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
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
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
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
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
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
And then recall the
3rd beatitude: blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the
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.
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. . . "
"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
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
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
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.
begotten of the Father".
"God from God".
"True God from
"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
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