During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord. On September 18, we walked with the crowds after the “feeding of the 5,000” and wondered what Jesus meant when he called himself the “bread of life”. Our scriptures included John 6:25-40 and Isaiah 55:1-5.
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It’s a cliché, perhaps, but is there a book that changed your life? This morning, I’m thinking of Michael Pollan’s amazing exploration of food and culture called The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Pollan describes the very curious situation in which we human beings find ourselves: we appear to be best served by a diet that is rich and diverse, and we are able to absorb nutrients and enjoy tastes from an endless variety of sources, including meat, nuts, grains, fruit, and vegetables. We are, wonderfully, omnivorous. Other creatures, of course, don’t live in this way. If you’re a koala, and it looks like eucalyptus, smells like eucalyptus, and tastes like eucalyptus, well, it’s food. If it doesn’t? Don’t eat it. You could say the same thing about panda bears and bamboo.
Yet every day, when it’s time for humans to sustain ourselves, we have to decide what it is we will eat. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan describes how in an age of factory farming and agribusiness, we are actually becoming less omnivorous. Nearly half of the calories we consume come, one way or another, from corn: corn syrup, corn meal, corn that is fed to our livestock or our salmon. If you had lunch at a fast-food place this week, chances are that 100% of your food, including drink, was corn-based. One scientist said, if ‘you are what you eat’, “When you look at the isotope ratios, [U.S. residents] are corn chips with legs.” 
Pollan laments the fact that as a nation, we choose to subsidize corn syrup and not carrots; that the food that is readily affordable is almost always unhealthy for us. He discusses the fact that more and more, we are choosing to fuel our bodies with food that is less than the best.
When I read that book, I was shaken! I became more intentional about my practices pertaining to food – the way that I grow it, gather it, preserve it, and prepare it. I’ve tried to become better at eating real food, rather than processed materials.
I mention this book because in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus invites us to consider these truths on a spiritual level. The day before, Jesus had been incredibly active on the food scene, as he engaged in an amazing miracle by feeding more than 5000 people. The next day, the crowds chase him down. Jesus challenges them, saying essentially, “We all know that you’re not really interested in a relationship with me – you are far more concerned about the groceries you might receive.”
The crowd pushes back, and says, “You know, we really would like to believe you, but we’re going to need a sign of some sort… like, maybe, more bread?” Jesus responds by stating, “Look, I am the bread of life. I am that which sustains, enlivens, nourishes, and preserves you.” For all kinds of reasons, that is an incredibly dramatic claim.
Last week, we talked about the significance of the phrase “I am” to Jesus and his hearers. You may recall that we noted how it not only serves as a revelation of God’s very self, but that the name itself invites people into a relationship with the Holy. Here, Jesus uses that name – “I am” – and applies it to himself. In so doing, he declares that a relationship with him is the path toward the fulness of life.
We mentioned last week that the fourth Gospel was written by Jesus’ best friend, John. John’s goal for the entire Gospel, as stated in chapters 20 and 21, is to invite his hearers and readers more closely into a life-giving relationship with Jesus. Here, in the first of Jesus’ “I am” statements, we see that the core of our being and the heart of the Gospel is held in a relationship. Knowing, and being known by, Jesus is the path to wholeness, grace, and life itself. We were born to be in relationship with God.
In the verses that follow our reading, John makes it pretty clear that many people – then and now – are simply not interested in such a relationship. We see people then (and now) who would rather argue, deflect, and avoid the Holy than find themselves in a place of knowing and being known.
How does his claim strike you? How do you hear him when Jesus says, simply and plainly, “I am the bread of life.” I am your sufficiency. I am here.
Do you buy that? Can you see that Jesus from where you are?
Too often, we give lip service to this idea. We say that we affirm that Jesus is the bread of life and our sustenance, but our behavior, our thoughts, and our practices reveal otherwise.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes a world wherein people walk right past real, nutritious, healthy food in order to stuff themselves with something that may be appealing for one reason or another, but is unable to sustain life for the long haul. How many times in our lives do we hear the call of Jesus to authenticity, real relationship and fulness of life only to keep on walking toward that which is shiny or sweet or at least mildly attractive and yet ultimately unable to satisfy us?
We pursue created goods – we look to other things – in an attempt to quench our thirst for real life. For some, it’s chasing the almighty dollar; they want to make sure that they can live in style (and they do!). For others, this thirst leads them to pursuing the ideal and perfect relationship – putting all their hopes in finding the right partner, the right kind of sexual fulfilment, the intimacy that they think can save them. Maybe it’s the old lie about independence – the thought that “I don’t need anyone – I am the captain of my own ship!” And who hasn’t felt the compelling need to win the approval of another human being? We think, “If only I can do this thing or act this way, then will you like me? Then will I be enough for you?”
Of course, when these things, or similar avenues, fail to lead us to a sense of meaning and purpose and of life being worthwhile, we enter into a world of hurt and pain. Once there, we find ourselves seeking to numb that ache as we look for comfort in a bottle or a pill, or perhaps we engage in ever-riskier or more reckless behavior just to feel something – anything – of being alive. We lose touch with ourselves, our family, our friends, and our sense of who we ought to be in the world. And when all of that happens, we begin to die.
It doesn’t have to be that way, beloved. If there’s Good News in the Gospel, it’s that you don’t always have to do what you want to do. Now, and always, you have the opportunity for a relationship. Today, you can begin, or take another step forward in, your engagement with Jesus.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus challenged his contemporaries to put their money where their mouths were. Instead of simply saying you’d like to believe, he said, practice that. Engage in behavior that indicates the direction you’d like to be going; take in the things that will allow you to receive the kinds of nourishment and fulfillment that only he can offer. My hope for today is that we might be those who can lean into what Jesus is saying, and to act like people who desire the real bread of life.
So how do we do that? How do we begin to receive Jesus as the Bread of Life in this place, at this time?
Let me encourage you to begin in the quiet places of your own heart and mind. Make some time and place for you to be alone. Put your phone in another room. Turn off, as best you can, the parade of stimuli that assaults us each and every day. And then, when you’re alone for thirty seconds or five minutes, try a simple breath prayer. As you breathe out, expel your anxieties and uncertainties. As you breathe in, simply whisper “Fill me, Lord. Fill me.” Do this over and over, expelling your dis-orientation and asking God to replace that with what is true and right. As you do this, and as you find the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit coming into your life, you’ll find that you simply have less space in your life for that which is toxic.
In addition to sitting with yourself in the presence of God, I can’t say enough about the power and importance of engaging in a community of like-minded people. One of the dangers of the pandemic, I fear, is that our streamed worship and virtual meeting space contributed to an environment of disconnection and passivity. Instead of “going to” worship, we “watched” worship; instead of “attending” a gathering, we “logged on” (usually with another media device in our other hand). Beloved, let me encourage you to refuse to think of worship as an “event” or as an entertainment option. Instead, look for ways to allow your physical being, your daily schedule, your weekly activities, your financial patterns – all of your life – to reflect the fact that you are a person who is seeking to turn towards Christ. Name your hungers, and ask Jesus to satisfy them.
You know, I hope, that it is no sin to be lonely. Wanting to feel accompanied and competent is not wrong. It’s not a sin to wonder about, or to want the best for, your children, or to worry about how you’re going to pay the mortgage, or to be filled with anxiety. Those things are a part of our lives, and that may be where you are. You may know some of that kind of hunger. Name that hunger to the One who created you. Speak it to the One who has loved you since before you were born. You were created for contentment and satisfaction – ask God to bring you those things in Jesus Christ.
The heart of our faith is not a system of belief or a theological construct. Christianity is not a series of intellectual propositions to which we give our assent. Rather, the Way of Jesus is a life-giving, life-sustaining network of relationships that is anchored in the person and work of Jesus. It’s not a self-help program, a get-rich (or be blessed) scheme, or a mutual admiration society. It is, as scripture puts it so well, participation in a body. Today, I join your brother Jesus in imploring you to seek out your place in that body, and to ground yourself in Jesus as we seek to grow and work and live and play together. This is, literally, what you were made to do. Thanks be to God, who offers us bread for each day in Jesus the Christ! Amen.