Imagine a bread that would not only fill your hunger but would cause you never to hunger again. I’m not speaking here about whole-grain health food that helps the digestive processes, or holds out the promise of long life, or simply “is good for you”. I’m speaking about a bread that promises eternal life. Eat this bread and will live forever. Eat this bread and even though you die one day and your body is buried in the ground, the life in this bread will raise you from the grave.
Imagine the lines of people that would form just to get a morsel of this bread. Think of how rich the baker of this bread would become as demand exceeded supply. Think of how everyone would be rushing off to tell all their friends and family and neighbors about this bread and where to get it. Think of the media attention such a bread would bring. It might even bump O.J. Simpson, the baseball strike, and Woodstock II from the front page.
Then again, maybe not. It didn’t happen this morning. The newspapers had nothing about bread. When I arrived here I didn’t have to fight my way through a crowd of cameras. There were no satellite dishes parked out in the lot. No helicopters hovering overhead. No lines of people eagerly encamped on the front lawn making sure there would be a place for them like there are when concert tickets go on sale.
But here, in church, in the Liturgy, such a Bread of Life is being given out. Here the Lord feeds His flock on a green hillside. Here He fills the hungry with good things, the Bread of Life that is Himself, a Bread greater than the bread of heaven that God rained down on Israel for forty years, greater than the angel’s bread that took Elijah across the desert wilderness for forty days and nights.
Jesus is that Bread. He is both the Bread of Life and living Bread. He is the one living Loaf alive with the life of the Father – a thick, crusty, earthy Palestinian peasant bread – baked in Bethlehem, broken on Calvary, raised from the dead, ascended to glory. And He is the Bread that gives Life, multiplied like manna in the wilderness for the life of the world.
Jesus comes to us in the scandalously plain and ordinary way of bread. So easily overlooked and taken for granted. Bread is what the waiter tosses on the table to keep you busy while you study the menu. Bread is the excuse to eat globs of butter. Bread is what you use to soak up the last of the pasta sauce and salad dressing. Bread is the sesame seed envelope for two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions. In Jesus’ culture, where everyone ate with their hands, bread was even your knife, fork, and spoon. When people go on a diet these days, they tend to leave out the bread, rather than the butter and the pasta sauce. Similarly when life gets hectic, many choose to leave the Bread of Life out of their diet. “We’ve been so busy lately, and Sunday is our only time to relax.”
The Jews began to grumble at Jesus’ saying about bread. Everything was fine until Jesus said it with the full blast I AM of God’s name. I AM the bread of life which came down from heaven. He was a Palestinian peasant, an itinerant preacher from Galilee. He appeared too earthy to be heavenly bread. They knew his mother. They presumed to know his father. How can he speak as if He were God? How can this Jesus call himself bread come down from heaven? They were scandalized. We hear the questions of unbelief.
Unbelief is our inherited eating disorder, a refusal to eat food of life and our preference for the delicacies of death. Adam and Eve were given to eat of any tree in the Garden, including the tree in the middle of the Garden, the Tree of Life. To eat of that tree meant to eat of life and live forever. But they were not given to eat of the other tree in the middle of the Garden, the tree of knowing good and evil. “On the day you eat of that tree, you will surely die.” To eat of the tree of knowing good and evil was to partake of death and to die forever. Because Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden food, God shut them, and us, away from the tree of life, lest man should eat of it and live forever. Henceforth there would be another food, a food that sinful man might eat and live forever. Not the fruit of a tree, but bread, living Bread. Christ is the food that undoes our disordered eating, a Bread that takes our death and through His death works life.
We feel the hunger pangs of our death, that gnawing emptiness which cannot be filled by the various breads of this life, no matter how many we might sample or how delectible they might first appear to be. There are the pains that no drug, whether legal or illegal, can numb. The diseases that wear down and eventually destroy our bodies. The divorces that destroy our families. The deaths all around us that rob us of loved ones. There is our own death that looms darkly over us. There is the guilt over the things we have said and done, and the things we have left unsaid and undone. There is the harm we have caused others, and the harm others have caused us. There is sin – the thoughts, words, and actions that betray our identity as sinners. There is this empty, nagging hunger that nothing in this world can fill.
We try to fill it with something. We fill it with work, hoping that achievement and success will make the hunger go away. But the harder we work, the hungrier we get. We fill it with play, seeking fulfillment in fun and hobbies, travel and recreation. We try relationships, hoping to find in the other what we are missing in ourselves. We try religion, in the hopes that if we struggle and strain and strive hard enough to achieve some type of “spirituality” (regardless of the particular spirit involved) the hunger pangs will go away. But nothing seems to work. There is no food that fills, no bread that takes away the nagging hunger for something more, something real, something permanent.
That’s because our hunger is not for anything we can get our hands on, but for the Tree of Life, the missing piece of our diet, the food that man turned away from God may not eat of. But God has not left us to starve in the wilderness of sin. He has sent living Bread from heaven in the form His Son.
We do not come to this bread on our own. We wouldn’t know where to go. We couldn’t. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” God takes the initiative on our behalf. First he sends His Son whose food it is to do the will of His Father, to be our Bread of Life by giving his life on the cross. Then He draws us to this Bread by bringing us to the water of Baptism, to the preaching of His Word, to the Holy Supper, to Confession and Absolution. There he continually, richly, daily feeds us with Christ urging us, bidding us, inviting us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Nothing so delights the Father than that we should use Jesus as our daily Bread, that we should be hungry, even greedy, for the forgiveness that comes through his death and resurrection.
