I Am the Bread

August 5, 2018

Series: August 2018

Category: Communion Sunday

Speaker: Sharon Burch

John 6:24-35

24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus 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. 27 Do 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.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So 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? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then 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. 33 For the bread of God is that which[a] comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They 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 Am the Bread

           You know how, when you are grieving the loss of someone, there are moments when a seemingly unrelated something suddenly catapults you into such a complete memory of the person that you kind of lose it? When Rob and Bethany asked me to preach and I realized what Scripture I would be preaching on today, I had that happen to me.

          It was just over a year ago that I lost my very dear friend Durwood Foster. He was the director of my Ph.D. work, my mentor, supporter, colleague, discussion partner and friend. I miss him a lot — and he and I spent years working together just so that I could understand this Scripture.

          That’s a silly way of putting it, I suppose, but Durwood really liked Paul Tillich’s understanding that God was Being Itself. That means that God participates in everything that is. In fact, there’s no way that anything in creation could be separate from or independent of God. This is a core principle of Jesus’s teaching, and today’s Scripture is one example. It’s only four words long, but I find it to be one of the more demanding aspects of his teachings.

          Durwood inspired me to read this simple four-word phrase “I am the bread” as one more evidence of Jesus’ attempt to teach the people of his day and us how to receive, witness, and remember that we live and move and have our being in God’s immanent presence among us.

          This passage follows the very successful feeding of the five thousand with the loaves and the fishes. Jesus and his disciples have returned to Capernaum, and some of the people who were part of that event follow him.

          Jesus was just a bit impatient with them. He tells them bluntly that they are more interested in the food that was provided than in what he has to teach. He tries to tell them that the food that they and the others in the crowd shared was due to God’s presence not because of anything Jesus did. Jesus insists that God’s presence with each and every one of us is the spiritual sustenance God provides for the world — it is infinite, always available, and Jesus is trying to teach them how that worked — and he came up the analogy “I am the bread.”

          Now, 2018 years later, we have a better notion of what he intends by this statement than they did at the time. We will be sharing communion in a few minutes, and we are accustomed to thinking of “the bread” and Jesus in the same sentence.

          But the original listeners weren’t so lucky, and a bit further on in John the reactions of people are recorded. “What does he mean, “he is the bread?” That doesn’t make any sense — he’s Joseph and Mary’s boy. We know his folks, his sisters and brothers. Who does he think he is anyway?”

          I can just see Durwood shaking his head. They missed (and we often also miss) a vital point. What does Jesus mean when he says “I?

          Jesus always refers to himself as the Son of Man. We call him the Son of God, but that’s not what he says of himself. I think that by using the phrase “Son of Man” Jesus is trying to convey that he isn’t unique in his relationship with God. He is representative of every human being. He is a teacher through whom this truth is revealed, but he isn’t the only human being about whom this can be said.

          It’s not hard to imagine, especially in light of the explication of this topic in Tillich — that he is saying that God is right there in him, and by extension, in all that God creates — in every human being, certainly, but also animals, bugs, stars, galaxies, dark matter, dark energy — anything that has form or substance or function — God is there no matter what. This is the food that endures for eternal life; this is the spiritual sustenance that Jesus is talking about.

          It is important to add that this is not contingent on anything that anyone or anything does or doesn’t do — it is true because that is what God is and how God acts.

          I need to add that caveat because some people read this passage as if it were requiring them to do something in order to earn the approval of God. If they but believe in what Jesus is teaching and understand his special relationship to God they will earn the right to be saved. But wait a minute — isn’t that like a bargain? If I do this, I get that. If I don’t do that — well, forget me. Doesn’t that mean that I am in control of what God does? Until I take an action, that is, until I believe in Christ, God will not, cannot, wouldn’t possibly dream of loving me. Thus I can “pay” my way into heaven by being sure to believe in Jesus as the Christ. That’s a particularly unfortunate way that this passage can be misinterpreted.

          I can still picture the seminary classroom in which the idea that God participates in all creation began to sink into me. I was listening to Durwood talk about Tillich, and suddenly I realized that it didn’t surprise me to think that as Jesus of Nazareth stands there, the Divine shines forth through him.

          But to think of that in relation to me? That the Divine shines forth through me — and you? It was easy to imagine it with hummingbirds, or my cats, but me and the others around me? I mean, I can name all the reasons why it certainly would not shine forth through that person — or that person over there who is always blah blah blah. But — if this principle is true, and true of everyone, because it is a quality of the Divine, doesn’t that mean that see it or not, God is right there?

          Now I was being challenged. I had always assumed that I was doing a great job of loving others as myself — I mean, of course I did — that’s basic! Well, maybe I didn’t offer as much love to the people I didn’t like, or the ones who weren’t deserving of my time and attention. And I wasn’t going to waste much time loving people I knew who were mean and nasty, like my ex-husband — forget him!Some people just had to look out for themselves.

          I began my seminary career right after my ten year marriage to Jerry ended abruptly. He left on a business trip that would take him to several states. Later that same week I got a note from our stockbroker that said he had changed his address from the one where we were living to his mother’s address in San Diego. When I called to find out why, the stockbroker told me that my husband said he didn’t live there anymore. I didn’t know that — and that same day I realized that he had taken the paid for car and all our money with him. I had $2.40. How in the world could I — or anyone else, for that matter — see the Divine as an aspect of that crumb?

          What I didn’t realize and what gradually became increasingly clear to me was that not only was I not honoring the commandment to love others as myself, but also I was not loving God with all my heart, mind and soul. If the Divine were indeed part of creation without question, then rejecting people I didn’t like, approve of, or who scared me meant I was unwilling to recognize the Divine unless it appeared in ways that I could wholly accept and approve.

          Oh, my. I truly didn’t know what to do. With a great deal of patience, Durwood coached me through it. He had to listen to all the reasons why the idea was unreasonable that God was present in the unworthy, especially Jerry, and why I couldn’t and wouldn’t entertain anything to the contrary. It took a while, but gradually I began to understand that although Jerry had acted abysmally, been unfair and cruel, that God was still his animating principle. Jerry couldn’t take advantage of what that meant so long as he continued to treat people as he had treated me, but that didn’t nullify God’s presence.

          And it finally became clear to me that by my constantly rehearsing what Jerry had done, how wrong he had been, how angry and resentful I was that I was more involved with my anger than I was in receiving the bread of life that Jesus promised. It took three years, but I was at last able to release my umbrage and allow Jerry full personhood again.

          My responsibility was to allow this God source to shine forth through me — to give it priority so that it testifies to its presence and can be recognized by others.

          I put a quote on the front of our bulletins this morning from Richard Rohr that I think expresses it well:

 “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us in existence with every breath we take. As we take another it means that God is [with] us now and now and now.”