Preached on August 12, 2018 at First Congregational Church, Kalamazoo
Text: John 6:35, 41-51
If you’re one of those faithful who have been attending church every week through these summer months, you might have noticed that there has been a lot of bread lately. And we’re not done, yet! There’s are two more weeks of bread themes left in the lectionary.
One of my colleagues tweeted about this last week. She wrote, “Sometimes the lectionary coincides with political or personal life in a beautiful, transformative way. Finally accepting my gluten-intolerance during the 5-week Bread of Life cycle is not one of those times.” And boy do I feel her. I’m not gluten-intolerant, but in an effort to better manage my triglycerides, I am trying to reduce my intake of white bread, and when I hear Jesus say, “I am the Bread of Life—whoever comes to me will never be hungry” my first thought is. Wow. yeah. bread would be nice. Some of Dianne’s famous rolls, maybe? Warm. With a little butter? Mmmmm.
So, now that you’re all hungry with me, let’s pray.
God, you alone satisfy. Meet us this morning, draw us close and fill us with your good gifts, that we might know you are the Bread of our Life. Amen.
I really value clarity. I want to understand things precisely and communicate them accurately. Sometimes this is a strength—like when my seven year old asks where babies come from and I take the time to clarify what his question really is before I give him a succinct, age-appropriate answer.
Other times my insistence upon clarity and accuracy is unhelpful, like when I interrupt my spouse to correct a small detail in his story. Because it probably doesn’t matter that Wyatt is 8 not 12. That wasn’t important information and definitely not worth interjecting myself into his phone call.
So, I am learning, slowly, to recognize other forms of wisdom—other values that do not conform to my value of clarity. In this chapter of John, Jesus refuses to clarify himself. Throughout the book of John, really, Jesus pushes us to recognize that sitting with ambiguity, with paradox, with confusion, with the limits of our own understanding is a good thing. Wisdom meets us in the questions.
It happens with Nicodemus in chapter 3 who can’t understand how someone could be born a second time—Jesus, you can’t really mean this! And Jesus responds, “Actually it’s weirder than you think. No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
It happens in chapter 4 with the Samaritan woman who wonders why Jesus is asking her for water. She gets confused, asks for clarification and Jesus’s answer just digs deeper into the weirdness—if you knew who I am, you would be asking me for water. I am the living water. Anyone who drinks the water I give them will never thirst.
And it happens here in chapter six. Jesus says he is the bread from heaven, and the crowds wonder if he means manna. Is he saying that he is a sign from God?—Jesus can’t really be saying he’s from heaven? We know his parents—he’s from right up that road. And instead of clarifying, Jesus digs deeper into the weirdness. “I am the Bread of Life. your ancestors ate that bread from heaven and got hungry again every day, but those who come to me will never go hungry.” And Jesus digs even deeper, because by the end of our text for this week he has introduced the most disconcerting idea yet—the bread I will give you to eat is my flesh. Do you hear the way Jesus is doubling down on the weirdness? Just in case you were thinking that this Bread of Life business was a metaphor, no. Really. I mean eating my body.
Since this is a 5-week cycle, I won’t actually spend a lot of time talking about how cannibalistic that sounds, because Pastor Nathan gets to preach about all the flesh and blood language that comes up in the next few verses. I don’t want to deprive him of all his good material. But I do want to call attention to the way Jesus refuses to make these conversations easy. Digging deeper into the mystery and confusion seems to be Jesus’s strategy throughout the book of John. And it drives me a little bit crazy.
I want specifics. How exactly do I “come” to Jesus in this way that will result in never being hungry? How is this supposed to work? Because I definitely still feel hungry a lot. And not just for bread. Hungry for attention. Hungry for love. Hungry for company. Hungry for affirmation. Hungry for reassurance. For security. If there is some way of being with Jesus that would eliminate those yearnings, those frequently unfulfilled desires in life, I would sure like to figure it out. And in that disgruntled skepticism, my attitude is not far off from the crowds who first heard Jesus—How can he make these outlandish claims about being Bread from Heaven. I’ve known Jesus for years—my whole life, actually—and I don’t understand how he plans to follow through.
