August 23, 2015 John 6: 33-35, 56-69
Rev. Catherine Purves
On the first Sunday of our vacation we attended the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, NC. They have a rather unusual way of welcoming visitors. At the end of the service a woman hovers around the front door with a basket full of little loaves of homemade bread. These mini-loaves are in small plastic bags tied with a green polka-dot ribbon, and attached to each ribbon is a card that reads, “Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life.’” When we got to the door the woman guessed that we were visitors and thrust one of the loaves into our hands. “This is for you,” she said. It was rather a strange way to receive the bread of life. And I wondered what unchurched strangers who had just wandered into the service would make of such a gift. They would no doubt think that giving out little loaves of bread was a nice gesture, but I expect that they would wonder what it really signified. What is the bread of life, anyway?
The Gospel of John has a lot of “I Am” statements that Jesus made. I am the living water. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the good shepherd. I am the light of the world. And I am the bread of life. All of these “I Am” statements indicate that Jesus is more than you might think – more than just a good preacher, a miracle worker, or even a prophet. His true significance stretched the meaning of each of these simple “I Am” statements. Then, as now, some people understood that and others did not.
On our second Sunday in Wilmington, we went to another church. We sat in front of an older lady who was obviously the grandmother of the two boys she was trying to control while her husband sat up front throughout the service since he was going to be serving Communion. The boys were actually quite well behaved, but she seemed unduly fussed that the one wasn’t sitting up straight enough. He complained that he couldn’t see anyway, and then he scooted down to the end of the pew where he could slouch and still see. Eventually, she reeled him back in and he was sitting next to her again when it was time to serve Communion. As the minister intoned the words, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” he must have asked her what that meant, because I could clearly hear her say, “It’s just symbolic.” I wanted to climb over the pew and correct her, but I restrained myself.
Why should the poor boy have to sit up straight and show respect for something that was just symbolic, just a manner of speaking, simply a metaphor? He shouldn’t. He should either give up on church and slouch, or keep on asking his questions. I hope he opts for the latter. And I hope that we don’t slip into a casual familiarity with strange sayings like, “I am the bread of life,” without a struggle. There is meaning and power and a challenge in that statement that is far more than merely symbolic.
Our text from John tells us that this declaration actually drove off a number of potential followers of Jesus. “This teaching is difficult,” they said, “who can accept it?” Then Jesus turned to his disciples and asked, “Does this offend you?” Clearly, it was meant to. Jesus wanted to wake up all of the slouchers who were just there for the miracles and the free bread. (The feeding of the 5,000 occurred earlier in this chapter.) Jesus knew that he was making unbelievable and completely outlandish claims in all of his “I Am” sayings. He was not just entertaining them with memorable quotes or symbolic sayings. He was pushing the crowds to recognize that in a very real way he truly was the bread of life.
But what was this bread? Jesus said in verse 33 of our reading that, “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” In his “I Am” statement about the bread of life, then, Jesus was revealing his origin and his purpose. He was the bread of God. He came down from heaven. He would give life to the world. These are all amazing claims. The young fellow sitting behind me in church was obviously confused as he asked his grandmother, “What does that mean?” In the context of Holy Communion we can more deeply understand Jesus’ further statement: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…so whoever eats me will live because of me.” I wish the grandmother had said something like that to her grandson. He probably wouldn’t have understood it, but he would have at least sensed the mystery and the power of Jesus himself and his presence in our midst when we break the bread and share the cup. This is life! Here we partake the bread of life. Even so, when Jesus made this “I Am” statement, people turned away.
Jesus asked his closest disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go?” That is a good question. To whom can we go? The lady handing out wee loaves of bread at the first church we visited was not a very convincing advocate for the plain power of the statement that was attached to the bread: “I am the bread of life.” In fact, she made it quite clear that this was a one-time offer, a token gift, a symbolic gesture. If we had returned the next week and if the lady had recognized us, we would not have been given the bread of life. Now that I think about it, she didn’t even say, “Come again!” And, by the way, no one else in that church even spoke to us. No one gave us the impression that there was nowhere else we could go, apart from Jesus, or that we needed to return to hear again what Peter so rightly described as “the words of eternal life” that were spoken only by Jesus, “the Holy One of God.”
A funny thing happened at that second church we visited. Actually, it wasn’t really funny at all, but the ministers made light of it and tried to turn it into a joke. I should say that, like us, they were also visitors, filling in for the regular ministers of that church. To be fair, it isn’t easy to celebrate Holy Communion in someone else’s church, because each congregation serves the Lord’s Supper in its own particular way. As I said before, all of the elders who were serving sat up front during the entire the service. They marched in behind the two ministers at the start of worship and sat in the front pews.
Anyway, the congregation had been served both the bread and the cup, and two elders had served the ministers. I’m not sure when the elders themselves were supposed to have been served, but they were forgotten. The closing prayer of thanksgiving had already been offered when one of the visiting ministers realized his mistake. The bread of life had not been given to the elders. The presiding minister mumbled something to the effect that this is what happens when you put in the second string players and he then promptly served the elders.
You might think that was a small mistake. Certainly, the congregation all laughed at the minister’s remark. But I doubt that Jesus would have found it amusing. We are dealing with holy things here. This is not simply a symbolic act. The most important thing is not to sit up straight in your pews and keep your mouth shut until this symbolic bread of life is passed to you. This is not just a ritual of remembrance or part of our peculiar culture as a church. This is a divine encounter! We are in the presence of the Holy One of God, the one, and the only one, who has the words of eternal life. When we eat this meal Jesus abides in us and we abide in him. Forgetting to serve the elders was a terrible oversight. I do give the ministers full credit for, at least, correcting their mistake rather than ending the service without giving the leaders of that congregation the bread of life that Jesus gives to all of us.
So today, let us come to the Lord’s Table with reverence and awe. Let us come with our questions, acknowledging the mystery of what we are about to do and what Jesus himself is about to do. Let us never forget that he is the host at his table, and that the food that he gives us is his life. There is nowhere else we can go to partake of his eternal life. This is no token gift that we are given before we head home to begin another week. This is the essence of our existence. This is one of the most audacious claims that Jesus ever made about himself. And we must accept it, and believe it, and now partake of it. For Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”