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|"A New Bread"
John 6:35, 41-51
At his last supper with
his disciples, when Jesus took the bread and blessed it and gave it to
his disciples saying, "Take, eat, this is my body," he left us with one
of the most meaningful, and the most controversial, moments in all
Since then, Christians have continued to be divided over what, exactly, those words meant. Did the bread really become the body of Christ?
If so, how did it become so? Elaborate interpretations have developed to answer these questions, and each Christian approaches those interpretations differently.
But for me it is not enough to look at the last supper in isolation from the rest of the life of Christ. For me, it is important to fit that moment into the rest of his teachings and his parables. And when we hear Christ say "This is my body" as he blesses the bread, it is also good to know that in the thirty-fifth verse of the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John, "Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
Food has always been a significant symbol of survival; for if we cease to eat, we will eventually starve to death. But for the son of God there was also the survival of the soul, and there was a need for spiritual nourishment.
Yet the easiest way to talk about that was to give it an earthly form, and that was exactly what Jesus did.
But not only is it an EARTHLY form: it is in a form that is AVAILABLE to everyone. And this is important, because Jesus doesn't want to leave anyone out; nor does he want anyone to believe that he has established personal limits on whom he includes or excludes.
He tells us in the thirty-seventh verse, "Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away." The plan is not his, but comes from God.
"For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me."
And we hear a very clear explanation of how Jesus sees himself as a servant, as a means of achieving God's end. And in this sense, Jesus is like the bread; for bread serves as a means of our physical survival. It is not an end in itself. Bread has no plan.
Bread does not tell us who may eat it and who may not. Bread has no will; it is simply used as its maker intends.
So for me, when Jesus says of the bread, "Take, eat; this is my body," he is telling me that just as the bread is nourishment at the service of my physical being, so is he nourishment in the service of my soul. He is telling me, "I am the bread of life."
But even more, he is telling us what we can and should be. He is not only teacher to us, but also example for us. For we can be the nourishment for the souls of others.
Continuing with the thirty-ninth verse, "And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day."
I think that pastors should pay more attention to the middle part of that verse, especially the words, "all that he has given me." For too often we think that WE are the ones who save souls, that WE are responsible for how wonderful our ministry is. We forget who is in charge.
Some years ago a television evangelist--you may remember this--was asked by his denomination to leave his pulpit for a year (he'd been misbehaving), but he refused. A fellow who had worked with him in the past commented, "You have to understand.
“This is a multi-million dollar business, and the business aspect of the ministry has taken control."
But to continue on with the fortieth verse, "This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day."
In this promise, the phrase "bread of life" takes on new meaning. For not only is the bread that Jesus offers us more than for mere physical well-being, but the life that he offers us is also more than mere physical earthly existence.
Rather, it is the spiritual life of eternity.
"The Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, "I have come down from heaven"?"
And such are the difficulties of teaching among those who know you and your family. But the Jews are stuck on an earthly plane, and they interpret what Jesus says according to what they can physically see and understand. The symbols are lost on them.
But one thing I do not know, and cannot know, is what they were thinking and feeling when they spoke of "coming down from heaven."
Translations don't vary on this, but I am sure that what I think of when I read those words is probably significantly different from what they thought. Was heaven a place? And what kind of place?
Obviously, it was "up there," but did it have limited or infinite possibilities for them? You see, in the thirty-second verse Jesus refers to "Moses who gave you the bread from heaven." And in practice, that manna fell from the sky like rain.
But with a twentieth-century understanding of astronomy, we probably don't think of Jesus as coming from the "sky." We probably have a very different sense of heaven than the Jews did in Jesus time; and the Jews likely had a very different sense of heaven than Jesus did.
"Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day."
Now, there's an interesting contrast in translations of this passage. Some translations say that the Jews were murmuring, while others say that they were grumbling. If they were grumbling, they weren't too happy with what they were hearing.
And if Jesus tells them to stop grumbling, he's probably losing patience with having to repeat himself. But he adds something that has opened controversy among Christians.
When he says, "unless drawn by the Father who sent me," he is opening up the possibility, according to some interpretations, that God is making decisions in selecting folks. Now, on the one hand, I'd really like to believe that God is in charge; but on the other hand, does this mean that God might be leaving out some folks?
And although I'd like to believe that I don't choose God, but that God chooses me; does that mean that God might NOT choose me? So how do I resolve all this?
Well, I believe that God DOES leave out some folks: but only those who choose to leave THEMSELVES out. And there is the possibility that God might not choose me: but only if I refuse to choose God.
"It is written in the prophets, "And they shall all be taught by God." Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me." And Jesus is referring to the thirteenth verse of the fifty-fourth chapter of Isaiah: "All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the prosperity of your children."
But again, we must move beyond the physical Jesus. Because when he says "come to me" his is speaking of coming to the ultimate truth of which he speaks. We cannot come to the physical Jesus, because he is no longer with us.
And even if we know and understand the historical Jesus, it is not enough. Rather, Jesus is telling us that if we have heard and learned the truth of God, we come finally to the truth of the Christ who is of God.
Much is made by some Christians of having a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ. I leave that to you and your theology. But as for me, I find myself coming to Jesus as the Christ who was the human embodiment of the truth of God.
"Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father."
But let's get picky again. What does it mean to "see" God? Is Jesus talking about a physical seeing with our eyes? I don't think so. Rather, I think he is speaking of knowing the truth of God; and I think he is telling us that only one who comes from God can fully know that truth. But if we cannot fully know that truth, what are we to do?
"Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life." It is the leap of faith. Jesus knows that we cannot fully know that truth. So he asks us for our belief. And for our belief there is an ultimate reward.
I had a friend, who, although he KNEW the decision I made twenty years ago to enter seminary, had difficulty believing it was the real thing.
And even after I had been in seminary for two years, even after I had been serving a church for a year, he called me up about some Kansas City tycoon he had told about me who had been impressed with my credentials.
You see, for my friend the only rewards are here and now in the big bucks paychecks. And for him, there was no belief in anything beyond that.
And when I hear Jesus say, "I am the bread of life," and when I think of what that really means to me, I know that in a spiritual sense, my friend was starving.
But even those whose belief goes no further than in the bread of the here-and-now physical world cannot help but realize that this sustenance, whether it be bread or other physical possessions or money, is quickly consumed and must be replaced. In our temporal world we are continually reminded of how short-lived everything is.
A television sportscaster once noted that a baseball team that had finished in first place the previous season was, by the middle of the next year, in last place. In his memorable words: "From the penthouse to the outhouse in one season."
And Jesus calls our attention to this. "Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died." Now, the manna from heaven was a marvelous miracle of God; but it was STILL only bread for physical consumption. And the physical body dies.
o matter how many miracles take place in our lives, if they are only physical miracles, they can attend to only physical needs. And the physical body will die.
But there is another bread. "This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die."
There it is again. That "bread from heaven" stuff. Did not the manna come from heaven? Then Jesus must be talking about a different kind of bread. Indeed, of a different kind of eating.
While I was in seminary I ran across some terminology that I had not been familiar with, which responds to how people have needs met. If a person has social needs which are not met, it may be said that he or she is "not getting fed."
Now, initially that bothered me, because it reminded me of working with livestock, with feeding cattle. How could it apply to people? But in the context of this scripture, it seems to fit.
"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."
And in this final statement we have a prophesy of the crucifixion to come. Not only has Jesus brought to us the ultimate truth of God in his teaching, but he will seal that truth in the example of his sacrifice, and prove the reward of eternal life in his resurrection.
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