Sermon: Sometimes Satisfied, But Never Filled
Scripture: John 6:25-35
Date: September 27, 2015
Some time ago, in a very transparent moment, I confessed that one of the ways I decide if a restaurant is worth coming back to is not the food, but rather how nice the bathrooms are. Several of you resonated with that. Well, it’s confession time again. I also judge the quality of a restaurant by the bread they serve. In fact, if a restaurant has great bread, it can cover over many other deficiencies.
For instance, the rolls at Texas Roadhouse are so good that I’ll keep going back. The problem is that I fill up on the rolls before the food comes. And then there are the Cheddar Bay Biscuits at Red Lobster. They kind of melt in your mouth. I think I could make a meal out of those.
Now let me share something very sad. But I share it to illustrate how important bread is to my dining experience. Karen and I spent five days at the beach a couple of weeks ago, and 3 of the 5 nights we dined at the same restaurant. Now they do have incredible seafood especially the King Crab Legs, which are the best I’ve ever had. But we also go back because as soon as you sit down, they bring a basket full of bread. They have a bakery on the premises and the basket is filled with warm cinnamon rolls, hush puppies that are more like donut holes with honey butter to dip them in and white bread. The combination of seafood and fresh bread can’t be beat and so we eat there night after night.
Much to my doctor’s chagrin, for me, bread is essential to the enjoyment of any meal.
I came across this story the other day: A man goes to the same diner every day for lunch. He always orders the soup du jour. One day the manager asks him how he liked his meal. The man replies, “It was good, but you could give a little more bread. Two slices of bread is not enough.” So the next day the manager tells the waitress to give him four slices of bread. “How was your meal, sir?” the manager asks. “It was good, but you could give a little more bread,” comes the reply. So the next day the manager tells the waitress to give him eight slices of bread. “How was your meal today, sir?” the manager asks. “Good, but you could give a little more bread,” comes the reply. So , the next day the manager tells the waitress to give him a whole loaf of bread, 16 slices with his soup. “How was your meal, sir?” the manager asks, when he comes to pay. “It was good, but you could give just a little more bread,” comes the reply once again. The manager is now obsessed with seeing this customer satisfied with his meal, so he goes to the bakery, and orders a six-foot-long loaf of bread. When the man comes in as usual the next day, the waitress and the manager cut the loaf in half, butter the entire length of each half, and lay it out along the counter, right next to his bowl of soup. The man sits down, and devours both his bowl of soup, and both halves of the six-foot-long loaf of bread. The manager now thinks he will get the answer he is looking for, and when the man comes up to pay for his meal, the manager asks in the usual way: “How was your meal TODAY, sir?” The man replies: “It was good as usual, but I see you are back to serving only two slices of bread!”
Bread is an essential element of life.
And so it is no surprise to me that when Jesus makes the decision to reveal to His disciples who he truly is, He starts with bread. In fact, the essential nature of bread is a recurring theme throughout scripture. But, of course, Jesus is not talking about how the bread tastes when He says “I am the bread of life.” There is much more to it than that. And as is often the case, the deeper meaning lies in the difference between the first century understanding of bread and our understanding today. So let me give you a little background.
Of course, the Bible begins with the story of creation in the book of Genesis. And we know that after God had finished creating the Natural World, He created Adam (or man) and, according to Genesis, gave Adam dominion over everything else that He had created. And one of the tasks that He gave to Adam was the task of naming what had been created. The writer says this:
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
And so, like I said last week names became very important. It became very important to the ancient people for them to know the name of God. Consequently they gave God many names. We talked about that last week. At the burning bush, in a sense, God settled the issue Himself by claiming that He was “I Am” or Yahweh or Jehovah. But really I Am was the name that was no name because it didn’t fit into humanity’s understanding of their role of having dominion over everything that was created because they had the power to name them. So “I Am” says that God was not created and therefore was not subject to man’s dominion. Yahweh literally means, “I was who I was. I Am Who I Am. And I will be who I will be.” God is not created but rather has always been. And so John begins His Gospel of Jesus by borrowing the words of the creation story and tells us that “In the beginning was God – the Word – and in the fullness of time the Word became flesh.” The Word – “I Am” – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the burning bush – became flesh and lived among humanity and that, of course, was Jesus.. Now, don’t miss this. At first the Word of God, was passed from generation to generation by the storytellers of faith. But in time the Word began to be recorded on scrolls and the first five scrolls which included the Old Testament books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the books attributed to Moses, were called Torah. They were sacred writings. And so when the Hebrew people worshipped whether in the Temple or later in Synagogues, parts of the Torah would always be read. Well, by the time of Jesus the Torah had taken on a broader meaning and now referred to all of the law and prophets. Torah also became known as “the Bread of Life” because the people when they worshipped would feast on God’s Word. So it was in the synagogue after reading from the Torah that Jesus said “I Am the Bread of Life.” He is the Word, the Torah, made flesh. He is the bread of life. And when at the last supper, He broke the bread and invited the Disciples to feast on His body, He was inviting them to worship Him, to feast on the Word of God.
