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God's Wonder Bread

Sermon - 8/20/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 6:32-40

In the gospel of John, the crowds following Jesus asked for a sign.  'How do we know that you are who you say that you are?', 'How do we know your way is the way of God?'.  And so they asked him:  our ancestors ate the Manna in the wilderness, as it is written 'he gave them bread from heaven to eat'.  And it is in response to this that Jesus says to them:

‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

35 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. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And 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. 40This 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.’

On the east side of Springfield as you are going out of town on the McKenzie highway, there is a Dari Mart.  Patrick and I were going on a fishing trip, part of our vacation, and needed a couple of things and didn't want to go to the grocery store -- thought we'd just stop on the way out of town, pick up the chips, and dip, and peanut butter.  You can't go camping without peanut butter. 

And so we stopped at that Dari Mart and picked up those items.  The cashier, and older woman, said to me as she rang up the peanut butter:  "Have you ever tried putting on your peanut butter sandwich sweet Walla-Walla onions and dill pickles?"  And I said:  "No, I haven't".  Don't know why that never occurred to me, but I have never tried that.  And I thanked her for that culinary clue to the finer cuisine of Eastern Springfield and went on my merry way.

I was thinking about that as I was preparing the story, and it may have been because I was hungry and hadn't eaten anything, working on this sermon.  And here's that very jar of peanut butter than I bought at that Dari Mart.  When you're working on sermons, you know, it takes a lot of work, you tend to get hungry.  Dill pickles have always been one of my favorites, there's nothing like a good dill pickle.  Walla-Walla sweet onions are something to be tried.  You just never know.  And I wondered, as I was thinking about that, what to call that sandwich -- peanut butter, onion, and pickles.  Is there some clever name for it?  The McKenzie Special?  The Springfield Delight?  You just never know.  

I got these new wonderful new knives from Cutco, and by golly they sure do cut very nicely.  Maybe this is something to be tried, who knows.  I have yet to try it.  I must say, don't try this at home, I am a trained professional! [Dan proceeded to make the above mentioned sandwich, and took a bite]

Well, she told me it would be unique.  It is indeed J.  If you want to try it, be my guest, I think I'll leave the rest to you!

Well, Jesus did not say to us 'I am the peanut butter of life, that sticks to the roof of your mouth'.  He didn't say 'I am the sweet onion of life', you know, layers & layers.  Or even 'I am the dill pickle of life'.  All of those good things that we put in our sandwich, he simply said 'I am the bread of life'.

But what the heck does that mean?  I grew up in the era of Wonder Bread.  Builds bodies in how many strong ways?  Twelve strong ways, you bet.  We got all of those commercials.  I have no idea how it did that.  The truth be known, the only wonder of Wonder bread is that it had any nutritional value at all.  We turned bread-making over to big industry and what did we get?  Beached, bland, balloon-bread with the consistency of soggy styrofoam.  It wasn't until I moved to Germany in 1978 that I discovered that bread could be flavorful.  Nutritious.  Substantial.  You didn't need peanut butter, onions, and pickles to spice up your bread, because it had plenty in and of itself.

In fact, I learned that putting meat and cheese together on the same piece of bread was almost unthinkable.  It was an extravagance that Germans just don't engage in.  And so I learned to eat bread in the German fashion, just one slice at a time, with 1 piece of good cheese, or 1 slice of meat by itself.  Or for breakfast, some good jam, and that was sufficient -- all you needed to enjoy the rich flavor of the bread.  

When John records Jesus saying 'I am the bread of life', I wonder how did John understand that?  Does John give us a neatly packaged Jesus pre-sliced, bleached-white, full of air, easy to swallow and hard to taste?  Hardly.

Immediately after this text, the good religious people following Jesus began to complain.  How can he say such things?  How can he make such claims?  Is this not the son of Mary and Joseph?  That's just one of the many clues that John gives us that the teachings of Jesus are not something you can swallow in one bite.  There is much more here to chew on.  Indeed, there are more layers to this story that a Dagwood Bumstead sandwich, or a pickle, onion, and peanut butter sandwich. 

And the first is, the religious context from the history of Judaism.  Just as the manna came down from heaven (you remember in that Exodus story, as Moses was leading the people of God through the wilderness to the Promised Land and they were sustained by the manna), Jesus now comes down from heaven to be with the people of God in Palestine.  And to make sure that you make that connection to that ancient story, immediately prior to this dialogue between Jesus and the religious people about the bread from heaven, John has Jesus cross the Sea of Galilee in a rather unusual fashion.  Remember how?  By foot?  Ever try crossing a body of water by foot?  It better have been shallow water J.

And so Jesus crosses the sea and says 'I am the bread from heaven'.  Now what does that bring to mind?  What story occurs in the Hebrew scriptures about crossing the sea by foot?  The parting of the Red Sea.  Moses -- he walked on the bottom of the sea, and Jesus on the top, but otherwise it's the same idea.  Jesus not only is the new Moses, he is also the new manna.  That's layer #1.

Number two is the historical context of scarcity.  Anthropologists and sociologists who study ancient times tell us about 60-80% of the population in those times lived from day to day.  From hand to mouth.  They have no idea whether or not they are going to be able to eat on the next day.  There are no large stores of food in their kitchen cupboards.  They live day by day.  Think about the significance of the first petition in the Lord's prayer in light of that context -- 'give us this day our daily bread'.  With this story, John tells us that Jesus is the one who brings us our daily bread.  Layer #2.

