Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus tells the crowd that had followed him.
In last week’s Gospel lesson, we heard John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish, if you can remember, blessed them, and handed them out to everyone who was there. When everyone was satisfied, the disciples gathered the leftovers, filling twelve baskets with the bread that were left after all had eaten. The crowd soon began to say to themselves, “This is certainly the prophet who was to come into the world,” and had intentions to make Jesus their king. He left them, however, withdrawing to a mountain. That evening, his disciples get into a boat with him and begin to cross the sea to Capernaum.
As they’re out on the water, the sea began to get rough. When they were three or four miles out, they looked out onto the water to see Jesus walking on the water, approaching the boat. Naturally, they were terrified. But Jesus said to them, “It’s me; don’t be afraid.” He got into the boat with them, and they soon made it to shore.
Our text today takes up this story on the next morning, as the crowds wake up and discover that Jesus is not with them. They had seen that he did not get into the boat with the disciples the night before, so they were naturally puzzled when they got to Capernaum and find that he is already there. Puzzled, they ask him, “When did you get here, Rabbi?” In his typical fashion, Jesus does not answer their question. Instead, he cryptically says, “In truth I tell you, it is not because of the signs which you saw that you are looking for me, but because you had the bread to eat and were satisfied.”
Jesus goes on: “Work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures from generation to generation, which the Son of Man will give you; for on him the Father—God’s self—has set the seal of his approval.” That work, he goes on to say, “is to trust in the one whom God has sent.”
As it goes, the people gathered around him were looking for some kind of sign, that they might know that it Jesus is the one who has been sent by God. They remembered the story of their ancestors, who were wandering in the desert for forty years. When they began to worry about how they were going to eat, manna miraculously appeared each morning. For as it said in their holy texts, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”
It is here that Jesus shifts their understanding of this story just a little bit. “Moses did not give you the bread from heaven,” he says, “but my Father does give you the bread from heaven; for the bread that God gives is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.”
I’m not sure if you caught it, but there’s a tricky nuance that comes out of this text. Jesus takes that line of scripture, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat,” and tweaks the language just a little bit. The Reverend Dr. Susan Hylen, professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, puts it this way:
Jesus says, don’t interpret the subject, “he” as Moses, but as God. Further more, he changes the verb tense from “gave,” the past tense, to “gives.” The changes bring out the point of Jesus’ interpretation: manna is not simply a story that resides in Israel’s past , but is an on-going gift of God in the present…Jesus’ words continue to identify manna as a present-tense gift from God, a life-giving power that originates in heaven.
It seems to be far too often that the Church (capital “C”) reads scripture as if it were some kind of history book, a static text that tells us a historical account of what happened in the past. We can read a story from the Bible and think of it as something that happened centuries or millennia ago; an account of an event far removed from our lives today. But what Jesus does to this text is to remind us that the past and the present are not really that separated. He reminds us that our scriptures are not only a story of God has done long ago but also a living story of what God is doing now.
In our story today, he is reminding the crowd—and us—that bread from heaven is not a one-time thing. Rather, in those moments when we find ourselves in the middle of the wilderness for forty years, when we are hungering for that which sustains us, God is still sending down bread. But this bread is not the manna that we read about. No, that manna doesn’t satisfy; it fills for a few hours, but it ultimately doesn’t last. The bread that God sends down is Jesus Christ. “Whosoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst again.”
This morning we gather as we do on every first Sunday of the month around the table of Great Thanksgiving. We gather to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation anew, the body and blood of Christ. And as we do so, we gather to remember the story of Jesus’ last night with his disciples as they gathered around the table for one final meal before he was to be betrayed. We remember his suffering, his death, and—ultimately—his resurrection. But as we do so, we also remember our own flesh that is broken; our own blood that is poured out. We remember those times that we encounter the pain of humiliation and the agony of death, simultaneously knowing that Christ is right there with us. And we remember those times that we have been resurrected with Christ, overcoming those deaths in our own life.
But there’s one more thing that happens at this table, I think. If I may be so bold, I think that we are also remembering the future; we are bringing to mind that which has been promised to us and choosing to live into the already-but-not-yet. We remember our call to be the body of Christ that is broken and poured out for the life of the world; living proactively and prophetically into that dimension of the kingdom of God. To remember the glimpses that we’ve seen of that new kingdom breaking into our midst, the culmination of all that was, all that is, and all that is to come. To remember our own destiny in which—yes—we suffer and we die, but also to remember and live into our future in which we too our resurrected on that day of glory with Christ.
Friends, the table has been set. Everything has been made ready. Christ has given himself to us, the bread of life that satisfies us far beyond what we imagine that little wafer can do. But we do not do so lightly. We do so knowing that our lives—and the life of the world—are tied together. Let us come to this table in faith and trust, believing and hoping this to be true.