Eight times in the Gospel of John, Jesus looked at folk around him and said, “I am.” Bread of life. Light of the world. The Gate. And so on. As we journey towards the garden, the cross, and the grave, we want to stick close to the Lord to learn more of who he is in order that we might discover that which we are called to be. This is the message from March 16 as heard at the Crafton Heights Church. Our scriptures included selected verses from Exodus 3 and John 6 (quoted below).
What really frosts you? I mean, what gets on your last nerve, and just makes you see red? Don’t feel like you have to shout out answers during the message…
Someone might say, “When I’m cruising down the parkway and traffic just stops…because no one seems to know how to drive through a stinking tunnel!” And that’s true. That really chaps my hide…but I was thinking a little more ecclesiastically. What bothers you spiritually?
Several times in recent weeks I’ve thought about one of the first times I ever went to share communion in a nursing home. I was the associate pastor, and the senior pastor had said to me, “I’m glad you’ll be going out there. Try to visit with Esther. I think she might connect better with you than she does with me.” This is, of course, pastor’s code for “She really doesn’t like anyone, but why don’t you give it a shot?”
So I went out to the home, and was told that Esther was indeed there, and that she was the blind lady in the wheelchair over in the corner. I approached, and our conversation went something like this:
“Esther? Hi! My name is Dave Carver, and I’m…”
“I know who you are. You’re the new preacher, aren’t you? I don’t know if we’re going to get along.”
“Esther, why would you say that?”
“Well, they tell me you’ve got a beard. Do you have a beard?”
“Well, let me feel it then.” And she reached her hand up and touched my face. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. I don’t think I can get used to the idea of a preacher with a beard. It’s just not right.”
“Uh, Esther? Can you see me?”
“Of course not! I’m blind!”
“Well then, if you can’t see my beard, how can it bother you?”
“I can think it, can’t I?”
Esther was offended by the idea of a preacher with facial fondeur. What about you? What offends you in church? If we allow it, that could be a long list – and a subjective one, too: what offends you now might not offend you in ten years; what offends me might not offend you.
But looking past the things that you encounter when you show up here – where do you find Jesus to be offensive?
“Oh, Pastor! Jesus? Offensive? No, no, no…Jesus and me? We are good! I love my Jesus, my savior…”
Really? Nothing about what Jesus said or did rocks your boat, even a little bit? Because it seems to me that the people who took him seriously, who really let him in, who were there to pay attention – well, they found him to be at least intrusive, if not offensive.
In fact, our Gospel reading for this morning is about a time when Jesus managed to offend a whole lot of people, including some who thought of themselves as his friends.
John chapter six opens with the story about how Jesus and the disciples were looking for a break after a pretty rough stretch of ministry. They went out into the boondocks in search of a little peace and quiet, only to be followed by great crowds – crowds that had needs that the boondocks were not equipped to handle. So what started out to be a little retreat wound up to be an all-day teaching session that led to the feeding of the 5,000. John tells us that after that happened, they tried to make Jesus into a king, and he didn’t want any of that…so he and the Twelve set off again – to someplace even boondockier – in search of some R & R.
Yet the crowds found them again, and Jesus called them out, saying, “Look, we all know you’re not here for the Bible Study – you just remember the bread and the fishes from yesterday.” Then he threw out a little teaser, saying that they ought to really want the food that would allow them to live forever. Well, they fell right into that one, and said, “You bet! Give us that! That’s the stuff we want!” Listen:
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” (John 6:30 – 34, NIV)
If you’ve read much of John before, you could see this coming. Time and time again, John presents us with a Jesus who talks about things on an intensely spiritual plane, while mere mortals are thinking that he’s talking about the mundane stuff of human existence. So when they beg him for some of this bread, Jesus gives them the theological knock-out:
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:35-40, NIV)
There are two things going on here. First, Jesus uses two little words that sound so inoffensive in English, or even in Greek. He says, “I am”. “Ego eimi”. We say that all the time, don’t we? “Who’s in charge here? Who is going for ice cream? Who’s ready for Spring?” I am! That’s me!
But for Jesus and the rest of the faithful in his time and place, saying “I am” – particularly in a theological context – was a loaded proposition because, as you have already heard in the reading from Exodus, “I am” is more than a simple declarative statement. “I am” is the Divine Name. “I am” is who God revealed himself to be. And Jesus here, for the first of eight times in John’s Gospel, uses that phrase to refer to himself.
For a carpenter’s son to use the Divine Name was wildly offensive to his hearers. “Who do you think you are? Do you know what you’re saying?” When Jesus said, “I Am” so often in that context, it was an unmistakable sign that he was equating himself with God’s presence and God’s purposes. Listen:
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42, NIV)
And while this is going on, you can just about feel the disciples cringing. “Oh, come on, Jesus! You have just cracked the top ten! People are really paying attention to you now! Don’t offend them with this stuff! Give the crowds what they want, and don’t rile the authorities.”
