Reading – John 6:25-40
St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 26th February 2012
How many people here have recently read the book of Ecclesiastes? If you haven’t then I suggest you look at it when you’re feeling reasonably cheerful. Because of all the books in the Bible, Ecclesiastes has to be one of the most depressing, as well as one of the most difficult to spell. It is written from the viewpoint of King Solomon looking back over a life of great wealth, and political success, a time of great prosperity both for himself and his country. And what is his verdict on all that he has achieved? The opening verses give us the answer: The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” If you’re not feeling down before you start reading, you certainly will be afterwards.
But the reason why Ecclesiastes is in the Bible is that it taps into the sort of feeling that many of us experience at one time or another in our life. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the kind of day where you wake up late, you run to the stop just as your bus is pulling away. You get to work or school late, and it all goes downhill from there. Your computer crashes and the boss is shouting at you ‘cos you’ve missed your deadline. On the way home it’s pouring with rain. You get in, and find the cat’s been sick, and there’s a large gas bill lying on the doormat. It’s hard, sometimes, not to wonder after a day like that, “What’s the point?” I think we’ve all been there, one way or another.
So it comes as a huge relief, doesn’t it, to turn over to our gospel reading this morning and read these words of Jesus: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. Jesus promises to give us a purpose and a point to our daily activity, to satisfy our deepest need for meaning and significance in our lives.
But on the face of it, it is an outrageous claim. How can someone born two thousand years ago to a poor family, who grew up in obscurity and worked as a carpenter, really make a difference to you or to me today? OK, he apparently worked some miracles, and taught about the kingdom of God, but what’s that got to do with us? The issue today for many people is not whether what Jesus said or did is true, but simply the fact they can’t see how anything recorded about his life can be relevant in today’s digital, hi-tech information age.
After all, it’s not even as if Jesus is claiming just to be one source of hope and happiness. When He says I am the bread of life, He is claiming to be the only source.As if all the wise men, all the good teachers and philosophers who ever lived, could not possibly be his equal in teaching or knowledge about God. And to some, the idea that Jesus could be the only true way to God quite literally sticks in the throat, an arrogant claim made by a church that is blind to all other forms of truth.
So how do we answer these charges? Well, to begin with, we ought to note that whenever Jesus says I am in these sayings of John’s gospel, he’s uses a special form of the words that doesn’t particularly come out in our English translations. They are the Greek words ego eimi and they are used particularly in the Greek Old Testament when God is speaking about Himself. For example, when the Lord appears to Abraham in Gen 17:1, He says I am God Almighty and it’s the same special form of words as we find here. Or again, when the Lord appears to Moses in the burning bush and Moses asks what His name is, He says I am who I am – which is the origin of the name Yahweh or Jehovah.
But if that’s all Greek to you, don’t worry! The point I simply want to show is that in this verse Jesus isn’t claiming just to be a wise teacher or good man. He is claiming to be God Himself. And if there is just one event in Jesus’ life we can prove to back up His claims, then this instantly makes all that Jesus says a lot more credible, a lot more relevant.
So without wishing to jump ahead too far in the church year, I want to think a little about the empty tomb and Easter Sunday. Because if the tomb really was empty, if Jesus really did rise from the dead, then everything else Jesus says here suddenly makes sense. He can give eternal life to those who believe in Him. He does have the power to raise us up at the last day. And what is so interesting is that whenever folk have tried to prove the resurrection didn’t happen, they seem to have become believers. The former Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Darling, once said, “no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true”.
Now I don’t have time to go into all the evidence for Jesus being raised from the dead. I can point you to further information afterwards, if you’re interested. All I want to show is that, yes, Jesus’ claim may be outrageous. It may even be offensive. It certainly offended many of the people who heard Jesus’ words when He first spoke them. But this claim is in the deepest sense true. And if Jesus is who He claims to be, then we need to pay attention to what He is saying. I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. Words, I believe, which are as relevant in the 21st century as they were in the 1st century.
But what do they mean? Because apart from being an outrageous claim, they are also often a misunderstood claim, even by believers themselves.
In the first place, Jesus is not promising to meet our every physical need. He wasn’t like some American tele-evangelist promising untold riches if only we believed, and, by the way, made some large donation to his organisation. As we thought earlier Jesus isn’t talking about bodily hunger, but about our desire for purpose, for meaning, for hope in our lives.