Number three is the literary context.  In such a world where daily bread is scarce, think about the significance of the feeding stories.  When Jesus takes a couple of fish and five loaves of bread and feeds the multitude.  And do you know where that story occurs in John's gospel?  It occurs right before, at the beginning of chapter 6, and on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus feeds the crowd, crosses the sea, and then talks about the bread from heaven.  In other words, John introduces this discussion about bread and manna with the multiplying of loaves and fish.  Jesus feeds the crowds with the gift of a child in that story.  That's layer #3.

Number four is the theological context from John's meta-physical world.  Remember in the introduction, the prologue in the gospel of John:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and was God, and that Word became flesh and dwelt among us".  And recall also the temptation stories that Matthew and Luke tell (John doesn't) when Satan says to Jesus, who has been fasting in the wilderness for 40 days, 'I know you're hungry'.  'If you just say the word, you can turn this stone into bread, doesn't that sound good?'  Jesus replies with a saying from the Torah (found in Deuteronomy 8:3):  "We do not live by bread alone, but by the very word that comes from the mouth of God".  The bread from heaven is the word of God that became flesh and dwelt among us.  Layer #4.

Number five is the eucharistic context.  It's hard to read this story and not to recall those words that were first recorded by the Apostle Paul some 40 years earlier when he told us that Jesus took the bread and he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said 'This is my body I give to you'.  Whenever we gather around this table and share this bread, it is the bread of life that Christ shares with us.  Layer #5.

All of these meanings are here, like layers on a cake, adding richness and depth to the story.  Jesus is the manna in the wilderness.  Jesus is our daily bread.  Jesus is in the loaves which multiply until all are fed.  Jesus is the word of God from which all living things come.  Jesus is the broken body that gives us life.  The message of John is all of that and more.  Jesus is the basic sustenance of life.  To call Jesus the bread of life is to affirm that Jesus is basic to our existence.  That which sustains us and satisfies our hunger for God, our search for meaning.  

You want to know who God is?  Look to Jesus.  You want to know the way of God?  Follow Jesus.  You want to find meaning and purpose in your life?  There is Jesus.

We can add peanut butter.  We can add onions.  We can add pickles.  We can add all kinds of things, but without bread, there's no sandwich.  Without Christ, what do we build our lives on?

Now I could, and maybe should, quit on that point.  But there's still a little bit of time left, and there is yet another, deeper level to this story.  And I'd like to go to that place where I find the greatest significance and the deepest meaning.  And this may be hard for some, so if you can't go with me on this point, that's OK.  Sometimes simplest is the best.  So this is just a little 'extra credit' for those intellectuals who get bored with the easy stuff.  You know, those folks who don't bother with Soduko on Monday or Tuesday, the 1 or 2 stars, I want the 4 star, the 5 star, I want the really tough one!  That's what it takes to really get the juices flowing.

Well, in the gospel of John, there are seven "I am" statements.  None of which occur in the other three gospels.  I think you may be familiar with many of those, as Jesus says "I am the bread of life", "I am the vine", "I am the gate".  Do others come to mind?  "I am the resurrection and the life", "I am the good shepherd", "I am the way, the truth, and the light".

If anyone talked like that today, and said those kinds of things about themselves, we would conclude one of two things.  Either they are on drugs, or they're crazy, and need to be on drugs J.  It's one or the other.

In the 4-color scheme of the Jesus Seminar (that rates the sayings of Jesus from being the most authentic to the least -- red, pink, gray, and black), these are black sayings.  In other words, in the wisdom of those 40 or 50 biblical scholars, they have concluded to a large consensus, overwhelmingly, that Jesus never actually said these things.  And I have to be frank and honest with you, I concur, 100%.  And, I believe these are the truest sayings ever said for or by Jesus.  And here's why:

When John wrote his gospel, Matthew, Mark, and Luke had already been written.  A big controversy among scholars is whether or not John knew and used the other three gospels.  I'm not going to go there.  But basically, all the central facts that you needed to know about Jesus were out there.  I really think John wanted to go deeper.  John wanted to go beyond those facts.  John wanted to get to the heart of the story, to the meaning of Jesus, to the true essence of Christ.  And therefore, John is not telling us what Jesus said (there's some of that in his gospel), he rather is telling us how he and others in the early Christian community experienced Jesus.  How they felt the presence of the living Christ in their daily lives.  

In other words, in that late first century, when Christians no longer were welcome in the synagogues, and Roman authorities were beginning to view Christianity as hostile to the Roman way of life, John is witnessing to Jesus as the bread of life then and now.  So do you hear what John is saying to us, what he's trying to tell us?

When they gathered to break bread, Jesus was there.  When they helped each other out, to make sure everyone had their daily bread, Jesus was there.  When they were thrown into jail and given nothing but bread and water, Jesus was there.  When they wandered through life's wilderness, Jesus, the bread of life, was there.  

And what makes these words true is not that Jesus said them, but that we taste them.

Do you hear what I'm saying, people of God?  When we experience the presence of Christ in the fellowship of the Christian community, in our sharing, we know Jesus is the bread of life.  When we gather as families and bless the bounties of this earth which sustain us, we know that Jesus is the bread of life.  When we share our food with someone in need and hear those words of Jesus 'I was hungry and you fed me', we show that Jesus is the bread of life.  When we find nourishment in the wilderness, or are touched by God in our time of need, we have found the Jesus who is the bread of life.

In this bread, we are satisfied.  We are filled.  Through the fullness of the life that God gives to us in Christ.  Taste.  And see.  And know, that Jesus is here now for us.


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