In nomine Jesu!
For the past few weeks, we've been hearing stories about bread. Jesus feeding the five thousand being the most memorable of them. And today we have a new teaching of Jesus, in which he calls himself the bread of life. And in most of these stories where Jesus offers a new teaching, it's not just Jesus saying something and everybody else saying okay or going along with it. These aren't lectures. These are stories of conversation, stories of argument, stories of interaction. When Jesus teaches, especially in the gospel of John, it's not just some word that comes down from on high. It's a word that needs to be hashed out in context. It's a word that's drawing from other people's ideas and playing with them. Twisting around people's expectations and giving them back to them. Today's gospel reading is one of those stories. It's a new teaching that's hashed out not only between Jesus and other people, but between these people and their ancestors.
It starts with Jesus saying that he is the bread of life. And that whoever comes to him will never be hungry and never be thirsty. Now that phrase or idea, the bread of life, doesn't come out of
nowhere. It's not an idea Jesus made up. It's alluding back to this story of the Israelites receiving manna in the desert. In the book of Exodus, God leads the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness. And pretty soon after they get into the wilderness they start to get a little bit agitated. They're the rabble. God leads them out of slavery and then soon they're in the desert wanting to go back to Egypt. Even when they were slaves, they had food to eat. The fleshpots of Egypt were always full. And so Moses goes to God and says that the Israelites are complaining and God gives them manna. Manna is this substance that keeps you afloat. It's kind of like a those little communion wafers. It doesn't really taste like anything, but it'll keep you alive. And while the Israelites are in the desert, this is the stuff that keeps them alive.
But the problem with the manna from heaven is it doesn't keep you from being hungry. You have to go out every morning and get it. In a physical way, it will keep you alive but you'll still be hungry. But it leaves you hungry in another way. It leaves you hungry in a more spiritual way. It doesn't keep you from looking back to Egypt. It doesn't keep you from looking back and wondering if things would have been better.
Now, this might seem impossibly far removed from our own situation. You might read this and think that it's about people two thousand years ago arguing over even older texts. About how to read them and how to interpret them. One way to try to get your head around what's happening in this gospel reading is thinking about looking back, looking back to a false nostalgia. Looking back to smaller hopes. About how we're more comfortable with the known injustice than unknown possibility. There's this great line in an MLK sermon about how we "prefer the "fleshpots of Egypt" to the ordeals of emancipation." Even when the Israelites ate that manna from heaven, they still had an eye turned back towards Egypt.
When Jesus calls himself the bread of life, he's playing off of this idea. About what manna is and what it does. He's saying that he's like that manna from heaven in that he keeps us going along the way. That God's blessings are there every morning waiting for us. That God is with us along the way, wherever we are in life. But he goes beyond that. Beyond keeping us satisfied for a day to say that he gives us eternal life.
Eternal life is something of a loaded term. It's a word that's full of social expectations, religious
piety, and personal longing. But in the gospel of John, eternal life has a very particular meaning. It has a meaning that doesn't easily map on to those other ideas. In the gospel of John, eternal life is not life beyond measurement, not as life that is long, but as life of incomparable value. Life of joy beyond what we could hope for, comfort beyond what we asked for, and hope beyond what we thought was possible. It's a vision of life that isn't impossibly long but unfathomably deep. That's so deep, so full of joy, hope, and community, that you could live your entire life and never get to the bottom of it. It's a vision of life that isn't just about depth, but it's also something that isn't just impossibly far off in the future. It's something that God draws us into today. Raises us from death. By being fed the bread of life, we are called out of death and freed for eternal life. Eternal life that is deep enough to keep us from looking back to Egypt. It keeps you from looking back to the false promises. Keeps you turned towards God's promised future.
That's what the bread of life is all about. That God gives us life together that keeps us from looking back to Egypt. That helps us live into the ordeals of emancipation together. Bread for the
hungry. Bread for the lost. Bread for all. As we travel through the desert, walking towards the kingdom of God together.
Joseph Schattauer PaillĂ©