John 6:35, 41-51
Jesus said to the people…”I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Read the whole passage)
We are talking about bread again… and in fact, we have been talking about bread for several weeks now, and we still have one more week to go in this detour into John’s Gospel. We have been slowly, piece by piece going through this conversation between the crowds and Jesus. The crowd of 5000 that was first fed with 5 loaves and 2 fish, and now the crowds that do not and will not understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is offering to them.
But John is drawing our attention to a debate about bread, John is telling us what this bread actually means. In the Gospel of John, the dynamic between Word and Sign, word and bread is always lying underneath the surface. Jesus proclaims his Gospel in words, Jesus IS the Word of God, yet those who hear that Gospel, the crowds, the disciples, the pharisees and scribes, they all want signs, they all want bread. The words are supposed to be enough, but the demand for bread and signs never ends, and so Jesus shows who he is, as the Word made flesh, by doing miracles, healing the sick and the lame, casting out demons and finally by dying on a cross and being raised on the third day. And so in the Gospel of John, Word and Sign – Jesus and bread – are inextricably bound up together, they cannot be separated. There is the Word, the Good News of God’s Love, and then there is the Sign, the bread of Christ’s body to be shared. Word and Sign – Jesus and bread.
Today in the Gospel of John, we see that the good news and bread are one. Jesus is the Word made flesh to hear, Jesus is the bread made flesh to share. For John, we are given grace and we are given bread, and God gives them to us in the same package. The Good News comes in bread and body to be shared. Jesus gives himself to us in the flesh and in the bread of life.
But today, this conversation about bread takes a turn. Up until now, the conversation has been about the divine, about the unwillingness of the crowds to see Jesus as God. Last week the crowds wanted to be able to perform the works of God. But today, Jesus goes a little deeper, goes right to the heart of reasons why the crowds, and why we, try to be God in God’s place. Its the reason that our sinful self wants to be in control. Jesus reminds the crowds, “Even your ancestors ate manna in the desert, they ate the bread from heaven provided by Yahweh Elohim, the God of Abrham and Isaac, the God who delivered you from Pharaoh and slavery in Egypt. They ate that heavenly bread, and yet, even they died.
Jesus is getting to the heart of what all the quibbling about bread is about. Jesus is reminding us of that fact that none of us likes to be reminded of. It doesn’t matter if your ancestors were the ones whom Yahweh fed with manna in the desert and it doesn’t matter if your ancestors were the ones whom God fed with bread grown in the fertile land Manitoba, WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE. The crowds wanted to do the works of God, but the work of God is New Life, something that we must rely on God to do for us.
And so for us, death is real and death in unavoidable. The Old Adam, the sinful self, would rather quibble about bread any time. Being reminded of the reality of death, to be reminded of its constant presence, is never easy. Instead, its unsettling and for the Old Adam in us, it is the ultimate reminder that we are indeed not God.
While we may live in perhaps the most peaceful country in the world, and while as a society, we try to pretend very hard that death is not real, or at least does not affect us, it does not take much to be reminded of how close it truly is. Read the newspaper or watch the news, and the stories of death abound. Drive by any number of the cemeteries that dot the highways here, and it does not take long to be reminded that dying is OUR reality. Death is our reality so much so, that we are born dying. We are born as beings unto death, our lives are aimed, right from the beginning towards our end.
But just because death is our reality does not mean that death is God’s reality. Just because death is our end, does not mean that its God’s end.
American Pastor and Scholar, Paul Tillich, once told a story about a World War II. There was a Jewish man who managed to escape being sent to concentration camp in Poland. After leaving his home and all that he held dear, the man was finally forced to live and hide in a Jewish cemetery with many others wartime refugees. In fact, he lived in an empty grave, all the refugees did. And there, they hid from the Nazis.
One day, in the grave next to the one where he had taken up residence, a young woman was giving birth to a baby, giving birth the unlikeliest of places. In her delivery, she was assisted by an Old Man dressed in a dark shroud, presumably the grave digger. When the newborn child uttered its first cries in the world, the Old Man lifted the baby to heaven and said, “Great God, hast thou sent us Messiah? For who but Messiah could be born in a grave?”
In the moment when death is certain, when the reminder that we all will die is so certain and life seems to be over, God in Christ is doing a work so amazing that the Old Adam in us does not want to believe its possible. God is making new life happen, God is making eternal life happen. In place where death’s power seems to be certain and absolute, God is granting us eternal life through Messiah, through Christ.
Starting with 5 loaves and 2 fish, and onwards with quibbling about bread, quibbling about who Jesus is, God is there offering us eternal life. It is not John’s original idea to make bread and eternal life go together, but rather, this is the work of God. It is the work of God to offer us life in the Word of Christ, and life again in Body of Christ. It is, of course, no accident that the blessing after communion goes,
“Now may the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen you and keep you in his grace until life eternal”.
Today, Jesus reminds us that we will all die, no matter who we are, no matter who our ancestors were. But for Jesus, death is not the end, and there with us in the grave, we are given eternal life in body and blood. Jesus gives us God the Father, and along with the Father, we are given God’s love and mercy and grace. Death is real, death is unavoidable. We are not immune to its effects, we are not immune to the reality and constant presence of death. And still for God, even in the grave there can be new life. New Life that sometimes can come in something so totally unimaginable to us, new life that comes to us OUT of the grave. But the greatest promise of New Life, is that it always comes in God’s gift of eternal life.
We are three weeks into the Gospel of John and its discussion on bread, three weeks into this story about the 5 loaves and 2 fish. And yet, in Christ in the Word and in this Sign of bread, we are reminded first that we will all die. But more importantly, we are also promised that we shall all live. We are promised that God is working in the world to bring us new life, new life in unexpected and surprising ways. New life out of the grave. Because only God would sent us good news in bread. Only God would be born in a grave.