|The Bread of Life|
I. Does this offend you?
In the next 8 days, from this Sunday to next Sunday, we will experience together, if you chose, two of the most sacred events in the Christian life. Next week we will gather at the river to watch some 50 people be immersed in the waters of baptism. 50 men, women and children who will publicly declare, I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back. No turning back.
This week we will celebrate communion. The Lord’s Supper. Holy Eucharist. These are two supremely sacred events. One, a once-in-a-lifetime ritual that marks the beginning of our Christian life. The other a regularly repeated celebration of the source and center of that life.
Both of these actions are commanded by God. Both of them take us into the very heart of our faith. Both bear witness to the death of Christ and to our resurrected life in him. Both have been called by the Church, both Protestant and Catholic, sacraments. Outward visible signs of an inward and invisible work of God.
For the next 8 days I pray that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened, that we may come to understand more clearly and experience more deeply both the meaning of our baptism and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. In preparation for today’s Holy Communion I take you to a passage of Scripture that has been associated with this sacrament throughout the history of the church. To John chapter six and the words of Jesus. But as I do so I must confess: I do not think that Jesus was talking about the communion meal in this passage, at least not directly. It has an application to communion; it helps us understand what communion should be, but Jesus was not talking about communion. How could he be? The communion meal did not exist at this time.
The words of John 6, and the conversation it contains, occurred at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, most likely during the first year. Long before the night in which he was betrayed, when he took bread and broke it, and said, this is my body given for you. Long before Jesus ever transformed the Jewish Passover into the Christian celebration of his body and blood. So, here is what I want you to do. I want you to listen afresh to these words of Jesus. Listen to them as if the communion meal did not yet exist. Try to listen to these words as if you were in Jesus’ audience that day, as if you were a Jew you had received from God very clear commands against eating human flesh, in fact, against eating any flesh with blood still in it. If you can’t imagine yourself back into that ancient time and place, try this. Imagine yourself into this time and place, only imagine that you are hearing these words as a pagan, as someone who has never darkened the door of a church, someone who had never heard or seen a communion meal.
Now listen: I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his
blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains, or abides, in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. Three times Jesus says it. Three times his Jewish audience hears it, and winces. Eat my flesh and drink my blood; eat my flesh and drink my blood; eat my flesh and drink my blood. Now doesn’t that sound just a bit provocative to you, maybe even offensive? Believe it or not, it sounded that way to Jesus’ disciples. On hearing it, John records in verse 60, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about it, verse 61, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?”
Yes, this offended them; and it offended many of the people listening to Jesus. But apparently, this is really important. Without eating Jesus flesh and drinking his blood a person cannot be raised from the dead to live forever with the Father in heaven. Without eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood you cannot abide in Christ nor have the life of God living in you. In other words, you can’t be a Christian. So what does this mean, eat my flesh and drink my blood? How do you do it? How do you actually do it in such a way that the life of God dwells in you as a result of doing it? That’s the question.
II. What do you really want?
Fortunately, this rather grotesque turn of phrase was not the first thing Jesus said to the people that day. No. The first thing he said, recorded back in verse 26 is, Truly, truly I say to you, which was his way of saying, “May I have your attention, please?” You are looking for me, seeking me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.
You see, Jesus had just performed a miracle. He had fed 5000 people with a little boy’s lunch...
That had created, as you can imagine, quite a stir. In fact, such a stir that the crowd had wanted to declare Jesus the Messiah and make him King of Israel, right then and there; by force, the text says. But Jesus slipped away during the night; and the crowd came looking for him the next day. That’s when Jesus said, you’re looking for me, not because I performed a miraculous sign, but because I filled your bellies with bread.
Now, that’s an interesting phrase Jesus uses: miraculous sign. Miracles that are signs. Why did Jesus do the miracles he did? Do you know? Why did he feed 5000 people with those five little loaves, for example? Well, according to Jesus, he did it as a sign; or better yet, as a sign post, something that points to something else. See, whatever else it is, a miracle is a huge supernatural finger pointing up but all you really see, Jesus says, all you really want, is bread.
