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The One Who Is

Sermon - 7/26/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 6:25-40

We are continuing in the 6th chapter of the gospel of John, I began last Sunday.  Chapter 6 begins with the feeding of the 5,000 and then we have the story of Jesus walking on the sea of Galilee.  And so Jesus and the Disciples have crossed over to the other side of the sea, and the crowd follows them there.  And then we pick up the story in verse 25, and I'm going to read through 35:

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ 28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32Then Jesus said 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.

I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that either Jesus is who he says he is, or he is a lunatic.  And this is a case in point.  I mean, who talks like this?

Either Jesus is who he said he was -- the bread of life -- or he must be mad.

But are those the only 2 choices we have?  Either take Jesus at his word, or conclude that he's crazy?

For 18+ years, I have been preaching from this pulpit advocating a third possibility that I think adds to the understanding, adds to the meaning in the reading of this text, especially in modern times.

And there's nothing unique in what I'm saying, many others have said it before me for most of a century.  Authors like Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, have sold best-selling books advocating points like this.  Preachers like me, we just plod along Sunday after Sunday, hoping someone will show up and listen J.  It's a tough life J.  I can feel your sympathy J.

But the third choice is this:  that not everything attributed to Jesus was spoken by Jesus.  Some of what the gospels report is clearly metaphoric language used by the gospel writers to show who the risen Christ had become to them and in the life of that early Christian community.

And so this morning I want to illustrate with this particular text why I, and many others, believe this to be so.  And in the process hopefully to show how that adds to our understanding.  What Marcus Borg calls "surplus meaning".  That there is so much that we can get out of texts like this when we free it from the restrictions of literalism that are cup overflows with meaning.  It is rich and powerful.

Now, many of you know, I think, as good Bible students, that the gospel of John is significantly different from the other 3 gospels.  Different in language, different in chronology, different in grammar, different in style, different even in content -- there are many stories in the gospel of John that are not in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and vice-versa. 

One of the most important passages in the gospel, that revealed the identity of Jesus to us, is of course that story when Jesus asked the Disciples 'who do you say that I am'?  And Peter responds with what we call the great confession:  'You are the Christ, the son of God'.  That is a pivotal story in the gospel of Matthew, the gospel of Mark, and the gospel of Luke.  But it does not appear in the gospel of John.

Nevertheless, it is almost as if the gospel of John is written to answer that question:  'who do you say that I am?'  It reverberates throughout the entire gospel.  And in this particular text, that question is answered by Jesus:  "I am the bread of life".

That is one of six "I am" statements by Jesus:

  • I am the way, the truth, and the life.

  • I am the vine, the true vine.

  • I am the light of the world.

  • I am the resurrection and the life.

  • I am the good shepherd.

  • I am the bread of life.

Those are the six "I am" statements by Jesus.  These phrases are found in the gospel of John and only in the gospel of John.  And that raises some interesting questions:

First of all, in the other 3 gospels, Jesus never speaks about himself in this way.  In fact, he often criticizes, by aphorism and parable, religious leaders who arrogantly refer to themselves in such ways.  Recall the story in Luke's gospel of the righteous Pharisee and the publican.  The righteous Pharisee praying in public in such a way to draw attention to himself.  And the publican that goes home in the quiet of his home, his closet in secret, to pray to God.  And Jesus lifts up the latter.

In Mark 12 he chastises religious leaders who like to call attention to themselves, to be greeted with respect, to take the best seats in the Synagogue or at the banquet table.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but not in John, Jesus blesses the children and says if you want to enter into the kingdom of God you must become like a child.

When the Disciples argue about who is the greatest, he says whoever wants to be the greatest must be a servant, a lowly servant, of all.

He says the first shall be last, the last shall be first, and then illustrates that in the gospel of Luke with a story of the rich man -- important, rich man -- and the poor man, begging at the table of the rich man for his crumbs.  And Lazarus (the poor man), their fortunes are reversed in the next life.

And then recall the 3rd beatitude:  blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

So here's the question, and I mean this most sincerely:  how much credibility would you give to a preacher who talks about the importance of humility, servant-hood, meekness, who then proceeds to announce that he's the most important person of all?  You see the problem?

