Let’s start with a “fill in the blank” exercise:
“I am _______________”
We could fill in what we do: “I am a teacher, scientist, homemaker, retiree, etc.”
Or how we feel: “I am excited, nervous, tired.”
Or who we are: “I am a parent, a child, a citizen of Colorado” and so on.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes numerous statements that begin with the two small words, “I am.” For example:
I am the Good Shepherd
I am the Vine
I am the Way, the Truth, the Life
I am the Bread of Life.
Today we find Jesus and a crowd of persistent followers on the day after what we call the “Feeding of the Five Thousand. A lot of hungry people ate their fill of bread and fish on a hillside and now they have in essence followed the bread crumbs around the lake to find Jesus again.
Jesus doesn’t seem too pleased by what he sees as the motivation of this portable crowd. He’s not a “Bread King” after all. The conversation that is recorded in John is a lot like the dialogue that took place between Jesus and a woman beside a well in Samaria. In that instance, they were conversing about water, and Jesus introduced the idea of living water. He tried to teach about a spiritual dimension of life and getting his point across was difficult. It’s the same here. People understood the concept of bread, but Jesus wanted them to experience what he called the Bread of Life. And he said to them, I am the Bread of Life.
Why bread? Why not figs or lamb or falafels? Something more exotic or tasty? Wouldn’t Jesus want us to understand him as something special? More of a fine dining experience? Bread is so basic. It’s so every-day ordinary, as in “give us this day our daily bread.
Bread doesn’t really get much good press today. We are all too familiar with the dangers of carbs and processed flour. Every time I’m served a warm delicious-looking roll at a restaurant, I feel the pressure of making what seems like a life and death decision. Remember the old commercials for Wonder Bread, those puffy, white, glutenous slices? “Building strong bodies twelve ways?” Who were they kidding?!
I’m thinking Jesus was more of a whole wheat and multi-grain kind of savior. He said “I am the Bread of Life” and he offered himself as the most basic element to sustain life. His listeners that day had probably eaten some form of bread that morning, and they would eat bread the next day and the next. It was simple and available and they were people who didn’t have many menu options.
There is a great interchange in the reading from John about Moses and the Manna in the desert. The crowds surrounding Jesus in Galilee wanted bread from him on a regular basis, not just as a special occasion. They reminded him that the bread Moses provided (even though it was really God who did that, as Jesus corrected them), appeared on the ground every single morning. Jesus once again turned the conversation around to let them know that what they needed most wasn’t what filled their stomachs but what would sustain their souls.
Not long ago I made a quick lunch stop at Subway and the young woman with plastic gloves putting together the sandwiches asked me, “What kind of bread would you like?” I look at the chart with my choices: White, Hearty Italian, Honey Oat, Roasted Garlic, Sourdough. I actually chose the flat bread, and I thought about that question a while: “What kind of bread would you like?”
Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life.” What kind of bread would you like Jesus to be? That’s a silly question, right? Jesus is not exactly inviting us to make him be whatever we like. Sometimes I wonder if people don’t try to do that, though, as Christian faith is used as an endorsement of products and programs and politics that on close inspection might be seen as antithetical to the message of Jesus. Maybe all of us, though, have the potential to want to choose our own bread, to make Jesus into whatever we like, rather than gratefully receiving what is offered to us. That can be said of religious progressives as much as it can be said of those claiming biblical literalism.
The crowds who were in Galilee that day appeared to be looking for an easy and even passive faith. “Feed us again, Jesus,” they said. But Jesus didn’t just want feeders, he wanted followers. In other words, those who don’t just get filled up. He had a whole, great, challenging gospel of good news to share and for his followers to live out every day. That daily journey required daily bread, and Jesus was ready to share it generously, just has he had shared physical bread with them.
The Buddhist fable we heard describes a man who was also given bread. He was hungry, he had the courage to ask a monk to share his bread, and he was given both the bread and a gemstone. He apparently ate the bread, but instead of being satisfied with a full stomach and a valuable gem that could solve a lot of his other concerns, he returned the stone and asked about the source of generosity and the reason for the gift. He exhibited a curiosity and a hunger that we don’t see, at least not initially, in those who followed Jesus around the lake in Palestine. The beggar was so eager to expand his understanding of truth that he was willing to pay a high price, the return of the valuable stone, in order to attain it.
Jesus seemed to draw a sharp distinction between physical and spiritual bread, but I wonder if that is more in our own reading and own thinking than in the actual intention of Jesus. He didn’t hesitate to share bread and fish with the hungry, and it was his compassion that moved him to do so. The bread was a sign of something further, but the physical and spiritual bread went hand in hand.
Where do we find the line between what is material and what is spiritual when it comes to loving and serving others?
Nikolai Bordyaev, a Russian Christian Philosopher from the last century, wrote: "The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question."
John Dominic Crossan and Richard Watts co-authored a book titled “Who is Jesus?” in which they quote a woman serving among the poor in Haiti. She said, “I feel so stirred and inspired by the idea of Jesus as a radical egalitarian who broke down barriers to celebrate table fellowship with all manner of people. I just wish we could set a table for every Haitian child who cries in my arms and whispers, 'I'm hungry'"
Sharing bread with the physically hungry is a spiritual action. Jesus models for us in John 6 what it means to give generously and to live in ways that become life-giving for others. He said “I am the Bread of Life”, and his life continues through us to bless all people and satisfy all manner of hunger.
How might we complete the sentence? “I am ______.”
“I am hungry for more?”
“I am curious about truth?”
“I am a follower of Jesus?”
“I am bread, also; a physical self and a spiritual dimension to share with others”?
Today we will receive bread again, along with wine, and in doing so we reaffirm that we intend to follow in the way of Jesus and that we, in fact, are bread for others.