandhi could model aspects of his own life on the teachings of Jesus. There is depth and wisdom and divinity itself in his teachings. He was no liar.

The only remaining possibility is that he was telling the truth. He was sent from God, one with the Father, the “Bread of Heaven.” I saw a quotation from Aristotle in a series of detective books that I enjoy (by Dorothy Sayers): “The probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.” Now this is not a proof of the impossible, but shows how we might think of these three options.
That Jesus was a liar is possible, but it is improbable. It doesn’t fit the facts
That Jesus was a lunatic is possible, but it is improbable. It doesn’t fit the facts.
That Jesus was who he said he was—the One sent from God whom John calls “the Only Begotten Son of God—this is impossible, but it is probable. It fits all the facts.

To put it another way, we balk at admitting that Jesus brings God directly into our lives because we can’t see how that it possible. But the more that we get to know him, the more we walk with him and listen to him and see what he does in our lives, the more we begin to realize, he is exactly who he says he is.

2) So much for our first thought; the second thought is this: Jesus risks everything that he has gained with the crowds to help them meet God by “feeding on him”. What does that mean? It means that he wants them to follow him in everything. In the synoptic gospels, whenever someone asked Jesus how to get to heaven, he said, “Follow me.” This is the same thing in John’s gospel.

Jesus wants the same thing for you and for me. It is not enough to admit that Jesus is the unique Son of God, “the Bread of Heaven”, the one who can call himself “I am”. Jesus wants you and me to meet him, and give ourselves completely to him, and follow him in every part of our lives.

Over the Christmas break I read a collection of biographies by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. It was called Clouds of Witnesses, about great Christians from Africa and Asia. A common theme in their life stories was that they encountered God so powerfully that they could do nothing else than follow Jesus in every area of their lives.

That is what Jesus wants for you and for me today, here in Steinbach. We used to get at such things by encouraging people to come down to the altar and, as we put it, “Pray through.” I don’t think we necessarily need those old forms for our encounters with God today. I do know that we must meet him. Today and every day. In the morning and in the evening. Always and forever.

In the passage we read, the Jews were ready to be satisfied with the wonders Jesus showed them—some healings and the multiplied bread and fish. Jesus wants them to go deeper. Just as in John 4, the Samaritan woman is ready to be satisfied with especially good water, and Jesus leads her deeper, to find the “water of life”.

Jesus wants us not to be satisfied with the physical blessings he gives us. They are good—a hot bath on a cold morning, toast and marmalade, good coffee. These are wonderful things, but God has something greater and more wonderful waiting for us. He wants us to be ready to live with him forever, to share “eternal life”, to become filled with his Spirit and joy and power. And we’re satisfied with so little!

C.S. Lewis again has said it: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (From “The Weight of Glory”.) In the sermon that these words come from, Lewis is considering the imagery that the New Testament uses about heaven, but his words apply here as well. We are indeed “far too easily pleased.”

Concluding Thoughts
Bring this all back round to where we started. We are surprised and frightened by death. I wept because my friend Chuck died. I grieved when my classmate’s fiancé died. Jesus does not turn us away from death, even with words that promise life.

Rather Jesus allows us to meet and embrace our physical death, because it is the door to the fuller life of eternity spent with him. Chuck was 74. During the last week of his life, as he lay in the hospital bed in palliative care, a friend told me that Chuck would wake up, look round and say: “There’s the hospital. There you (Sue, his wife) are. Shoot, I’m still here!” Death was hard, but his last words were, “Thank you, God.” Now we are not promised a peaceful death; but I can tell you where Chuck’s peace at the end came from. He followed Christ all his life, and so he was already living the life that God gives.

Everyone is searching for something. Some people pour themselves into the search for fun—they party hard and look for the latest greatest pleasure. But the only thing that can satisfy what they are looking for is Christ. Some people pour themselves into their job—they work hard, make good money, and retire early. But the only thing that can give meaning to their life of hard work is Christ. Some people accumulate power—they want to influence people and events. But in the end their search fails; only Christ can meet what they need.

I am reading the biography of Cecil John Rhodes, a man who accumulated millions in the diamond and gold fields of South Africa in the late 1800s. He pursued wealth so as to pursue his dream of expanding the reach of the British Empire throughout Africa. I grew up thinking that Rhodes was a wonderful man, whose heroic work led to the founding of the countries I grew up in (Northern and Southern Rhodesia). In fact, I discover that he was a thoroughly bad man, a villain and a scoundrel.

The problem was that he replaced God with the dream of Empire. His father was a vicar in England, and he thought of following his father into pastoral ministry, but the pursuit of power seduced him, and his actions have led to great problems and pain in modern South Africa and Zimbabwe. Curiously, the people who opposed him the most were the missionaries—those people who were following the dream of preaching the gospel to every person in the world. While Rhodes was acting on his racism and devaluation of Black People, they did all in their power to bring the gospel to the people of Africa. This is always the choice we face: We serve either our own dreams—which lead in the end to despair, or we follow Jesus.

“I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus said. Look for him everywhere you go. I have met Jesus in a special ways at several times in my life: When I was a 12-year old in a Baptist Church in Zimbabwe; when I was an 18-year old praying over a water cooler with a friend in college; when I was a 24-year old teaching with the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe; when I was a 58-year old teaching at Providence. Each encounter was unique. Each encounter was just what I needed for the years that followed.

Search for Jesus. Keep your ears and mind and your heart open as you read the Bible, and pray, and go to work, and do whatever goes on in your life. Jesus is the Bread of Life. Bread sustains life—not just physical bread, which gives physical life—but real life, deeper life, life that lasts forever, life that continues even when you die. Feed on Jesus. He is the Bread of Life.

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