“I Am the Bread of Life.”
But there’s more to the Bread imagery that Jesus is claiming here. Jesus’s listeners would have understood bread to be the essential component of any meal. And I don’t mean that it was essential for the enjoyment of a meal as it is for me, but that it was essential for sustaining life. Often times bread was all they had to eat. Throughout history, Bread has been the basic ingredient of life. For the Hebrews it became synonymous with life.
One writer says that it is very hard for Westerners to understand what Jesus was saying when he said, “I am the Bread of Life.” You see, in the Middle East, bread is not just something extra thrown in at a meal. It is the heart of every meal. They have those thin pieces of pita bread at every meal. Those strict people would not think of taking forks and putting them in their mouths. To put an object in your mouth defiles it. You certainly would not take a fork out and put it in again and go on defiling yourself like that. Instead, you break off a piece of the bread, pick up your food with it and eat it. Indeed, the only way you can get to the main dish, he said, is with the bread. Jesus was saying that the only way you can come to full life is through him.
One of the things that we’ll see as we study these I Am statements is that they all take place in the context of one of the great festivals or feasts of the Jewish faith. And so earlier in this sixth chapter, John had told us that Jesus’ claim to be the Bread of Life, took place in the context of the Passover Festival, which is also called the feast of unleavened bread. We sometimes mistakenly think that unleavened bread was the only kind of bread the Hebrew people could eat but that restriction only applied during this six day festival. So why is that important. Well, Passover celebrates the Hebrew people’s’ Exodus from Egypt through the wilderness to the promised land and God’s protection throughout. And part of the readings from the Torah during the festival is the story of God making the bread or manna fall from Heaven in order to sustain their lives during their time in the wilderness. That is still true. In fact one of the customs during the festival today, is for parents to make popcorn because it looks like what we envision Manna to have looked like, and then place it in the trees and bushes for their children to gather, just as the Hebrews did in the wilderness. For forty years the Manna from Heaven was literally the bread of life for the Hebrew people. Without God’s provision of bread, they would have perished early on in the wilderness wanderings. And so when Jesus says “I Am the Bread of Life”, He is literally offering them life itself. But to understand how powerful that statement was at that moment for those who heard Him, we need to back up a bit in the story. John tells us that Jesus and the Disciples have been out on the road and when they come home to Capernaum they are greeted with the news that Herod Antipas has beheaded John the Baptist, and that Herod would like to “talk” to John’s cousin – Jesus. Now we need to understand for the first century Jew, the death of John was their 9/11 moment. It changed everything. They would always remember where they were when they heard John had been killed. And so Jesus says to the Disciples – “let’s go across the Sea to Bethsaida and rest awhile.” Understand that Bethsaida on the other side of the Sea of Galilee was not controlled by Herod Antipas but rather his brother Philip. So essentially Jesus was fleeing from Antipas. They were going to lay low for awhile. But scripture tells us that a great crowd of grief stricken people, followers of John the Baptist, followed Jesus to the other side of the Sea to see what He would say about John’s death. It was a very dangerous time to be associated with John. And so the Gospel tells us that the disciples wanted Jesus and implore Him to send the crowd away because they know can’t possibly care for them but also because a crowd like that is surely going to tip Herod Antipas to the whereabouts of Jesus. But scripture tells us that Jesus, in the words of the prophet, “knew their grief and was acquainted with their sorrow.” And so He says to the Disciples, “We must offer them the bread of life.” And with that as the backdrop, John gives us the story of the multiplication of the fish and loaves. This is clearly the turning point in Jesus’ ministry as evidenced by the fact that the loaves and fishes is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that is recorded in all four Gospels. There in the deserted plane of Bethsaida and much to the consternation of the Disciples, Jesus essentially “prepares the table in the presence of His enemy” as David put it in the 23rd Psalm.
“I am the Bread of Life.”
I am the word made flesh. I am the bread that comes only from God that sustains life.
Just as Jehovah called Moses to a new life from the burning bush, when Jesus says “I am the bread of life” He calls every believer to life – to new life. What is He calling you to do? To be?
