God's Open House

Sunday, August 19, 2018

“Bread of Life”

I read a great sermon from up at Nassau Presbyterian Church a couple of weeks ago that talked about “When the Manna Stops”[1] Rev. Davis spoke of the moment that manna stopped for the Hebrews. He said he’d never really thought about it, but when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the manna stopped. From that point on God would provide for them in a different way; they were to receive God’s bounty from the land. God’s providence would no longer be right there for them every morning. They would have to work for it. Similarly, we can assume that the other signs of God’s presence, the pillar of cloud and fire that led them in the desert, were also extinguished at that time. So the Israelites went from being constantly surrounded by obvious supernatural signs of God’s presence, waking up to miracles, to suddenly needing to find other ways to know that God is with them. They went from seeing God every day, to having to learn to see God in the every day experience of life.

Have you ever had that experience? Maybe you went with the church on a mission trip, and each morning you started with prayer, and each evening you ended with thanksgiving, and you spent each day transforming other peoples lives and your own, working together to make the world better. And then you came home, and on Monday you had an 8am meeting that was a waste of everyone’s time and all your dreams about waking up each day with Jesus were doused with reality. The same thing can happen after a youth conference, or a great worship service, or a beautiful late night spiritual conversation with a friend. Or you might have great spiritual practices in your life that just get hammered when something happens that you just can’t handle. How do you know that God is with you when it doesn’t feel like it anymore?

The Gospel reading for today is a conversation about manna. It happens right after the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus and his disciples go off to the other side of the lake, and the people follow him. When they find him, they have a conversation about manna. At the time there was an understanding that when the manna stopped, God provided them a new manna. The Torah, the law given by Moses was the new manna given as their sign and their sustenance.[2] Jesus has just made a miracle of bread: he blessed it, he broke it, and it was enough. And now people are following him, because he’s fed their physical needs. And Jesus tells him that he has bread that leads to eternal life.

What happens next is a common thing in the book of John. Jesus says something. Its audience takes it literally, and they don’t understand. Nicodemus says, “Born again? How?” The woman at the well says, “I’d love water that made me never be thirsty again, I’d save a lot of trips to the well.” The crowd in today’s story says “Yes, bring us the bread that leads to eternal life.” They are thinking manna – Jesus has just made bread for 5,000 people out of thin air. Now he is saying that he brings bread that comes down from heaven and brings life to the world. Is this not manna? The bread that God rained down from heaven to sustain them in the wilderness? They want both the bread and a sign from God so that they will know that God is there.

But Jesus says, “I am the bread.” And that’s where it gets sticky. Because honestly, I’m with the crowd on this one. When Jesus says things like this, my first instinct to pull him aside, and say, “No, Jesus. You’re a person.” And that’s exactly what the crowd said. How can he say that he came from heaven when we know his father and mother? How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

What could it possibly mean that Jesus is bread? But Jesus isn’t talking about literal bread. This is a conversation about manna. Jesus is talking about nourishment. He’s talking about manna, not for its nutritional value, but for its assurance of God’s abiding presence. Jesus is talking about what you can depend on when the manna stops.

When you do not feel #blessed, when you finally dig yourself out of that hole only to have one tiny thing knock you right down to the bottom? What do you do when you are one step away from falling apart? How do you know God then?

He’s talking about what you can rely on to sustain you when the manna stops. The law cannot sustain you. If we reduce the Gospel to a series of rules about what to do and what not to do, that can point to how to life good life, but it is a pretty thin diet, and it does not satisfy. Social Justice cannot sustain you. If we reduce the Bible to a set of policy goals we will fail the Gospel. We will become disheartened when the change that we want does not come. We will twist them to our own ends, our human sinfulness preventing us from ever truly sacrificing for another. Belief cannot sustain you. Knowing all the right doctrines, having the correct understanding of transubstantiation or consubstantiation or justification, transmogrification, whatever. None of these things are the bread that gives eternal life. Because they don’t have anything to offer us when we fail to live up to them. When we fail, because we always do. None of these things are here for us when things fall apart.

So what does Jesus offer instead? Himself. What Jesus offers is grace. It is the love of God that does not demand that we create perfection in ourselves or in our world, but instead comes down to us. By choosing death on the cross, dying the most Godless death you can have: mocked, abandoned, and afraid, Jesus reveals the love of God. There is nothing that God cannot conquer. Jesus went through hell to show that no matter what hell you are going through, God can conquer it. God has conquered it in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the bread that leads to eternal life, because grace is the only thing that can get us from human sinfulness to heavenly holiness, from earth to heaven.

The question then becomes, how do we know him? Where can we find him? We know him in our daily bread. We know him in the breaking of the bread – we know Jesus when we come together, in community, and offer each other grace and love in bread and wine. We know him when we receive the sacraments of God, signs that God loves us and cherishes us. We know Jesus because he is the bread of life, which was broken for us on the cross, and revealed the outpouring of God’s love, in which no one is forgotten, no one is abandoned, all are united in the new life of Christ.

[1] http://nassauchurch.org/worship1/sermons/20180729-when-the-manna-stops/

[2] Moloney, Francis. “He Loved Them to the End; Eucharist in the Gospel of John” Worship 91 (Jan. 2017): 46.