That was the point that those listening to Jesus singularly failed to grasp. We haven’t had time to read the whole of John chapter six but it begins with Jesus taking five loaves and two fish, and using them to feed a crowd of at least five thousand. It was a truly amazing miracle, and one that revealed Jesus’ full identity as King and Lord and Saviour. But instead of placing their faith and trust in Jesus, the crowd saw here an opportunity to get a constant supply of free lunches, and to avoid having to ever go without again.
So when Jesus sails off across the Sea of Galilee, they come after Him, setting the stage for the argument which runs throughout today’s reading and beyond. They are looking for Jesus to provide food from heaven, just as the Lord provided the manna for their forefathers, the Israelites, in the desert. They are unable to see the true meaning of what Jesus has done, which is to lead them to faith and trust in Him. That’s why when Jesus says I am the bread of life He isn’t simply offering words of comfort. He is issuing a challenge, to his listeners then, and to us now. Do we really look to Jesus as our spiritual nourishment day by day? That’s a challenging question, and one I’ll come back to at the end.
But first I better also clear up a second misunderstanding that is quite common among believers, that Jesus in this verse is talking about Holy Communion. Now of course Holy Communion is important, and when Jesus later on talks in verses 53-58 about eating His flesh and drinking His blood it’s not too surprising that our thoughts turn to the meal believers have shared for 2000 years. Yet there are a couple of good and cogent reasons why this can’t be what Jesus is referring to here.
To begin with, the key to understanding any verse in the Bible is to try and imagine what these words meant to the people who first heard them. Now the folk who heard Jesus’ teaching here in the synagogue in Capernaum knew nothing about the sacrament Jesus would later establish in the Upper Room. Their mind was on the Old Testament stories about God providing for the Israelites in the desert. And Jesus’ concern is to lift his hearers’ thoughts away from the physical provision of food and onto the nature of the God who gives such wonderful gifts. That’s why He says in verses 32-33:
I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. In other words, God’s real gift does not consist of bread and wine, but of Jesus Himself. What matters is not the eating in itself, but faith and trust in Him.
And that point is borne out when we look at verse 54 itself: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. If Jesus was referring here to Holy Communion, He would be saying that we are saved only by receiving bread and wine. Of course Holy Communion can and should strengthen and nourish our faith, but the rite itself cannot give us salvation. No, when Jesus talks about feeding on Him, He is talking about responding to His words and taking them to heart. That is what it means when Jesus says I am the bread of life. And I am passionate that nothing we teach or practise as a church gets in the way of proclaiming the central truth of the gospel, that we are saved through faith alone. It’s what Jesus teaches here. It’s what Jesus teaches throughout His ministry. And it should be the essential conviction that drives all we do as the body of Christ here in this place.
Jesus says I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. And this verse reminds us, lastly, that Jesus’ claim demands a response. God, so to speak, does not force-feed us. Because He loves us so much He gives us a choice. He leaves it up to us as to whether we will come to Jesus, and whether we will believe in Him.
Now it might be there is someone here today who has never made this step of faith. Perhaps you have never really thought how Jesus is God Himself who has conquered even the power of death itself. Maybe until now you have never seen how Jesus can be relevant to your life today. If today you sense Jesus is calling you to come to Him, may I ask you to make that step? Coming to Jesus, believing in Him really isn’t that difficult. You don’t have to have all the answers, or come from the right background, or have the right education. Jesus’ offer is to everyone. As another translation puts it, whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. And that translation includes you, whoever you are.
But please don’t think that if you’ve already made this step of faith, somehow Jesus’ words don’t apply to you. When the crowds were arguing with Jesus, they quoted – somewhat loosely from Psalm 78 –: Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat. (John 6:31). But if they had really understood Psalm 78 they would have realised it was a psalm all about the people of God failing to stay firm in their faith. The psalm itself goes through all the events of God leading them out of the promised land, but right in the middle is this message: In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. (Psalm 78:32). Don’t fall into the trap of living on past memories of Jesus’ love and goodness to you. Keep on coming to Jesus, weekly, daily, hourly. Keep on reading His word, praying, worshipping, and yes, taking part in Holy Communion as a sign of your faith in Jesus. And keep on believing, not just in your heart and in your mind, but by taking bold, practical steps which show Jesus is your Lord and your Saviour.
For at the end of day what’s going to convince others most about the claims of Jesus Christ is not this argument, or that sermon, but lives which prove most effectively that true satisfaction comes from believing and trusting in Him. So that when people are tempted to cry out “Meaningless! Meaningless! … Everything is meaningless” they can look at us and see a positive alternative, a life based on faith and trust in Christ, and in Christ alone.