I Am: The Bread of Life

Scripture: John 6:24-40

I heard a story recently about a bakery.  It’s not just any bakery.  It’s a bakery in the town of Mariinka, Ukraine, right on the frontline of the war that’s has been going on there for almost five years now.  The town was taken over by Russia at the beginning of the war, then taken back by Ukraine.   Still just 1.5 km away lies the border with an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.  Since 2014, half of Mariinka’s population has left.  For those who have remained, the sounds of shells and shooting in the street have become commonplace.

There aren’t many businesses left in Mariinka anymore.  But there is this bakery, which was opened by a man named Oleg Tkachenko after the war had already begun.  Tkachenko had been helping make food deliveries to various frontline towns and noticed that the bread he carried was always stale by the time he got to Mariinka.  His bakery was the first business to open in the town since the beginning of the war.

In the podcast I listened to about this unusual place, customers talk about what it means to be able to buy bread.  A teacher buys jam-filled buns for her class of 3-4 year-olds, who go to school in a building with a bomb shelter.  They all look forward to Monday, when they always get their buns.  A woman who has been separated from her children and grandchildren by the frontline says she buys either white bread or rye.  She likes white, her husband likes rye.  “But I don’t really care,” she says, “as long as there is bread.”

The mayor of Mariinka talks about what a difference the bakery has made to this town.  “The smell of bread, when you’re walking down the street,” he says, “is very important, as important as the air we breathe….Bread is our staple food, and you pick up a loaf which is warm and fluffy, not delivered from far away, but that’s fresh from the local bakery, it makes you feel better.”

As for Oleg Tkachenko, he says that he understands that his purpose in this world is to serve people.  That’s why he does this.[1]

For some of us, I know, bread is maybe not the cultural staple that it once was.  Some of us can’t have gluten.  Some of us are trying to cut back on carbs.  Some of us may also come from places where bread has never been a staple at all.  But listening to the story of this bakery in a war-ravaged Ukrainian town, where bread has come to mean not just food but life, it’s not surprising to me that one of the ways Jesus identifies himself in the Bible is as bread.

In case you’ve missed the beginning of this sermon series, we’re spending the season between Epiphany and Lent this year asking the question of who Jesus is and letting Jesus answer for himself, through his seven “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John.  In the past few weeks Jesus has told us that he is the light of the world, the Good Shepherd, and the gate for the sheep, and today he is the bread of life.  These images help us to glimpse different aspects of who Jesus is without allowing us to define him too precisely.  But as always, before we get to today’s image, let me set the scene for you.

Today’s passage takes us back to John chapter 6, to a story that is familiar to many of us: the feeding of the five thousand.  I told you before that John doesn’t often tell the same stories as our other three “synoptic” Gospels do.  The feeding of the five thousand is an exception.  It appears in all four gospels, which maybe gives us some idea of how important early Christians thought it was.  In any case, as the story goes: Jesus finds himself surrounded by a crowd of people; they’re hungry; the only food available is a couple loaves of bread and a few small fish; Jesus gives thanks and distributes the food among the crowd and, miraculously, it is enough.  In fact, it’s more than enough; it’s abundant, with baskets of bread left over.  As John tells it, when the crowd sees what has just happened, they try to make Jesus their king.  But Jesus manages to escape.

Later that evening, the disciples get in a boat and head across the lake to the town of Capernaum.  Mid-journey, Jesus catches up with them, walking on the water.  When the crowds back on the other side of the lake realize that Jesus and his disciples are all gone, they get in boats to come to find him.  When they do, over in Capernaum, they say, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

John always likes to tell a story and use it as a launching point for Jesus to reveal something about himself.  And that’s what happens now – this seemingly innocent question launches a dialogue in which Jesus gives us his first “I am” saying in the Gospel.

Jesus tells the crowds, somewhat accusingly, that they’re only looking for him because they got fed. It doesn’t seem like such a bad reason, really.  As the famous saying about U.S. politics goes, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  We tend to follow those who we believe can meet our most pressing needs, and yet doing so means potentially ignoring any larger implications at play – in this case, what the miracle actually means about who Jesus is.

“Don’t worry so much about the kind of food that doesn’t last,” Jesus says to them. “Work instead for the kind of food that does, food that the Son of Man will give you.”

The crowds say, OK, what do we need to do to work for this food? And Jesus says, “Believe in the one God sent.”

They say, “Well, then give us a sign so that we can believe.  You know, like our ancestors had manna in the desert.”  Do you remember this story?  After the Israelites had escaped from slavery in Egypt, while they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land, God fed them with a mysterious flaky bread that fell from heaven called manna (Hebrew for “what is it?”)  If only Jesus could do a sign like that, they say, then they’ll be able to believe.  How quickly they forget, right?

Jesus tells them, “You’re still missing the point.  The true bread from heaven, the bread I’m talking about here, isn’t manna.  It’s the one who comes down and gives life to the world.”

They say, “Well, then we want that bread.  Give us that bread always.”  They’re still stuck on their physical needs, on their hunger.  They want this good bread, the kind that will satisfy them like Jesus seems to promise.  Because after all, I suppose, there’s not much worse than really being hungry.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said when he was accused of preaching a “social Gospel,” a message more focused on justice than spirituality: “I don’t preach a social Gospel, I preach the Gospel, period…The good news to a hungry person is bread.”

It strikes me that Jesus is concerned with real, literal hunger here.  He doesn’t ignore that need.  After all, he’s just fed the crowd of five thousand with real, literal bread.  When they get hungry, he doesn’t tell them that people can’t live on bread alone.  He feeds them.  I think Jesus understands that if our basic needs aren’t met, we’re never going to be able to focus on anything more.

But Jesus also seems to want the crowds, these crowds who are SO focused on what their bodies crave, to know that there’s something more than that.  That bread they want, the kind from an oven or a bakery, is never truly going to fill them.

“Give us this bread all the time!” the crowds cry.  I imagine them looking at Jesus expectantly here, as he just waits for it to click.  Finally he realizes he’s going to have to spell it our for them: “Me.  It’s me.  I am the bread of life.  Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry again.”

I don’t know, Jesus.  I consider myself a follower of yours and yet every morning by 11 am or so I’m starving.  But of course, I’m being literal again, just like the crowds.  And so I find myself asking: What is it that I’m really hungry for?  What is this hunger that Jesus promises to fill?

I suppose I can think of a lot of things I’m hungry for, or that we in general might be hungry for, beyond just actual bread.  We might be hungry for love, for acceptance, for connection.  We – or at least some people we can think of – might be hungry for power (maybe we make that sound better sometimes by calling it ambition.)  Maybe we even hunger for justice, or for peace – which makes me think back to the bakery in Mariinka, where what people really hungered for, beyond just food, was a sense of normalcy and life that continued in the midst of war and fear.  What, if you really let yourself feel it, is the deep hunger of your soul?

I’m not going to promise that Jesus is going to fulfill all those particular hungers we might feel, because not all of those hungers are good things – though some of them are, and some of them I think are just human things.  But sometimes our hunger can be misdirected.

But what if I said that there was a hunger underlying all of those things?  That our truest, deepest hunger, as people created by God and in God’s image, is for the one who created us and is home to us?

There’s a quote I’ve always liked from St. Augustine, who says “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”[2]  In the same way, I think, we’re going to keep being hungry for whatever it is we think we’re hungry for – maybe feeling full sometimes, for a while, but always hungry again – until our hunger is satisfied by the one who promises that to believe in him, to come to him, to join ourselves with him, means to never be hungry again.

I’ve never liked easy answers or promises and I’m afraid that maybe this sounds like one.  Truthfully, in the end, I don’t know how possible it really is in this lifetime to never be hungry again.  I know from experience that my own faith is imperfect, that I might find that rest and fullness in Jesus one day and feel empty again the next.  That’s why we have to keep coming back – coming back to worship, coming back to the faith community that forms and sustains us, coming back to the communion table – and being fed again and again.  That’s why Jesus provides ways for us to do that.  Coming to Jesus is never just a one-time deal, and no simple statement of faith will satisfy your hunger for the rest of your life.

But I do believe that we can get glimpses in this life of what it’s like to rest satisfied in the presence of God, and that this also is the ultimate destiny of God’s people – because the one through whom we encounter God is himself the bread of life.

With each revelation of Jesus we’ve encountered so far, we’ve heard that the people were divided, and it’s no different this time.  When Jesus says these things, his opponents grumble among themselves – just like their ancestors did in the wilderness.  And when Jesus says that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” even some of his followers turn away, saying it’s too difficult a teaching to accept.  But when Jesus asks the Twelve if they want to leave, too, Peter answers simply: “Lord, where would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

There are so many things we might be hungry for and yes, maybe sometimes it feels easier to look for quick fixes than to really put our faith and trust in Jesus and follow him.

But maybe you’ve experienced it just enough to know: that rest and fullness that can only be found in him – in the one who created us, loves us, forgives us, sustains us, and welcomes us home.

Knowing that, where else would we go?

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09l1wmw; https://roadsandkingdoms.com/2017/bakery-mariinka

[2] Confessions, Book I

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