The Bread of Life
One of the most evocative images is bread. It appeals to the sense of sight, smell, touch, and taste. Even just hearing the word brings images, aromas, textures, and flavors to mind. Bread evokes physical sensations. Jesus by our text wants to evoke spiritual sensations with the word.
Can you blame the people in our text for fixating on physical bread? In the introduction, just the mention of bread caused images, sensations, even "feelings" of bread to flash through your mind. Think how powerful bread was to 1st century people who didn't always have it daily. We take daily bread for granted. We can eat as much as we want any day we want. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say for some of the thousands that they hadn't eaten until they were full for a long time. And while "leftovers" to us may be a bad word to them it was an unheard one.
I can't blame the people in the text for being focused on Jesus as some sort of bread machine because this is me. I'm not fixated on bread because I have so much of it, but I am fixated on this body and life. I can't not listen to a radio story about health. I can't leave unread the latest news on the latest health study even though those studies often contradict one another. I pay more attention to the Swine Flu that might get me than to the sin, death, and the Devil who surely have, do, and will. I am more concerned with what the stock market does than I am with what Jesus has done.
You see; I can't blame these people. I'd too follow Jesus across a lake for a physical benefit. I can't blame them, but Jesus does. "I tell you the truth, you are looking for Me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill." Once more we see Jesus bursting the bubbles of those flocking to Him. Once more we see that large numbers of people following Him didn't mean success to Jesus. So much for meeting people's felt needs.
Jesus not only doesn't meet their felt needs, He insults their person. The word Jesus uses for "fill" in "had your fill" means "'to give fodder to animals," and in New Testament Greek it was used for men only in a derogatory way (The Expositor's Greek New Testament, vol. 1, p. 751). "You only followed me because you pigged out," says Jesus. Ouch! The crowd comes all polite like calling Jesus "rabbi," and He calls them pigs or at least animals. So much for being "seeker sensitive."
There's more. Jesus doesn't stop with slapping them. He reorients them, and me too, not just from physical bread to spiritual but from self to Him. Jesus says, "Do not continue to work for food that spoils." At this point the crowd shows they're hard of hearing when it comes to the Gospel. Jesus does say, "Do not continue to work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life." But Jesus continued the sentence with "which the Son of Man will give you." Jesus wanted to give them something better than warm, brown, soft, sweet bread. But they could only think in terms of working for it. "What must we do to do the works God requires," they asked? They want everlasting bread, a food that lasts forever. They'd work for that. They'd cross not only a lake but a mountain and a desert too. They might even drag themselves out of bed one day a week for that!
But there's no working for this Bread; this Bread is only given, and a good thing too, because everyone has to have it or they will die eternally. No matter how much bread you get in this life, you will one day perish. No matter how much I watch my diet, do my exercises, keep track of my medicines and my numbers, I too will die. To drive this point home to this crowd Jesus next week will drop the bomb on them that even their father's in the wilderness that ate bread from heaven died.
I need bread that does not die, that does not perish. Bread that gets stale, moldy, and devoured by insects can't prevent that same fate from happening to me. The only one who has bread that doesn't perish and gives life is the God who is life itself. God isn't merely alive. He is life, and there is only death apart from Him. In Him we live, move, and have our being Paul says in Acts. This means apart from Him we die, don't move, and are as nothing. As long as we stay in Him we're alive, but you know that's what the Fall is about. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, tempted by physical food sinned against God and so were banished from His presence. Now all of us sons and daughters are born in exile. How do we get back to that Garden?
Enter Jesus. He tells these seekers of physical bread that they need spiritual bread and He will give it to them. The real rub is that Jesus isn't just the Giver of the Bread of Life He is the Bread of Life. This is an upsetting concept as we'll later see, so Jesus takes them to it gently. He says, "The Son of Man will give you the Bread of Life." Then Jesus adds, "On Him the Father has placed His seal of approval." Here Jesus may be introducing the concept that He Himself is the Bread. Loaves of bread were often sealed with a stamp showing the name of the maker (Ibid., 752).
Jesus has the Father's seal that He is of the Father. This seal consists in doing what only God can do. He heals the sick when no man or medicine can. He gives life to the dead. These signs were not lost on all the people. Some said, "No one ever did what You do." John 5 tells us Jesus had the Father's seal in two other ways. One, He dared to call God His Father thus making Himself equal with God (18) and two, as the Father has life in Himself so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself (26).
We've located the life that we lost when we were driven out of the Garden; we located the life that is eternal and can never perish. It's in the Son of Man; it's in a human being like us; it's in a flesh and blood Person who is God. I've skipped ahead to the crowning statement of the whole text. Once Jesus has weaned them from the bread that dies and so can't save them from death to a Bread that never dies and so gives eternal life, once they say, "From now on give us this bread!" Jesus says, "I AM the Bread of Life." This is the first "I am" passage in the Book of John. Six more will follow. Jesus says He is the great "I am" who revealed Himself to Moses in the Burning Bush. "I AM and no other is the Bread of Life, the Water of Life, the Gate and Good Shepherd, the Resurrection, the Life, the Way the Truth, and the Vine.
So how do we get all that Jesus is? Is must be given to us as Jesus points out. Later He fleshes this out by saying, "My Father gives you the true Bread from heaven." And then Jesus points out that Bread from heaven is not an it but a He. He says, "For the Bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
This world is dying in its trespasses and sins. No amount of physical bread can sustain it or raise it again. Jesus has life in Himself, and He gives life to the world by giving His life for the world. What keeps us out of the Garden is our sinfulness and God's Laws. Both of these had to be taken care of before the angel with the flaming sword would let us back into the Garden. If God simply told the angel to back away, then what of His holy Laws which are no less His word than His promises are? God could not ignore the breaking of His Law without ceasing to be holy and just. And what if we were, apart from the new life Jesus gives, able to get back to the Garden, back to the Tree of Life where we could eat of it and live? We would live forever in this fallen state. That's the life of the Vampire, the Zombie, the living dead.
To deal with His Laws and our sinfulness, the Father sent the Son into our flesh through the Virgin's womb. God the Son who is life itself took on a body that needed bread to live. He took upon Himself all the do's and don'ts of the Law. He took upon Himself all the should's, must's, ought's, and have-to's of the 10 Commandments and did them perfectly. In Jesus they are kept; in Jesus we can't be accused by them.
But what about our sins and sinfulness? Not only did the requirements of the Law have to be kept, so did its punishments. So the Bread of life had to be toasted in the fires of hell. All the suffering, sighing, and crying us stale, moldy sinners deserve for our sins and sinfulness was borne by that fresh, sweet, perfect Bread of Life till the Bread of Life finished it by dying.
Think of a spring morning when winter lets its death grip go on nature and nature bursts back to life. This is Jesus rising from the dead Easter morning proclaiming sinners free from the Law that accused them and sentenced them to death. But the Bread of Life did more than just proclaim life, He distributed it. The life He has and the life He won He gives to the world. He gives life to the world by giving Himself for consumption. He's the Bread that the one who eats of not only never hungers but never thirsts again.
We consume the Bread of Life when we're baptized into His Death. We consume the Bread of Life when He forgives our sins through the mouth of a sinner. We consume the Bread of Life when our Body and Blood that is dying eat and drink His Body and Blood that is living. The Bread of Life that we meet and eat in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion satisfies our spiritual hunger. Our persistent hunger for the physical isn't to drive us to fill it but to remind us that nothing in this life is able to fill us, to satisfy us, to feed us forever. Only the Bread of Life can do that. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (20090816); John 6: 24-35