The way Jesus talks about himself in the gospel of John is completely incongruous with the way Jesus talks in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Second problem:  these "I am" statements are very evocative.  The imagery is striking.  It's easy to recall.  And they're powerful affirmations about who Jesus is, in answer to that question 'who do you say that I am?'.  So if they are so memorable and so powerful, why did the other 3 gospel writers leave them out?

Third problem, which also points to the central theological claim of John's gospel:  in the previous story we looked at last Sunday in the walking on the water in John 6, remember the response of Jesus, what he says to the Disciples to assure them, to calm them of their fear, what does he say?  "It is I, be not afraid".  Now, look that text up again, in John 6, verse 20, there's a footnote.  A little tiny letter after the "It is I".  I think it's the letter "f" in your pew Bibles.  And what does it say down there at the bottom of the page?  "I am".  That's the literal translation of the Greek -- "I am".

And what is most striking is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all have the same story (there's some variations I talked about last week), but all use the exact same words of Jesus with one exception:  in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says "take heart, I am, do not be afraid".  In John's gospel "take heart" disappears, thereby accentuating the "I am", do not be afraid.

And two chapters later, in chapter 8 (of John's gospel -- John 8:24-28), it becomes quite clear what this means.  There's a conversation between the religious leaders, and here's the scholars version translation:

"If you don't believe that I am what I say I am, you will die in your sins"

In the New Revised Standard Version it says:

"If you don't believe I am he. . . "

Jesus replied:  "When you elevate the Son of Man, then you'll know that I am he".

If you look at the footnote for both of those places where it says "I am he", with a little tiny letter, you look down at the bottom of the page, what does that footnote say?  "I am". 

In other words, what is in the blue here is not in the Greek:

"If you don't believe that I am what I say I am, you will die in your sins"


What Jesus in fact simply says is "I am".  Period.  Doesn't fill-in-the-blank.  But it doesn't read very well in English, so English translators add in words.

Here's the point:  every Bible student from the time of Moses on would immediately understand the significance of this statement.  Recall the revelation of God to Moses in the story of the burning bush.  Moses asks "Who shall I say has sent me?"  And that voice from the bush replies:  "I am who I am, thus you shall say to the Israelites 'I am has sent me to you'".

And "I am" here is where we get the name of God as "Yahweh".  It's a conjugation of the verb "to be" in the first person.  "I am".  And henceforth God has been known to the Israelites by the name "I am", Yahweh.

By the way, many Jews spell the name of God as "G-d".  In Hebrew tradition, there are no vowels, and that's part of the reason, but it's more of a way of noting the significance of the name of God that is un-pronounceable.  And so to convey that sense in writing, some Jews (not all) write it in that way to keep the holy, sacred name of God.

Back to Jesus:  there's simply no question that on the lips of any other human being, this kind of statement from Jesus of saying "I am" would be blasphemy.  And Jesus would have been stoned to death in the first century for such IF he had spoken this way.  Or even if he mysteriously was not stoned to death, then surely this would have been brought up in his trial against him.  "See what blasphemy he commits, he says things like this".  But it was not.

So, scholars for the last 100 years conclude that this reflects statements about Jesus rather than statements by Jesus.  They are John's answer to that question 'Who do you say that I am?'.

This is the witness of John, and likely of his community, about their experience of the risen Christ.  And we can go even further and say as people of faith, that aside from any historical conclusions, we see these to be evidence of the Holy Spirit at work revealing to John the truth of who Jesus is then and now.

And understanding it in this way, the important question is not 'did Jesus really talk like this?', but 'can we talk like this?'.  Can we make the same affirmation from our own experience?  Not because someone said Jesus said these things.  Not because it is written that Jesus said these things.  But because we experience Jesus in this way in our own lives.

The authentic mark of Christian community is not where these things are believed to be the words of Jesus, but where they are experienced and lived as the body of Christ in the life of a community.

So what does it mean to say Jesus is the great "I am", the one who is?

Turn in your hymnals to page 358, and you will find there the Nicene Affirmation of Faith, or how it is better known in most traditions, the Nicene Creed.  Why it's called an affirmation of faith instead of a creed I'll get to in just a moment.  But look at the 2nd paragraph:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.


The first you note is that the 2nd paragraph is twice as long, three times as long as anything else.  It's longer than the statement about God, longer than the statement about the Holy Sprit at the end.

