Last week we began our Lenten sermon series on the “I AM” statements of Jesus found in the Gospel of John. These are rather cryptic metaphorical statements by which Jesus makes some extraordinary claims about himself. The Greek phrase ego eimi is here translated as “I am.” And most scholars recognize that when Jesus makes these claims, he is making reference to the divine name (Yahweh) found in the Old Testament. God’s name in the Hebrew comes from the verb of being. In God’s self-revelation to Moses in the Book of Exodus, God said “I am that I am” or “I am being that I am being” or “I am becoming that I am becoming.” In other words, God’s principal characteristic is the quality of being or existence itself. In the Gospel of John, Jesus applies this quality to himself when he says things like “I and the Father are One.” The metaphor we are considering today is essential for life – food, nourishment. We will hear Jesus say, “I AM the bread of life.”
On a Sunday afternoon, a woman we shall call Aunt Martha was commenting on the sermon she had heard preached earlier that day. She said, “The sermon lasted rather long, but I didn’t mind because that’s when I plan my menus for the coming week.”
One can only wonder what kind of menus such devotion as Aunt Martha’s might produce. What meals would she plan? ... If the preacher delivered a fire-and-brimstone message, Aunt Martha might plan a “London Broil.” If the sermon presented the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Baked Apple” might be on the menu. If the sermon spoke of the Promised Land, Aunt Martha might serve a dish featuring, “Milk and Honey.” If the preacher told the Prodigal Son story in which a “fatted calf” becomes the main course in a big family feast, Aunt Martha’s thoughts would probably turn to “Prime Rib of Beef.” During a sermon on Jesus feeding a huge crowd with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, Aunt Martha’s menu might call for “Fish Sandwiches.” In today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never go hungry…” Perhaps Aunt Martha would be thinking of “Bread Pudding” for dessert!
For those of you who have had the misfortune of dining with me (admittedly that’s been limited due to COVID) you might know, if I had to turn down something offered to me, that I was diagnosed with Celiac disease a few years ago. After a mysterious bout of anemia, my doctor discovered that my body does not like gluten. Gluten is found in grains -- wheat, barley and rye being the main culprits. Turns out what is healthy for many people – like whole wheat bread – is not good for me! After my diagnosis, I had to make some significant changes to my diet. A number of things I enjoyed eating are off the table these days, chief among them bread. I was never very particular about breads, never a bread connoisseur. But who doesn’t enjoy freshly baked bread? Some restaurants have delicious bread on the table, or homemade yeast rolls that you can slather with butter. Just thinking about it makes me hungry! Someone showed me a tea towel that said, “I miss gluten.” And, I do! Perhaps, if there is food in heaven, I will be able to enjoy those things again.
The question before us this morning is this: For what are you hungry? Throughout the Gospel of John, we are presented with these deeper existential questions. Jesus starts in our world, the material world, and then moves us to the realm of the spirit.
In our world, there is real physical hunger. Most of us gathered here are not without sustenance; we have food available to us. But, we’ve all had the physical sensation of being hungry. At the beginning of the sixth chapter of John, we have the account of the feeding of the multitude. There were five thousand (plus) hungry people, and Jesus feeds them. With five small barley loaves and two small fish, Jesus miraculously feeds everyone. We are told that they ate “as much as they wanted,” and the leftovers filled twelve baskets. No one was hungry anymore. This miraculous sign so impressed people that they wanted to make Jesus their king. And why not? There were plenty of poor people who were hungry, and there was no social safety net in that world. Their rulers certainly didn’t bother to feed everyone, so maybe this enigmatic rabbi named Jesus would be better. At least he was willing to meet their physical needs.
Jesus has not come to be their need-meeting temporal monarch, so he leaves them. As this sixth chapter unfolds, we see this group of people pursuing Jesus. They catch up to him, basically wanting him to provide more food. And Jesus says (27), “Do not work for the food that spoils, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” So in response, they bring up manna, which is the tie-in to the Old Testament lesson from Exodus. This is verse 30: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” So, they’re saying, “Hey Jesus, God provided daily bread for our ancestors in the wilderness. If you are who you say you are, then you should be able to provide us with more food.”
The word “manna,” interestingly enough, means, “what is it?”. Nobody knows! It was this mysterious substance that fell from the sky overnight, and it could be ground up like flour and turned into cakes or loafs of bread (Numbers 11:8). It was literally “daily bread” in the sense that you couldn’t store it up. The people had to collect only what they needed for each day. Jesus says that the manna came not from Moses, but from God. He says it is the Father who gives the true bread from heaven. And the people want this true bread. “From now on give us this bread.” Here we come to understand that Jesus himself is the manna. Instead of “what” it is “who” – “who is it?” And Jesus says, “I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
So we come back to the question, “For what are you hungry?” Metaphorically speaking, where do you experience that persistent dull ache in your life? Some people are lonely, and desperately seek a relationship with someone to fulfill a need. Other people feel ignored or undervalued, so they seek attention or recognition from others in self-destructive ways. We know people who are ambitious and feel driven to succeed or to achieve certain goals, even when doing so creates greater problems for them. People who suffer from addictions often started that addictive behavior as a way of coping with a challenge or addressing an unmet need. It looks different for everyone, but most people are in some way hungry for love, fulfillment, peace and happiness. Writing in the 1600s, Blaise Pascal talked about an “infinite abyss” that we experience. He says we try “in vain to fill with everything around [us], seeking in things that are not there the help [we] cannot find in those that are, though none can help.” The only thing that can bring fulfillment to these deep longings is God. (see Pensées VII, 425) Pascal’s writing inspired a modern-day phrase you might have heard – that we have a “God-shaped hole” in our hearts.
Jesus does not quite put it that way in our text, but he does speak of an ultimate satisfaction, which implies an ultimate longing: “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The food we eat every day, what Jesus calls the “food that spoils” (27), will never be enough for us. We’re always going to be hungry again; we’re always going to be thirsty again. Basic sustenance necessary for life is short-lived, just as the pleasures of this world are short-lived. Ultimate satisfaction comes only from the Bread of Life.
How do we partake of this Bread of Life? How are we nourished by the true Manna, sent from the Father? Jesus tells us we must “come” to him, which can also be translated “abide” in him. (We will hear this language again when we look at John 15 in a few weeks.) Jesus also says that we must “believe” in him. To abide in Jesus and to believe in Jesus means that we have a relationship with him; we trust him with our whole lives. Jesus tells us to work for the “food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” We do not work for our salvation, since he clearly says he gives it to us. But, we do need to be willing to work on our relationship with Jesus. All relationships require an investment of time and energy. Lent is a time for introspective reflection, and we would all do well to think about the strength of our connection with our Lord. Are we willing to invite Jesus into our longing hearts, and spend time with him through study and prayer?
May you come to experience Jesus as the nourishing Bread of Life. And as you come to him and believe in him, may you find the deepest hunger of heart truly satisfied. Amen.