But he doesn’t stop. In fact, he goes deeper:
“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:47-51 NIV)
Jesus says that God, through Moses, directed the faithful to manna – the bread that would help them get through another day in the desert. And now the same God, through Jesus, offers the true bread from heaven. And what is that bread? Jesus says, “That’s me. I am. I am the bread of life.”
And then Jesus takes it a bit further. He says that he’s better than the manna that the ancestors ate, and, in fact, the bread that he is is bread for the life of the world. “If you want eternal life, then you’ve got to eat my flesh. If you want eternal life, you’ve got to drink my blood.”
And when he said this, some of the people who had been following him looked around at each other and said, basically, “Eeeew, that’s nasty. I don’t know if I can get into that…”
Jesus presses the point:
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” (John 6:60-61, NIV)
Jesus is saying, “You need me. I am the basic stuff of life. If you don’t have me, you can’t experience life. I am what sustains you.”
And then we get to one of the most curious parts of this story:
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66, NIV)
Sometimes in scripture, we see things in black and white; as good and evil. When someone opposes Jesus, we want to think right away that it’s the bad guys. “If I was there…” we think, “I wouldn’t question anything that Jesus said.” But friends, you see the truth. Here, in this passage, it is the good guys – the followers – disciples of Jesus – who turn away and can no longer follow him. Why is that? Because Jesus, talking about the body and the blood, claims to be the sustaining, equipping presence that we need each and every day.
Bread has taken a bit of a bad rap in our culture lately. You may have seen articles like, “Why Bread Is Bad for You: the Shocking Truth!” or “Cutting Bread From Your Diet”. Many of us are being told that we shouldn’t eat bread, or that we eat too much bread, or something like that. And, thanks be to God, most of us are in a position where we have a lot of options when it comes to food.
Yet the reality is that for most of the world, there is a dish that sustains us. Come with me to Malawi, and watch women standing for hours around the big pot of nsima, the staple food on which most Malawians rely for two meals a day. I remember walking the streets of Cairo and seeing men with giant platters of bread, selling the small loaves for two pennies each. Most of the people on this planet rely on a simple combination of grains to keep them going day after day – it is bread, or nsima, or pap, or funche, or polenta… it is what we need to live.
And here in today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at those who would follow him, and say, “Yes. That’s me. I am what you need. I am that for which you were created. I am.” And that notion of exclusivity offends people – and they want to leave. Because they are not in the business of depending on Jesus. Of needing him. Of thinking of him as the way to live. He’s a nice guy. A great man, even. We ought to pay attention to him.
But is he God?
I wonder if we really appreciate what a leap it is to go from thinking that Jesus is a good man – even a great man, like Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr. – to believing that Jesus is truly the bread of life. To tell you the truth, I’m not surprised that people are offended. It’s pretty tough to comprehend, isn’t it?
But not everyone turns away:
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69, NIV)
The twelve stick around. They’re invited to leave, but Peter matter-of-factly says, “Seriously, Lord, where can we go? Because we KNOW you. We were so hungry yesterday – and you fed us. We were so scared in the boat last night – and you were there. We have seen you. We know you. And we cannot leave.” And the twelve, save Judas, all end up spending the rest of their lives pointing other people towards the things that Jesus said and did – because they believed that he WAS the essence of life. The difference between the people who were offended and those who were not was not that somehow the apostles “got” what Jesus was saying any better. They were lost, too. But they had seen him and known him and experienced his power – and they knew they needed to stay with him, even if they didn’t understand everything at the time.
Look at that table before you. It’s a rich, sturdy, oak table. They don’t make ‘em like that any more. It’s quality furniture. And look at what’s on it. An empty cup and a small loaf. It’s just a reminder… It seems so, normal. It’s almost … harmless the way that we remember that Jesus is the bread. Like we have “tamed” him, somehow. Made him less offensive.
We have to remember that Jesus is the bread. We don’t remember that Jesus and something else is what we need. We don’t claim that our lives are pretty good, pretty whole, and then we sprinkle a little bit of Jesus on top just to round things out, as though Jesus was a special additive that makes our lives sparkle a little bit more. This little loaf and empty cup, as shallow as they may be, remind us that Jesus is all of what we need. They are here to serve as symbols, pointing us to what we really need.
It is a statement of belief: in coming to the table, you say, “I believe that I need Christ and his power in my life, and I believe that he is there and is sufficient to reign.” And it is a statement of intent: in sharing the cup and the loaf, you say, “I will follow where he leads me.” And it is a statement of testimony: in our worship, you say, “Yes, I could have gone. I might have gone. But there have been times in my life when he has fed me. I don’ t know how he’s done it – but I was fed. There have been times in my life when he has calmed me, and been present to me when I was scared, or frightened, or in need, and he walked out to me and comforted me.”
Do you see, you lovely people of God? Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” And now he’s asking you to believe that that is the case. He is not an additive; he is not an enrichment. He is life. And he invites us to follow him. And to tell the story that has changed our world. For some, that is offensive. For us, it is life. Let us live it as though we counted on him to nourish us today and always. Amen.