“I am the bread of life”
Sunday 5 August 2018
One of the really striking differences between the gospel of John and the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke occurs in the accounts of the last supper. The synoptics include in their narratives the institution of the Eucharist. John does not.
But that does not mean that John ignores the place of the Eucharist. On the contrary, John supplies a whole theology of the Eucharist in the long chapter six of the gospel. We started reading chapter six last week, continued it today, and will continue to read it for the next three weeks.
It’s not possible to condense the richness of this lengthy account into one sermon, so my efforts today will be modest. I would merely like to draw on some of the salient features that are apparent in what we have read over last week and this week.
The first thing that we should notice about John’s understanding of the Eucharist is that it is situated within the context of the story of Israel.
Bishop Tom Wright makes the point in his book, How God Became King, that it is important to know the story that precedes a story. It is important to know how the prequel went. He argues that, with the story of Jesus’ life, we have as the prequel, the story of Israel contained in the Old Testament. We forget this prequel at our peril in Bishop Wright’s view.
In relation to the four gospels, he says: “Their backstory was written long ago, and it is readily available. But – perhaps to our surprise! – many people, reading the gospels today, read them not only as if that backstory did not exist, but as if there was a different backstory altogether (p 65).”
So how has John situated this account of Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes and the ensuing discussion within the backstory of the story of Israel?
Well, right at the beginning of the account last week, John tells us: “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.”
Put your first century Jewish ears on and listen to the import of those sentences. Who would John’s audience associate with going up a mountain in this way? If you didn’t immediately say “Moses” in your head, you are not thinking like a first century Jew. Matthew used the same images when he wanted to portray Jesus as the new Moses in chapter five of his gospel. Remember how the Sermon on the Mount begins? “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.”
All the main elements are present in both accounts – the crowd, going up a mountain, sitting (the posture of a teacher), and gathering the disciples around.
And if you have any doubt about the Moses’ connection, John mentions that it was now Passover – the great feast of God’s salvation out of slavery for his people through the agency of Moses.
The discussion in today’s reading is plainly to be heard in the context of this backstory from the people of Israel.
John’s Eucharistic theology is built on the foundation of God’s earlier gift of bread to the people – the manna that sustained the people of Israel as they wandered in the desert following the saving act of God.
The crowd recognise that Jesus is taking for himself the persona of the new Moses through his actions. They challenge him to do for them what Moses did for their ancestors in the desert. But Jesus points out to them that it was not Moses who provided the manna, but God. And now God is offering them the true bread from heaven. Bread that gives life to the world. And, in response to the crowd’s request for this life-giving bread, Jesus makes the audacious claim: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
One biblical scholar maintains that when Jesus makes these “I am” statements – I am the light of the world; I am the way, the truth and the life; I am the good shepherd; I am the vine – he is not just making a claim to be something, but also a claim to do something. When he claims to be the bread of life, he is not just saying that he provides ordinary nourishment – something temporary like the manna in the desert – no, he is saying that he does something. He provides nourishment unto eternal life.
Through the symbol of bread, Jesus has pulled together two enormously important concepts. He is the bread of life and so he provides nourishment unto eternal life for sure. But he also draws upon the concept of salvation by linking the two breads, himself and the manna in the desert. The manna in the desert immediately calls to the Jewish mind the notion of God’s salvation of his people. So, Jesus claims for himself through the Eucharist to not only provide us with nourishment unto eternal life but the salvation needed to enter into that life.
These two aspects of the Eucharist provide us with great consolation. Without the salvific characteristic, how could any of us approach the reception of the bread of life?
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer understands the salvific and nourishing aspects of the Eucharist. The Exhortation before the reception of Holy Communion begins: “Dearly beloved in the Lord, ye that mind to come to the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, must consider how Saint Paul exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that Bread, and drink of that Cup. For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily.”
Now this exhortation is not meant to discourage us from receiving the Holy Communion. On the contrary, it is encouragement to us to enter into this union with Christ through a recognition of and repentance for our failings. In other words, a repentant heart allows us to enter into the saving and nourishing power of Christ who is the bread of life come down from heaven because the Eucharist, in the context of the backstory of the Passover, is salvific as well as nourishing.
It is as a result of this saving and nourishing activity of Jesus as the bread of life that we can confidently follow him as his disciples. This following of Jesus is what we refer to as vocation. We don’t follow just because we want to. We follow Jesus because he calls us in the first place – calls us to share in the salvation that he offers through his life, death and resurrection that we celebrate every time that we share Eucharist.
As we consider this saving, nourishing gift of Jesus to us, let’s also consider to what Jesus calls us in our lives as disciples of his. His great gift to us calls forth a response. It offers us a vocation. Our task is to honestly look at our lives and our gifts to ascertain as to what ministry it is in the church that Jesus calls each one of us.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you draw and welcome us,
emptied of pride and hungry for your grace,
to this your kingdom’s feast.
Nowhere can we find food for which our souls cry out,
but here, Lord, at your table.
Invigorate and nourish us, good Lord,
that in and through this bread and wine
your love may meet us
and your life complete us in the power and glory of your kingdom.
May we respond wholeheartedly to your call,
to your invitation into discipleship.
As we make our prayer, we ask you to fill us with your generosity,
that we might follow where you call.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen