Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“I Am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35)
August 2, 2015
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I’d like to begin today with an off-the-wall question—what’s your favorite kind of bread?
Perhaps it’s white or wheat or rye or sourdough or pumpernickel. Some prefer Italian bread, others French bread. Or maybe it’s banana bread or blueberry muffins or cinnamon rolls or biscuits or pretzels or Texas toast or pancakes or waffles. Or perhaps it’s a beignet at the Café Du Monde on Decatur Street in New Orleans. If your palette is as unrefined as mine, it’s a vanilla cream donut at the incomparable Dunkin Donuts, or Little Debbie Swiss rolls (friends have told me Little Debbie snack cakes contain no actual bread at all but please bear with me).
And maybe some of you, like a “friend of mine” may occasionally crave a certain kind of bread so much that you will drive across town to get it, regardless of what time it is or how inconvenient it may be—“I’ve got to have a Little Debbie Swiss roll with my coffee.” Nothing weird about that—and I suspect I am not alone.
And regardless of what your favorite kind of bread is, your need for bread never goes away, does it? Hunger may be temporarily satisfied, but it always returns. In fact, hunger, both physical and otherwise, is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. British poet and scholar Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) describes this:
I come among the peoples like a shadow.
I sit down by each man’s side.
None sees me, but they look on one another,
And know that I am there.
My silence is like the silence of the tide
That buries the playground of children;
Like the deepening of frost in the slow night,
When birds are dead in the morning.
Armies trample, invade, destroy,
With guns roaring from earth and air.
I am more terrible than armies.
I am more feared than the cannon.
Kings and chancellors give commands;
I give no command to any;
But I am listened to more than kings
And more than passionate orators.
I unswear words, and undo deeds.
Naked things know me.
I am first and last to be felt of the living.
I am Hunger.
What are you hungry for?
Scripture tells us that the Lord cares for the hungry, which is good news if you’re hungry because it means God cares for you. The psalmist assures us that the Lord “fills the hungry with good things” (Psalm107:9)—and Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” (Luke 6:21).
John’s account of the gospel contains several “I am” sayings from Jesus, several of which are connected to a miracle. Jesus proclaimed, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12) before healing a blind man and “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) before raising Lazarus from the dead. In today’s gospel passage we find the first of these “I am” sayings of Jesus—this one connected to the miracle of the feeding of the multitude—“I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).
The day after this miracle a crowd found Jesus and began discussing with him a similar miracle from the Old Testament, the account of God’s provision of manna for the children of Israel during their wilderness sojourn. “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness,” they told Jesus, “As it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (6:31).
Listen to how Jesus responds: “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” The crowd asks, “Sir, give us this bread always,” to which Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life” (6:35).
Jesus connects Old Testament manna and the miracle of the feeding of the multitude to himself—“I am the bread of life—and regardless of the motivation or reason or condition of your hunger, there is always a place for you at God’s table.
A brilliant image of this is found in a novel that, like the play, resounds with gospel, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. After being granted parole the convict Jean Valjean struggles to find work. He is filthy and ragged, rejected and forsaken by society but above all, hungry. But to his surprise he is graciously welcomed by an elderly bishop. The bishop gently invites him to dinner, and treats him as an honored guest. Jean Valjean is overcome by the grace of the bishop:
“Monsieur…you are goodness itself. You don’t despise me. You take me into your home. You light candles for me. Even though I didn’t hide from you where I’ve been or the fact that I’m a poor cursed man.”
The bishop was sitting next to him and he gently touched his hand. “You didn’t have to tell me who you were. This is not my house; it’s the house of Jesus Christ. That door does not ask who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has any pain. You are suffering, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And don’t thank me, don’t tell me I’m taking you into my home. No one is at home here except the man who is in need of a refuge. I’m telling you, who are passing through, you are more at home here than I am myself. Everything here is at your disposal. What do I need to know your name for? Besides, before you told me your name, you had one I knew.”
(Jean Valjean) opened his eyes in amazement.
“True? You knew what I was called?”
“Yes,” replied the bishop. “You are called my brother” (Julie Rose’s 2008 translation for The Modern Library, 66).
The overwhelming grace the bishop gave Jean Valjean mirrors the overwhelming grace Jesus, the Bread of Life, gives to hungry sinners like you and me.
Richard Rohr writes about this overwhelming grace of God in his 2013 book Immortal Diamond:
The goodness of God fills all the gaps of the universe, without discrimination or preference. God is the gratuity of absolutely everything…When we say that Christ “paid the debt once and for all,” it simply means that God’s job is to make up for all deficiencies in the universe. What else would God do? Basically, grace is God’s first name, and probably last too. Grace is what God does to keep all things he has made in love and alive—forever. Grace is God’s official job description. Grace is not something God gives. Grace is who God is (xx).
Indeed, “Grace is who God is,” and one aspect of that overwhelming grace is Jesus being the Bread of Life.
It is interesting to note that—unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke—when John describes the crowd being fed by the bread and fish Jesus multiplied, he writes that they received “as much as they wanted” (6:11)—as much as they wanted (not needed), and there was still lots of leftovers. God’s grace is not neat and tidy. It is not “waste not, want not.” God’s grace is overwhelming and overflowing.
Last weekend I was with my daughter Emily in the mountains in western North Carolina, and we spent an afternoon hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Nantahala National Forest. At the top of a ridge there was a side trail leading through a meadow and further up to a summit. When we reached it we were completely overwhelmed by the spectacular view—a literal 360-degree view—lush green mountains, some covered with clouds, some tinted various shades of blue, as far as we could see. We were literally surrounded by the overwhelming beauty of God’s creation.
God’s grace toward you is like that.
Moreover, John is the only gospel writer who does not record Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper—he records his washing the disciples’ feet instead. Therefore some scholars see John’s record of Jesus identifying himself as the Bread of Life to be a reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion. Rather than saying, “Take, eat, this is my body given for you” (as in the Synoptic Gospels) in John’s account Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (6:51).
And as it says in the Thirty-nine Articles (1563) sacraments, including Holy Communion, are “certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him” (The Book of Common Prayer 872).
In other words, Jesus Christ feeds the hunger of the world, and the hunger in your life, with…himself—“I am the Bread of Life,” which also adds a new dimension to the petition from the Lord’s Prayer—“Give us this day our daily bread.”
One more illustration…in the powerful 2001 film I Am Sam Sean Penn (in an Oscar-nominated role) plays Sam Dawson, a single dad who is mentally challenged. He and his seven year old daughter, Lucy, played by Dakota Fanning, are at an IHOP restaurant, awaiting the kind of “bread” you can only get at IHOP. As they await their pancakes Lucy looks at her dad and asks: “Daddy, did God mean for you to be like this, or was it an accident?”
Sam looks puzzled, “Okay, what do you mean?” Lucy replies, “I mean you’re different.” “But what do you mean?” Lucy softly says, “You’re not like other daddy’s.” Then Sam, looking downcast, pauses, and then replies, “Sorry. I’m sorry.” You know what Lucy does? She smiles at her dad, reaches across the table and takes his hand, “It’s okay, Daddy, don’t be sorry. We’re lucky. Nobody else’s daddy ever comes to the park.”
Sam grins with relief, “Yeah, we are lucky! Aren’t we lucky? Yeah!” And at that moment the waitress brings them their pancakes—“Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity” for Sam and the “Funny Face Special” for Lucy—plenty of bread for all.
On the cross, Jesus Christ, “goodness himself,” indeed “paid the debt once and for all.” The powerful “I am Hunger” of the world, and of your life, is satisfied by an infinitely more powerful “I am”—“I am the Bread of Life.”
So if today you, like Jean Valjean, “are suffering, hungry and thirsty,” you are welcome here. Because the good news of the gospel is that your Heavenly Father is not like other daddy’s—not only does he come to the park, he also “gives you the true bread from heaven,” Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life.