Saturday, 1 August 2009

John's Gospel: I Am the Bread of Life

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78.23-29
Ephesians 4. 1-16
John 6 24-35:

Now be honest: who did the homework I set you last week and read the whole of John chapter 6? I thought not. Can you remember all the way back to last week? (Take a deep breath and hold it for 20 seconds. You will either remember or pass out.)

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus’ promise to his followers then and now is a challenge: what truly brings meaning and wholeness in our lives? Do we shape our lives around what perishes or what endures? Do we will build our house on the sand or on the rock? Do we build it on Jesus and if so, what is our understanding of who Jesus is?

Building on last week’s reading and its account of how the generosity of a boy with five loaves and two fish enabled Jesus to feed a multitude, today’s passage is a call to understand Jesus. Not Jesus as prophet, teacher, healer or miracle worker, although he is undoubtedly all those things, but Jesus as God.

So let’s have a look at this “I Am” saying of John’s Jesus: “I am the bread of life.” I tried to get across last week the idea that John uses his phrases and theological ideas very carefully and deliberately and without a little understanding of that background modern readers like ourselves are likely to miss really important meanings.

Yes, of course we can understand this statement at it’s literal face value – Jesus provides everything we need and provides it generously and in abundance and to take that meaning away from this morning and act on it would be a good outcome in itself.
But to do that without a deeper awareness of what John is doing here would be to miss a very important point indeed, and what with me being a teacher – of Religious Studies, no less – this is too great an opportunity to miss!

Firstly let’s have a look at a single word – not one that is in this passage: Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem means "House of Bread." (In Hebrew, beth = house, lehem = bread.) Hold that thought.

Let me take you back further, to the Exodus. The God of the Old Testament, the God of the universe calls Himself I AM. "And God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM .... “Ego eimi ho on”. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you."
Do we really think John’s use of the same phrase on Jesus’ lips is a coincidence?
Just to underline the point, John’s Jesus uses this phrase not just here in “I am the Bread of Life” but seven times in total.

Does anyone know what the other “I Am” phrases are?
• "I am the bread of life" (6.35)
• "I am the light of the world" (8.12)
• "I am the door for the sheep" (10.7; cf. v. 9)
• "I am the good shepherd" (10.11, 14)
• "I am the resurrection and the life" (11.25)
• "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14.6)
• "I am the true vine" (15.1; cf. v. 5)

So the original Jewish reader of John’s Gospel would have had to have worked very hard to miss the point here. “I Am” the very words the God of the Hebrews used to name himself. The “I Am” statements must be seen as an integral part of John’s Christology – simply put, the way he sees and understands Jesus.

The Jesus who legitimates himself by way of egĂ´ eimi – I Am - speaks not only authoritative language, but specifically prophetic language and he is seen as the representative and mouthpiece of God himself.

Let’s just think about that for a moment.

When Jesus speaks he is speaking as God’s representative.

That should make us stop and consider very carefully all the statements of Jesus recorded in the pages of the Gospels and act upon them accordingly.

If we simply did that what agents of change we could be in God’s world.

So, in prophetic fashion he acts as spokesman of the One who sent him, and as dispenser of the divine Spirit. Those who hear his words are invited to believe not only the speaker, but the One who sent him. As Jesus has already told us in chapter 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes Him who sent me, has eternal life”.

We need to recognise that this is as true today as it was then.
The first of the "I AM" sayings, in John’s Gospel, then, is "I AM the bread of life" (6:35). This statement is found in the passage which follows the feeding of the multitude. Jesus says to the crowd, "Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (6:27). Here Jesus is building up to the key statement and is leading the crowd to the point where they may recognise his divinity and come to faith.

The two go together: recognising Jesus’ divinity is the precursor to faith.
The sceptics in the crowd, not unreasonably, ask for a sign: “What work are you performing so that we may see it and believe you?” (v30) adding "Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert, as it is written: 'He gave them bread from Heaven to eat'" (v31). This story is reflected in today’s supplementary readings.

Jesus responds by pointing out that God provided the manna: "My father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (v33). And the point here is that this is not something which just happened once in the past. It is something which is continuing to happen in the present: Jesus himself is that bread from Heaven. How far at this stage the crowd have fully understood isn’t clear but there seems to be some spiritual awareness as they ask “Sir, give us this bread always.”

It is in response to this request that Jesus makes the claim, "I AM the bread of life, he who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (v35). This is, in effect, the summary of Jesus ministry and it is deeply personal, referring as it does to human yearning which Jesus will fill – and it will be universal because it “gives life to the world” (v33).

Again for those of you interested in how the very words and grammar of the Bible work, the definite article before the word bread indicates the fact that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one who is the bread of life. The bread of life also points to the satisfying nature of Jesus as we can see in the supplementary phrase, "never be hungry … and never be thirsty." Jesus alone supplies the spiritual needs of his hearers: this is not about mere physical hunger, where bread leaves people dissatisfied and wanting more. In fact this idea can be applied in a wider spiritual sense where other approaches to God leave the supplicant ultimately empty: a direct challenge to those who are already seeking. Jesus is making a plain statement about his Heavenly origins here: in the following verses Jesus refers to a descent from Heaven and explicitly states that “.. all who see the son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”.

This is not about food: let’s be absolutely clear.

This is literally about life and death. “.. all who see the son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”.
I talked last week about the challenge to each of us about what we do with Jesus’ words. Well they don’t come much more challenging than this. Here is a man who is telling us that he IS God and he has already used one of those special signs of his to show us that: he has fed the multitude out of next to nothing.
That’s the sort of challenge that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands a response, and that response can’t be “whatever”.

What are we going to do with this Jesus? Or perhaps we should personalise it more: what are you going to do with this Jesus, as I have to ask myself what I am going to do with him? This is the very question that John was asking his readers: those Jews who had not yet come to understand who Jesus was. That is the function of this Gospel and its challenge remains the same, to convince its readers of the divinity of Jesus.

But being convinced is not the full response: mere assent to the divinity of Jesus is not enough. I have to do something with that assent. I have to make it personal.

I have to make it mine. I have to enter into it.
And so do you.

Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, I am coming to know and understand you more deeply. Help me to see that you are more than mere prophet, teacher, healer or miracle worker. Help me to recognise that you are God and in recognising you as God, help me to follow you as a true disciple. Give me this bread always.

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