Now, we don't use this too often in worship, because of our tradition (Disciple of Christ) which opposes the use of creeds as requirements of faith.  We don't believe you have to say you believe these things in order to be a Christian.  That's why the editors of the hymnal changed it from a 'creed' to an 'affirmation of faith' as a way to open that up.  So whatever you call it, the point is that our founders were opposed to making this, or any other statement, a test of faith, something you have to believe.

So what if, instead of reading this as doctrine, we read it as poetry?  As the witness of that ancient Christian community in the middle of the 4th century in Nicaea (bishops from all over the Roman Empire gathered together to come up with this statement)?  As their witness expressed in this metaphoric language of who Christ was in their lives. 

  • "Eternally begotten of the Father".

  • "God from God".

  • "Light from light".

  • "True God from true God".

  • "Begotten not made".

  • "Of one Being with the Father".

You see, it's poetic language.  Beautiful, powerful language to describe that which is indescribable.  And in essence is summed up by Jesus on the waves of the Galilean sea with the wind blowing in his hair (and never forget that wind is a symbol of the Holy Spirit) and there He is in the midst of the storm and says "I am".

In other words, in Jesus, we see God in human form.  This is the way God is.  The way God is present, experienced in our world as the bread of life.  As the light of the world.  As the good shepherd.  As the resurrection and the life.

And please note carefully what's not in this list.  Nowhere does Jesus say he is a warrior, the destroyer of life.  There's no imagery of wrath and violence.  No reference to a vengeful, angry God.  The way, the truth, and the life is the way of the good shepherd. 

My own conviction from my study of scripture and my own experience is that if you want to know God, you need to look no further than the life of Jesus.

And that leads me then to the more specific saying of "I am the bread of life".  Think about the importance of bread in that ancient community.  We just heard that story of the Hebrews in the wilderness complaining:  "At least when we were in slavery we had our fill of bread.  Now we have nothing".  And think what it's like to pray, that petition of the Lord's Prayer:  "Give us this day our daily bread", when for so many people they did not know where their daily bread was coming from.

Then think of the power of the feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus breaks those 5 loves and the 2 fish and then shares it with the community.  Now, we don't know how all that happened, maybe some people were ashamed to the point where they brought out their lunch that they had been hoarding and began to share it.  I don't know what the miracle was, but the point is that it was enough to feed that crowd.

And think of the story of the two on the road to Emmaus when they are joined by that stranger, they come in to their home, and he takes the bread and he breaks it and blesses it and in that moment their eyes are opened and they see Jesus.

To affirm Jesus as the bread of life says that in Christ we find all we need to know the life of God.  In Christ is eternal life, the fullness of life in God.

And what I learn from Jesus is sufficient to reveal all I need to know from God, about God.

There are many ways that people come to experience God in our world but this is the one way we know that we can give witness to.

When I was in Greece last summer on my sabbatical, I visited two churches.  One near Philippi, the other on the island of Patmos where the tradition says John received his revelation.  And in both of those services I didn't understand what was going on.  I didn't understand the words spoken, I caught a word here and there that I knew:  "Kurios'/Lord, "Kristos'/Christ.  But mostly I just followed along, I stood when they stood, I sat when they sat, I kind of hummed along when they chanted.  Bread was brought out and blessed and a cup was blessed.  The priest partook of that, and we observed.  Scripture was brought out and paraded through the congregation with incense.  I could tell, without knowing what was spoken, this was a sacred, holy time.

And it came to the end of the service, and they brought out another plate of bread (this happened in both of those services).  And in the second service on Patmos, a Deacon was being ordained, and he was the one that brought out this bread.  It was cake-like.  More words spoken, blessings given, chants held high.  And an invitation was given.  And the people stood up (so I stood up), and they got in line (so I got in line), and they paraded forwarded to the front.  And I watched closely to see what they were doing so I wouldn't make a fool of myself when it was my turn, and held out my hands, the priest put the bread in my hand, and said some words that I didn't understand.

And we went out into the world, and as we did, we took that bread with us and we ate.  And it was sweet.

I may not have understood much of anything that was said, but I understood this:  this bread is the bread of life.  It's all we need.  And it is enough.


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