It always pains me as a pastor to see anemic, undernourished Christians, baptized children of God who refuse to be fed with the Bread of Life. In the two years since my ordination, I’ve discovered that the work of the office of the ministry makes one sound a bit like the German mother who keeps pushing seconds around the family table while saying, “Eat, your ribs are sticking out.”
And there is nothing sadder than skinny Christians with their ribs sticking out. Christ died and rose from the dead so that we can live and die in the boldness and confidence that his death and resurrection are ours. God isn’t stingy with us. It’s we who pick and nibble at the Bread of Life as if we were afraid of becoming too fat on the forgiveness of sins. There really is no reason. There is Sermon and Supper every Sunday. Individual Absolution twice a week. Bible study on Wednesday and Sunday. A Bible and catechism in every home. Hopefully also a hymnbook. There is no such thing as dieting in eternity so we may as well not start those kinds of bad eating habits now. Overweight is the baggage of this perishing life, not eternal life. Eat all the Bread of Life you want. Eat more than you want. Eat all that you need. Eat all that the Lord gives you.
Too often we wait until we are desperate, weak, and exhausted to avail ourselves of this food, as if Christ were the “Bread of Despair” with a sign stamped on him that says, “for emergency use only.” Or we might mistakenly think that we must first be without sin before we can come and eat of the Bread of Life. That’s a bit like saying before you can eat you have to be full. The One who ate with tax collectors and sinners is the sinner’s food, a bread that sinners may eat and live forever.
To eat of the Bread of Life is to come to Christ seeking the forgiveness of our sins, eternal life, salvation from death. “Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me,” says Jesus. The Father does not wish to deal with us directly, but He directs everyone to His Son. Jesus said this to those who took offense at His claim that He came down from heaven. They wanted to go around Jesus and deal directly with the Father. They were offended by His humanity. There is that same tendency today, to duck Christ in His Incarnation and attempt to deal with God on some higher out of body “spiritual” level than at the grubby, sinning, earthy, creaturely level on which we live. This happens whenever we look for the Bread of Life anywhere other than in Holy Baptism, in the preached and written Word, in Confession and Absolution and in the Holy Supper. This is where Christ comes to us as “the bread that comes down from heaven,” and apart from these we do not look for him.
Just in case we are still tempted to spiritualize him, Jesus drops a clincher. “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” It doesn’t get more down to earth than “flesh,” which gets Jesus’ hearers even more offended and sets the stage for next week’s Gospel. Today we’ll stick to Bread. Next week, flesh and blood.
Note that Jesus calls himself the bread that “comes down from heaven.” We do not go up to heaven to eat this Bread of Life. He descends to us. He bends down to meet us in our humanity, where we are, where we eat, where we sin, here and now. He reaches down to feed us with the true manna of His death and resurrection – a bread that we may eat and never die. He is the living Bread you hung on the cross for us. He is the Bread of Life who imparts His life to us. Luther rightly said, “We treat of the forgiveness of sins in two ways – how it was won and how it is delivered.” It was won two thousand years ago on the cross of Calvary when Jesus gave His life for you and me. There on the cross the living Bread from heaven was broken for the sin of the world. But even if we could go back in time to the cross (which we can’t), it would do us no good. There the Bread was broken. But here, in the liturgy, the Bread is being distributed to those who hunger for it. We go to the Word in all its rich and varied forms – poured and pronounced, preached, written and eaten.
The Bread of Life comes with an unconditional guarantee and promise to the eater: “I will raise him up on the Last Day.” Four times Jesus says it in John chapter 6. Four times he promises what no other Bread in this world can deliver – resurrection from the dead. Every other food we eat goes with us to the grave and dies. This food goes with us to the grave and raises us to life.
He promises no quick and easy solutions to the pains and problems attendant to this life. Those who eat the Bread of Life are not necessarily spared the troubles of this life. This is no magic Wonder Bread but God’s living Bread that will see you through life and death to the Resurrection of the Last Day. This Bread will give you strength to live your life boldly and confidently, even when you are hard pressed on every side and things seem to be closing in. And it may very well take until the Last Day for us to realize how well fed we have been all along.
A steady diet of the Bread of Life isn’t going make headlines. It may not be terribly exciting or entertaining, either. It may even be boring at times. Let’s face it, church is sometimes boring. I’ll be the first to admit that. We must confess (and confess is the appropriate word to use here), that, like Israel in the wilderness, we become bored with our wilderness diet of Bread and bellyache for the stewpots of slavery. And there is considerable pressure these days from both within and without for the church to broaden her menu to include a sentimental souflé or a flamboyant flambé just to keep things lively and interesting. But who has room for bread when you’ve had dessert? Who has time for death and resurrection when you are busy “feeling good about yourself”?
The bottom line to this morning’s Gospel is don’t expect a steady diet of Bread to be entertaining, exciting, or even necessarily uplifting. Don’t come to church to be entertained or emotionally manipulated. Come with the expectation of bigger and greater things than that from the Bread of Life. Expect the forgiveness of your sins. Expect the gift of eternal life. Expect to be raised up to life on the Last Day.
You have His Word on that.
In the Name of Jesus,