“Exploring the ‘I Am’ Sayings of Jesus: I Am the Bread of Life”
John 6: 22-40 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ May 5, 2019
‘We got married Dad!’ When my two children were quite young, they told me that they had become married. As I inquired about this interesting development, I was reminded of the world of symbols that are so important. My daughter was the blushing bride dressed in her flowing princess gown with a tea-towel / veil on her head. She had talked her adoring younger brother into being the dashing groom. Officiating at the ceremony was Frazzelfrump, one of the larger stuffed animals in the kid’s collection. All the other stuffed animals surrounded them, as my two children dabbled in the world of symbol and ritual. When we have the opportunity to observe children, we are reminded of this human yearning to more deeply explore the joys of our existence through symbol and ritual.
Centuries ago, it was St. Augustine who realized this. Writing in the 4th Century he noted that the “presentation of truths by symbols has great power, more so than things presented in statements. The fact is that anything taught by symbols affects and pleases us more, and is more highly esteemed by us, than it would be if most clearly stated in plain terms”. And so, we examine this beautiful symbol we have in Jesus describing himself as “the bread of life”. This morning we revisit one of the most significant symbols we engage with on a frequent basis in the Christian Church. For some churches, the bread physically becomes understood as being Jesus body ~ physically and literally present for one and all as they gather. For others, the bread symbolically becomes understood to contain Jesus’ presence ~ spiritually present at the table as we gather. For ALL churches, Jesus’ presence in the bread is a tangible reminder of his identity that we explore this morning as he says: “I am the bread of life”.
Backing up a little…last week, we began a journey through Eastertide, considering the identity of the Risen Christ as we commenced examining some of the ‘I AM’ sayings of Jesus that are uniquely found in the gospel of John: Jesus saying: “I am the light…I am the good shepherd…I am the truth…(and this morning) I am the bread of life”. And as we commenced last week, we recalled that in Jesus using these various forms of self-declaration ~ these ‘I Am’ sayings, that it links all the way back to God’s self-disclosure to Moses at the burning bush in the Exodus story. Moses was drawn to this bush that did not consume itself. Realizing he was on holy ground, he removes his shoes and then asks God’s identity. To Moses’ question, God responds “I am who I am”. Reading this story in the Greek language, we see the identical language used in God’s self-disclosure of “I Am” in the Exodus story with Moses as we now hear it in Jesus’ self-disclosure throughout the gospel of John. Through the shifting sands of time, this creative spark of God who shows up at creation, who shows up at the burning bush, is now revealing God-self in the person and witness of Jesus. “I am the bread of life”.
Bread, of course, was steeped in the mind of the Jewish faith. The strongest connection to bread was found in the feeding miracle that Moses offers in the wilderness time. They were free from Egyptian enslavement ~ great. Yet, they were hungry and starving as they fumbled towards the land that had been promised to them. They began to grumble and wish they were back in slavery where they, at least, had food. Yet to their hunger God provides manna in the wilderness. The Exodus text records God speaking to Moses saying: ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. (Ex. 16:4) Moses began to realize that the flaky substance found on the leaves each morning was edible, providing nourishment for the weary pilgrims. Even the psalms (see 78:24) refer to this miracle of “raining down manna to eat [and giving them] the grain of heaven”. In the text, Jesus refers directly to this miracle that was given to his faith ancestors. God’s provision for God’s people was a core promise that they understood. And full stomachs with bread from heaven was that symbol of God’s fulfillment of promise and enduring grace. Scholars (such as Peder Borgen “Bread from Heaven” An Exegetical study on the Concept of Manna in the Gospel of John”) even view John’s reference to manna here as being ‘midrash’, a Jewish form of scriptural interpretation. They see John as describing Jesus as continuing to fulfill what God was doing is Moses. There was an expectation that when the Messiah would come, he would renew the miracle of the manna. As God was working through Moses, God is now present and alive in Jesus, renewing the manna miracle.
While there are parallels, there is something unique, however, in this story with Jesus ‘being’ the bread rather than Moses being ‘given’ the bread. In the story with Moses, the bread was perishable. It would last only but a day. The people would gather the bread in the morning and it would not keep. John is describing a new way of coming to understand God’s presence in Jesus. The giving of bread…the giving of life is described now, as not one which perishes, but is now a continuous action. Reading further into verse 33: “for the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”. The second half of the verse denotes a continuing process that is one of giving something that is permanent, enduring and sustaining to the people always. This is further reinforced in verse 35 with the usage of a double negative: “whoever, comes to me will never be hungry”.
There is a unique way of exploring this text, when looked at from a psychological perspective. Viewing what food symbolizes when it appears in a dream. John Sanford’s “A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John” notes that the appearance of food in a dream often means that something is ready to be assimilated into consciousness. This Christ Way has now come to fruition is ready to be assimilated into our consciousness, into our way of being. This heavenly food of God’s abundant and overflowing grace is contrasted with that of the any other food of scarcity, uncertainty and fear. Sanford notes that the great dream analyst Carl Jung observed that “dreams don’t tell us what to do, but rather, they tell us the direction in which we are heading”. I’m thinking here of the many hungry souls who come to access our food pantry. What might it mean to their lives, to their vitality, to their sense of hope and purpose if they knew that there was enough food for tomorrow? What would it mean to any of us, if we knew that there is enough? Enough love for tomorrow? Enough hope for tomorrow? Enough peace for tomorrow? What would it mean for all of us if we knew there was enough for tomorrow? Speaking to our most human needs ~ our stomachs, Jesus is saying that his way will lead to enough food, enough hope, enough love, enough peace. Jesus’ promise is enough.
As we continue to move through many of the ‘I Am’ sayings of Jesus, we continue to further realize that no one title can fully summarize who Jesus is. Last week’s exploration of Jesus saying “I am the light of the world” is but one window into knowing who he is for each of us. And encapsulating his identity was never the point. The Zen tradition in Buddhism has an insightful story found in the analogy of finger pointing to the moon. It concludes: ‘Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger’. I would suggest that as we consider Jesus being “the bread of life”, that the bread is yet another facet of Jesus identity into the deeper truth of God’s presence. A presence that satisfies, that fills our hunger with life, that can carries us towards the Way of peace.
How is Jesus revealed to you? Light of the world…bread of life…These are the deep questions of faith. Seeking the easy answer, people in the story ask: “what must we do to perform the works of God?”. Quick answers and easy solutions have always been proven both popular and to have a brief shelf life, haven’t they? Yet, this morning’s text does not give easy answers, instead asking the deep questions of faith. What are the ways that you sense Jesus presence alive in your living, in your loving, in your serving? We spoke last week about being at a dinner party, meeting new people and sharing our identity. I wonder…how would you recognize the Risen Christ alive and present in your midst? How would others sense Jesus alive and present in you? I am the Bread of life. Our second Easter gift.