And then there was one more image. For the Jewish people bread was a symbol of forgiveness and peace. One of the main criticisms of Jesus by the priests was that he often broke bread with sinners. The issue was not that they were jealous that Jesus seemed to prefer to eat with those people, unclean people, rather than them. No the issue was that by breaking bread with sinners, Jesus was offering forgiveness and reconciliation. And only God can forgive they say. Oh but Jesus says, it’s okay, because I Am the bread of life. I am forgiveness and reconciliation. I Am replaces judgement and atonement with grace and forgiveness. Time and again, forgiveness and reconciliation come in the context of a meal, breaking bread. Consider the story of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob. After stealing the blessing from his brother Esau, Jacob fled to the land of Laban. Now Laban was a disreputable man, who tricked Jacob into caring for his sheep and cattle by promising he could have half of the herds and flocks after a specified amount of time and into marrying both of his daughters. Laban manipulated Jacob for forty years. And finally Jacob had enough and confronted Laban, told him that he was taking his share of the livestock and his wives and leaving. But Laban convinces Jacob that before he leaves they should share a meal of reconciliation and forgiveness. And then later when Jacob finally meets Esau he is afraid that Esau will kill him for stealing his birthright from him. But remember Esau invites Jacob to eat a meal with him. And they are reconciled. When the prodigal son returned home, his father throws him a great feast of reconciliation. Let’s break bread together because my son was dead but now he is alive,” the father says. “I am the bread of life.” When the post resurrection Jesus appears to the 11 remaining Disciples for the first time, He finds them hiding behind locked doors in the Upper Room. They are afraid because they have denied and betrayed Jesus. But rather than condemn them, Jesus offers reconciliation – “do you have anything to eat. Let’s break bread together.” And the disciples on the road to Emmaus, fleeing from Jerusalem and the aftermath of Jesus’ death, finally recognize the risen Christ in the “breaking of the bread.” Bread is the symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus came to reconcile God and man. “I am the Bread of Life” calls us to be peacemakers -reconcilers because being Christlike means that you are the bread of life. I Am offers us comfort food for all circumstances of life in this world.
I recently read an article that illustrates this. Immediately after fighting had stopped in World War II, American soldiers gathered up many hungry and homeless children and placed them in tent cities. They had been left orphans by the war. Many of their families had been killed in the death camps. Most of them were malnourished and in need of medical care. They were alone, facing uncertain futures. And so the soldiers shared their bread with them. However, the soldiers noticed the children were afraid to go to sleep at night. And so one of the soldiers tried an experiment after dinner one night–he gave the children a piece of bread just before bed, not to eat but to hold on to as they fell asleep. The results were astounding. When they had the security of bread for tomorrow they slept like babies. The bread took away their fear and anxiety. Holding that bread gave them a sense of security (they were safe), significance (they were important and somebody cared about them), and satisfaction (there would be more bread tomorrow). That is what those children needed.
I Am the bread of life.
And so each of the Gospels tell the story of the loaves and fishes, but there was a major difference between the way that Luke, Mark and Matthew told it and the way John told it. Matthew, Mark and Luke say that the people ate until they were satisfied. John says they ate until they were filled. It’s an important difference. You see, only John has the story continuing in the Synagogue in Capernum where the people have followed Jesus from the plane of Bethsaida. And Jesus is the guest preacher for the Passover service. And so He reads from the Torah the story of God providing the Manna in the wilderness. And then in essence He says to them, “In the aftermath of the death of John, you come looking for a sign. And just as God provided the Manna in the wilderness, He provided bread for you on the Bethsaida plane. And just as the Hebrews in the wilderness, you ate until you were satisfied. But now you are hungry again. The bread of this world may satisfy for a time, but only the bread of life fills you with the Word and Peace and Forgiveness.
Earlier we sang Bread of Heaven fill me until I want no more.
“I Am the Bread of Life.”
I am fills us until we want no more. But here’s the thing. Too many of us settle for just enough bread, just enough Jesus to satisfy. We settle for less than the life that I Am is calling us to. And so we go through life unfulfilled, wanting something more. Restless. Sometimes feeling empty. Hungry. Our relationship with Christ sometimes burns like a burning bush, but other times God seems so cold and distant. Jesus, I Am, wants to fill our lives until we want no more. “I am the bread of life.”
But is He the bread of your life?
And so to those who were filled with grief and anxiety and fear at the death of John the Baptist Jesus says, I Am the bread of life.
And isn’t it what we need when we confront the uncertainties of life in this world?
“I Am the Bread of Life.” But the question I leave with you today is this: Is Jesus the Bread of your life? Or are you content to continue to go through this life sometimes satisfied by what the world offers (because you’ll be hungry again), or do you want the bread, the fullness of life, that Jesus is? I Am the bread of life.