As we’ve been hearing from the gospel of John the past few weeks, we sit listening, daydreaming, or somewhere in between thinking about the breakfast we’ve just eaten or ready for the lunch we will soon sit down to. We can’t help think about food and hunger, void and satisfaction.
· Two weeks ago, we heard of the unlikely feast on the hillside, feeding five thousand folks from a lunch pale.
· Last week, prior to sharing the Eucharist together, we heard Jesus’ prompting the people away from the food they relied on that goes bad, and towards the everlasting food God gives, a sort of divinely preserved, original “Wonderbread.”
· This week, we find the continuation of this conversation. Jesus has pitched the importance and superiority of this bread God gives such that his audience is asking, begging for this bread, now and always.
I know all week you’ve been hanging on this suspense. What does Jesus have here behind his back? What does he offer, so as not to disappoint? How does he top the previous signs of God’s glory he produced (feeding & walking on water)? What is the punch line?
He simultaneously offers nothing and everything. His hands are empty, but he points to himself, to God. He says confidently, “I am the bread of life.” Just when they are convinced that Jesus shall and is able to give them the forever cure for their hunger, he says this. They want physical, they want now, they want something that they can have, hold, devour, and hoard. I’m sure we can’t identify at all with that mentality, can we?
But Jesus gives himself. All of himself, for their life, their nourishment, their growth, their sustenance, their pleasure and fulfillment. The crowd to which Jesus speaks seems to have a taste for bread; they have a desire, and a hunger to be met. This hunger though is two-fold. They can answer the bell of their stomachs and that is their primary concern. But do they understand here the call of their hearts, the desire of their souls? The one overarching desire which all their other desires mimic?
Reminding us of Saint Augustine's famous Confession, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God. And our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee." Likewise, in realizing Jesus as the Bread of Life, we declare, "Our hearts are dead & hungry until they find fulfillment from the Bread of Life."
Let’s not be too hard on these guys though, after all, the story keeps bringing up Moses and their ancestors in exile. If we remember correctly, one of the things the Israelites were taught by the manna is that they were dependent on the God who provides, and knows best. The Israelites were both physically nourished and spiritually taught by this bread. They were not to take too much, they would never have too little, there would be plenty for all, and no room for selfishness. To be sure, the Israelites grumbled their way through the desert even though they had God leading them, keeping them, providing for them. They grumbled despite their guarantee of manna, they grumbled while a bread from heaven was in their midst. Why shouldn’t these folks in our gospel reading still grumble while THE Bread of Heaven is in theirs? These explicit parallels between the mysterious “bread from heaven” of Jesus’ mysterious seaside-smorgasbord, and the enigmatic “manna from heaven” back in the day don’t end here though.
While Jesus’ reference to the manna becomes more and more obvious as the story continues, the showstopper occurs in verse 35. Jesus’ words are, “I am the bread of life.”
· For us, a clear statement.
· For those familiar with the gospel of John, this is the first of a string of seven “I am” statements (bread of life, light of the world, gate, good shepherd, resurrection & life, way/truth/life, true vine).
· For those in Christ’s presence, this was a scandalous identification with their God (the Great “I am”).
This jumps of the page in its original Greek (ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς). ἐγώ εἰμι= I am: God’s calling card, given to Moses at the burning bush. The Creator, the God of their ancestors, their provider, the personal God in covenant with them. Jesus reminds them in their amnesia, that they are re-living the story they think they know so well. They are neglecting the Giver for the gift. They are grumbling while being showered with bread from heaven. To phrase it according to this morning’s psalm reading: they have ceased to allow themselves to taste the Lord’s Goodness, instead they pass on it altogether.
One Hebrew commentator adds that the word used for “taste” in Psalm 34 has the sense of “trying something by experiencing it.” How often do we decline the best experience of God in favor of our grumbling or presuppositions, our own tastes or perceived desires?
So here we find an intersection of two stories. This is one of the artful and beautiful things that I love about the Forth Gospel’s account of Jesus: irony. Jesus teaches them a story that they already know, that is etched in their heritage- who they are, and what they already understood. Just like them, we assume that we know what we need. That we are the bosses of our hungers, desires, wants, dreams, fantasies. That we understand our history and our tendencies, that we can put a lid on the “what I need and how I get it” story the way they thought they could close the book on Moses & the manna.
In the same way Jesus jars this image of the Moses story open for them, reminds them of their ancestors in the desert, whose assumptions of need were turned upside down by God’s generosity and provision, I am reminded of a very important story of my youth. The popular 1973 illustrated children’s book, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein comes to mind. I remember reading and having it read to me until I could nearly recite it by heart.
It tells the story of a tree and a boy. The boy spends his youth delighting in the tree, gathering its leaves & apples, laying in its shade and climbing on its branches. As the boy grows, he distances himself from the tree, neglecting it for other, “better” sources of fun, food, and leisure. The tree waits. As the boy grows older and returns the tree beckons him to come again, and find the fulfillment of his youth in its branches, trunk and fruit. The boy responds not with delight, but by taking.
· He takes the apples to eat in his twenties.
· He hauls off the branches to build a house in his thirties.
· He even saws down the trunk at retirement age to build the boat of his desired leisure.
· He returns in very old age, assisted by a cane, the tree having been depleted to a mere stump.
It was that mere stump that the tree was able to offer saying, “Come boy, Come sit down and rest.” The leisure and delight of the boy’s youth returned as he again partook of the tree, not in a misguided or selfish way, not in a way that overlooked the relationship, generosity, and abundance offered, not in a way that haves, holds, devours, and hoards. But in a personal, interactive, and intimate way.
The way in which the psalter entreats, “Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are those who take refuge in him,” (ps 34:8). The way in which Christ beckons, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” (Jn 6:35).
Accordingly we must ask ourselves:
· What am I praying for if not that God be my provider?
· What am I looking for if not the Thing behind the sign, the Giver behind the gift?
· What are you hungry for if not the true Bread from Heaven, the Bread that God Gives, the eternal Bread of Life?
· Do we satisfy those grumblings, not of our stomachs, but of our distracted and misguided souls, with filler, with bread that is not eternal?
· Are we, like the child in the storybook, eager to move onto bigger, better, and more fulfilling things only to later realize where our delight, our true life & savor, comes from?
Attempting to answer these, I invite you
to taste and see that the Lord is good;
to share in the Bread of Life broken for you;
to eat and not be hungry, to believe and never again thirst.