One of my seminary classmates, Kirsten Waldschmidt, wrote a song inspired by this passage from John, and she recognized the value of these questions. The lyrics of her song are “Jesus, you are the Bread of Life. Why am I so hungry? Jesus, you are the Bread of Life; how do you satisfy? Will you be the bread of my life?”
I found myself echoing her question this week: If what Jesus says is true, Why am I so hungry? What am I doing wrong? and in response, my husband posed a question that I’ve been turning over and over—is there a difference between feeling hungry and being hungry? And if there is, can I trust that maybe feeling hungry is good and does not mean God will let me go hungry?
It’s a good question. But it only opens up more questions for me. What about people who really do go hungry? What about people who are literally starving to death? What can it possibly mean to them that Jesus is the Bread of Life? How can this be anything other than an unhelpfully spiritual metaphor in the face of famine and anorexia and neglect?
One of the techniques I value most in the curriculum we use for one of our Kid’s Church classes is the technique of “wondering questions.” This Montessori-based curriculum invites children to wonder and to pose their own wondering questions in response to each Bible Story, and the instructions for the teacher are very specific: Start every question with “I wonder…” and when children answer, do not give positive or negative feedback and do not correct or adjust the child’s response. Respond to every contribution from a child with “I wonder…” This technique minimizes the tendency for some children to get praise for having the “right answer.” When we praise kids for getting an answer right, we unconsciously shut down their creativity—because then the kids who don’t know the right answer don’t want to speak up, and the kids who do get praise for a right answer stop being curious, because they already know the answer.
And I am beginning to think that the Jesus we meet in John understood that pedagogical technique. Jesus—you can’t really mean we are meant to eat your body!
Jesus, how can you promise that we will never be hungry?
Jesus, how does believing in you actually help people who are literally starving?
Jesus, how exactly do you give your flesh for the life of the world?
Sitting with these questions is not comfortable. I want all the loose ends tied up in nice little bows. But Jesus is not about making us comfortable. Jesus is about setting us free. And sometimes that means setting us free from the ways we are used to thinking—the ways we are used to understanding the world—setting us free from the tidy little boxes we arrange reality into. Setting us free to wonder and stay curious.
There is another context in which I feel similarly uncomfortable to the way I feel with Jesus in this text, and that is when I am learning about racism and white supremacy. Unlearning white supremacy usually involves unlearning a bunch of assumptions about the way we understand and communicate. It’s not just about believing all people are equal or believing that racism is bad. Unlearning white supremacy involves letting go of the idea that objectivity is desirable or even possible. Unlearning white supremacy means learning that being deeply uncomfortable is worthwhile. Unlearning white supremacy means understanding that good intentions don’t actually matter when people are dying. Unlearning white supremacy means discovering that white people cannot commit ourselves to saving people of color—that kind of savior complex only reinforces the system. Rather, we must recognize the ways that we are also bound, stuck, held captive and we must commit ourselves to the work of liberation because we all need to be free.
In this long, confusing, deeply strange passage about the Bread of Life, Jesus drags us away from simple answers and insufficient questions. Jesus digs deeper and deeper into questions that crack through our rational approach to truth and invite us to consider that reality is bigger than we have imagined. That God will never satisfy our curiosity, but will satisfy our hunger. That Jesus is bread is manna is flesh is food for us. That when Jesus gives himself for the life of the world, there is something concrete, something deeply nourishing about that act. That we participate, we receive that concrete gift of Jesus into our bodies in some kind of tangible way—in communion, perhaps, but also in the Body of Christ in the church—the hands and feet and prayers and hugs and warm rolls provided in our times of need.
How is Jesus the Bread of Life to you?
What will happen if you dig in?