So he adds, in verse 27, stop seeking food that spoils; seek the food that lasts forever. Verse 29: Believe in the one whom God the Father has sent. So the people take the bait; they respond, in vss 30 & 31. OK. Show us another sign. What miraculous sign will you give that we may see and believe? How about manna from heaven? Apparently, a belief had developed among the Jews in Jesus’ day that when the Messiah came he would bring down manna from heaven as a sign that the end of the age had come.
So the people, in effect, say, Feeding 5000 people, that was impressive but how about day after day, how about raining down bread from heaven? To which Jesus responds, and this is my paraphrase of Jesus’ response, you want bread from heaven? I will tell you about bread from heaven. True heavenly bread is not what Moses gave the people in the wilderness. It is what my Father in heaven is giving to the world right now. For the bread of God, Jesus says, and I quote from verse 33, is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. They say, Oh, give us this bread from now on! But they don’t get it, do they? Their minds are still focused on the things of this world. They’re still thinking about a Messiah who will give them daily bread from heaven to eat. They hardly notice that Jesus has shifted his language, from bread as something to eat to bread as someone the Father has sent. So to make it perfectly clear, as clear as he can to men and women whose eyes are fixed on the things of this world, 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.
III. I am the Bread of Life
What’s going on here? Jesus is trying to teach them the meaning of the sign. He is trying to show them what the miracles point to. Not just the miracle of feeding 5000 people with a little boy’s lunch but the miracle of feeding a million people for 40 years in the wilderness with manna from heaven. The meaning, as Jesus once said elsewhere, is that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The meaning is that Jesus in the flesh is the Word of God. Jesus is the one who has come to reveal the way, the truth and the life of God. Not just reveal it but to bring it into being. Because when God speaks a word, as He did on the day of creation, life happens!
Jesus is standing before the people and saying, you want life? You want to experience all that life has to offer? You want life the way God intended it to be, the way he created it? You want that kind of life now and forever? Then come to me. Believe in me. Receive me. Feed on me. Now that, in and of itself, is hard to digest, if you will. It’s hard to think about Jesus being the Bread of Life. It’s hard to translate this metaphor into something you can understand. How do I actually feed on Jesus? How do I take him into my innermost being so that I can live? What does that mean? But Jesus doesn’t stop there.
He doesn’t stop with the analogy of feeding on him as the bread from heaven. No. He takes it a step further. Verse 51: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. This bread, he says, is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. Then he says the words with which we began: I tell you the truth, listen to me: unless you eat of the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you. Eat my flesh, drink my blood. Eat my flesh, drink my blood.
IV. This Bread is my flesh.
Why is Jesus talking this way? Why is he saying what he is saying the way he is saying it?
I think the first reason is because he really does want to shock them and us. Because the truth he is proclaiming is rather shocking. The truth is: Jesus must die in order for anyone to live. When Jesus turns the metaphor of bread into the language of flesh and blood he is now speaking of his death. He is saying, in effect, I am the bread of life because my body will be given and my blood will be shed. This is the gospel.
This is the good news that Jesus came in the flesh to offer himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He came to die on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice. To make atonement for our sins. To cover us in his blood. Jesus uses graphic, bloody language because this is a horrible and holy truth. Unless Jesus dies on the cross, unless Jesus gives his body and blood, Unless Jesus enters into human death and dies in our place, we cannot live. We will die and not just physically, though we will die physically but we will also die spiritually; we will perish under the judgment of God. We will be eternally cut off from the author of life, our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be his name. To eat Jesus flesh, his crucified body, and to drink his blood, is to believe and receive the life giving effects of his death.
If you’re wondering, wait a minute! How does that work? How do I receive the life-giving effects of Jesus’ death? Here is my answer: I don’t know exactly. I don’t know how God takes my sin and your sin and the sins of the world and places them on Jesus and judges them in Jesus on the cross. I don’t know exactly how believing in Jesus, trusting in and relying on him, enables me and you to receive the benefits of his death and resurrection.
