August 2, 2015 – The Bread of life

Pentecost 10 August 2, 2015 (Nehemiah 9:6-17) John 6:14-35   The Bread of Life

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After a long day of feeding five thousand with only two little fishes, five small loaves of bread, and a prayer of thanks – after then escaping away to be alone on the mountain to avoid being crowned king (prematurely) – then walking on water across the lake in the middle of the night – now, over on the other shore with crowds gathering around yet again – now finally Jesus gets down to…

Teaching us what he means… by all he says and does – telling us now that the sign of loaves and fishes is really just a beginning – a sign pointing to him – and Jesus says – I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty

And I believe… but… What exactly does Jesus mean by this? Don’t we still find ourselves feeling hungry at times, no matter how much we come to Jesus? Don’t we still get hungry, smelling good food cooking, waiting for supper? Don’t we still get thirsty on hot days, no matter how strong our faith is?

Of course Jesus is talking about deeper kinds of hunger and thirst. But – doesn’t Jesus also say somewhere, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake, for they will be filled?” (Isn’t there still holy hunger?) And isn’t there still unholy hunger, even for people of strong faith? What about all the children in the world who still suffer hunger every day? (Many of their families believe, yet still deadly hunger persists…)

Jesus can be difficult to understand, sometimes, as he speaks more-or-less-literally and in parables and metaphors (sometimes almost simultaneously) – speaking perhaps in the language of heaven… A language I’m still struggling to learn…

My favorite language teacher is often our daughter Rohi, twelve-years-old now, and going through a stage where she really likes to ask questions rather obsessively. Especially driving in the car, when she can’t be reading books, she’ll be asking her mother and me over and over again the meaning of words… “Daddy, what do you mean by ‘bread?’ Daddy, what do you mean by ‘hungry?’”

Sometimes I know she knows a word she’s asking me about, so I say ‘you know what that means, you’re the one who should be telling me.’ (And often she does tell me. She just wanted to be asked to share what she knows.) Other times, if we’re home, I’ll say ‘look it up in the dictionary.’ When I think she really may not know a word, I do try to tell her… But sometimes in the process of trying to tell her, I realize – oh my – there are some words that I use that I’m not really sure I know the proper meaning of… And when I turn to the dictionary to check (as I’ve told our daughter to do) I sometimes find that what I thought was the meaning of a word was, yes, partly true – but that’s only one of six, seven, eight meanings of the word…Not always the preferred meaning… Which is how I sometimes feel, listening to Jesus…

I often think I know what Jesus is saying… Then I realize that’s only part of what he means…When he’s using, for example, the word world – a word Jesus uses as a negative, a positive, and a neutral word, depending on the situation… Jesus can be rather hard to follow… as he transitions between plainer meanings and other levels of meaning…And…

Probably learning the language of Jesus (the language of heaven) is an equal-opportunity kind of thing… Provided we’re willing to put in the hours it takes… learning to be good conversationalists with Jesus…Phrasing all our questions to him best we can…And listening patiently and well…Learning his language by immersion in his word…

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Last week Jesus fed a crowd of 5000, sharing one boy’s generous but quite small offering – five loaves of bread, just the size of rolls, and two little fishes… After Jesus gives thanks and shares and five thousand have eaten their fill, there’s still twelve baskets of sanctified leftovers… A sure sign of God’s awesome abundance, in the midst of what had seemed to his disciples to be nothing but impossible scarcity. (After the fact, to their credit, many in the crowd do make the connection with God feeding Israel in the wilderness with manna – called the ‘bread of heaven’ by the crowd… and by Nehemiah in our first reading today.) Now Jesus builds on the foundation of manna in the wilderness, as he teaches on the theme of God’s economy of grace and abundance… Hoping to find a response of gratitude.

And St John quickly shares the story of Jesus walking on water – without comment – (almost as if Jesus does this every day) – then John takes us quickly back to the sign of loaves and fishes, with Jesus and the crowds entering now into extended conversation about what this all means…. (A conversation that will continue on well past where we’re stopping today….Read ahead please…)

Now the crowds have been looking for Jesus – that’s a hopeful sign – but apparently not looking long enough, large enough…Looking mostly for a new king and another abundant meal…Both of which can seem like reasonable things to hope for. Jesus taught us, after all, to pray ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ Yesterday’s bread was good; more today would be better… And the Romans who rule over the land are certifiably brutal and obnoxious – what’s wrong with wanting a new king?

On the other hand, if we’re hearing this conversation from another angle, with different intonation – the request for yet another sign reminds us of Israel in the desert, testing Moses and God, as they ask, “what sign are you going to give us, then, so we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, as its written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

And Jesus says, ‘don’t work for bread that doesn’t last. Work for the bread of eternal life.’ And the crowd picks up on Jesus using the word work, asking, “what must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus says “This is the work of God – to believe in him whom he has sent.” (Plenty of full-time work always available… for everyone willing to work… in God’s grace economy…)

And Jesus says, ‘It wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven (past tense), its my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven (present tense). For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Now the work-word is giving way to the giving-word… and…

Now the tone of the discussion seems to brighten. Now the crowd says “Sir, give us this bread always.”

And Jesus says: I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry – and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty

Who is this guy Jesus – saying he is the bread of life? Saying he’s not just a man who can give us some bread, but The Bread of Life. And now Jesus is also self-identifying as “I Am”… I am, remember, being the name God goes by, speaking to Moses from the burning bush…

This is the first of seven “I am” sayings in John… A list that also includes – I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd…I am the true vine…. Each I am a link with the Oneness of God, the great I Am.

(And…) its entirely possible no one notices at the time… The gospel writer tells us several times – his disciples didn’t understand Jesus much of the time… Only after they encounter him risen from the dead do many of his teachings come into focus and start to make sense…even for his closest friends…

And the older I get, the more I identify with our daughter Rohi, asking me yet again – “daddy what do you mean by hunger? What do you mean by bread? Daddy, what do you mean by life?”

I can give the dictionary answers… But the more I pray and ponder the more I realize… How much I still don’t know… How much I still need to keep learning… the deep reality of this utterly mysterious One God in three persons…who reveals himself to us through the law and prophets and sacred writings of Israel… Most of all through Jesus…who is still saying to us –

I am the Bread of Life…

And… Among all the many things we don’t know – among all the many things we can know only in part – one thing we should know for certain is – when we feed on the word of God and feed others as we’ve been fed – when we receive of God’s grace and share grace freely with others – when we share our loaves and fishes with the faith of a child and the wisdom of mature adults…Now we are truly beginning to understand… what Jesus means…

And may the fullness of our sharing of God’s holy bread be counted… as our unceasing prayer… And from the depths of our hearts with grateful thanks may our lives be one sustained prayer, rising unto heaven…

Till all God’s children are well fed, every righteous thirst quenched, as we continue our life’s work – feasting together on the Word of God, in the love of God, in the Spirit of the One…Who is indeed The Bread of Life… God’s own Bread of Life.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.