But this I know, for the Bible tells me so: that is what happens. The Son has given us his word, which is the word of the Father and he has also given us Holy Communion. He has given us a picture of what happens when we believe. What happens is that Jesus’ death gives us life, God’s life, the life of his Spirit, both now and forevermore. It is like eating bread and drinking wine, Jesus says. The bread is his flesh, his dead body given on the cross. The wine is his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Eating and drinking Jesus death is how I live.
So, take eat, Jesus says. Believe. Receive in faith and you will live forevermore. I will raise you up on the last day. That is what we believe. That is what makes us Christians. That is our hope. That is what we profess every time we eat this bread and drink this cup. But there is something more. Something more we profess & believe when we eat this bread & drink this cup. Something more we receive when we come to Jesus in faith.
V. Abides in me, and I in him.
Please focus your attention on verse 56 of John chapter six. Let’s begin our reading with verse 55. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains, or abides, in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Baptism is something that happens only once. The reason why is that baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the Christian life. It is a picture of what happens when we first believe. We die on the cross to our old life of sin; and we are raised with Jesus to a new life with God. We are born again, if you will, never to die again. But Holy Communion is a sacrament we receive over and over and over again. I think that is because it is such a perfect picture of the continuing nature of our Christian life. Bread is something you must continue to eat, day after day after day. Water is something you must continue to drink if you want to stay alive. Jesus is someone we must continue to come to, someone we must continue to feed on, if we want to experience the life of God.
So Jesus says eating my flesh and drinking my blood, feeding on me as the bread of life is about abiding in me. It is about remaining attached to me. I am the vine, you are the branches, Jesus would later say. Apart from me, you can do nothing; you have no life, no spiritual life, in you. Different analogy; same meaning. Branches live by feeding off, drinking the sap, the blood of the vine, if you will. They have no source of life in themselves. They must continually drink from the vine. So must we.
Being a Christian is not just being born again from above. It is not just dying to an old way of life and being raised to a new one. It is not just being forgiven and assured of life in heaven above. It is actually being united with Jesus in such a way that His life flows in us and through us every day of lives. Because apart from him, we have no life in ourselves. So the question is, at least my questions is, how do we do that?
How do we experience, day by day, the life of God in our souls? How do we feed on Jesus? How do we eat his flesh and drink his blood? We do it by feeding on God’s words. We take the words of God into our minds until his thoughts become our thoughts and our blood begins, if you will, to flow bubbling. Let this attitude be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, Paul says in Philippians 2. Let the words of Christ dwell in you richly. Digest His perspectives. Meditate on His words. Absorb His attitudes. Ingest his inner world revealed to you in these writings. Then receive his empowering presence. Now this is a mystery.
What Jesus is describing in verses 56 & 57 John Calvin called the mystical union between the resurrected Jesus Christ and his followers. It is mystical because it is a miraculous work of God that we cannot see or control or completely understand. But it is a real union because Jesus, in the person of His Holy Spirit is truly present. I will never leave you nor forsake you, Jesus promises. I will not leave you as orphans. I will send my Spirit. When the Spirit of Jesus comes into our lives, and when He fills our lives He brings the light and life of God into our souls. That is what this meal is also about. When we eat this body and drink this blood, we picture outwardly what we experience inwardly, the continuing presence of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus, the Lord, the giver of life.
IV. Are You Hungry?
I want you to think right now of Bread, freshly baked bread, hot out of the oven. Can you imagine it? Can you smell it, that indescribable aroma? You know you are really imagining it when your mouth begins to water. Jesus says I am the real bread, the true bread, the bread of life. Are you hungry? Are you hungry for real life? Not the frantic, never-quite-satisfying life of the world around you but the life that God created you to live. The life that Jesus gives by His Spirit. Then stop. Stop seeking the bread that spoils. Stop looking for life in the abundance of things you posses or hope to possess. Stop looking for life in the abundance of things you do or hope to do. Stop looking for life in people and things that always leave you hungering for more. Stop hungering for what is not true bread; stop thirsting for what is not true drink.
Come. Come to the Bread of Life. Come to Jesus and live.