Just answer the question
Jesus is pretty terrible at answering questions in a straightforward way. At times it sounds like Jesus is being deliberately obtuse. It might remind us of listening to a political debate where leaders stick to their talking points no matter the question asked of them. However, the difference with Jesus is that he hasn’t arrived to give a stump speech. He is not running for office. He is not avoiding unflattering points of conversation. Instead Jesus uses these interactions with disciples and would-be disciples as teachable moments. Maybe their questions were not the most helpful to begin with. Instead Jesus uses expansive language and metaphor to expand the story.
Consider the first question: “Rabbi when did you come here?” Jesus avoids answering the question altogether and instead challenges them, “you’re here for the bread, aren’t you?” Jesus sounds like an embittered great aunt, “You never visit me all year long, except when I am putting on a big meal. I work in the kitchen all the day for you. Is this the thanks I get?”
Bread of life more than just bread
What is Jesus up to? While Jesus says the disciples are fixated on bread that fills their stomachs, Jesus has come to bring them a different kind of bread, the bread of life. It is also a bread that feeds us but in a different way. And Jesus himself is that bread. But Jesus doesn’t like to be too literal, so he speaks in metaphors. He has come not to disparage bread for the hungry, whose material needs are real, but to prompt the disciples to think bigger. He wants them to think in terms of faith that encompasses both kinds of bread. Jesus is pointing them beyond ordinary bread to Jesus as extraordinary bread around which they are to orient their entire life. Jesus as bread of life is promising more than what one meal can provide.
Let us take some time to consider three reflections on Jesus as the bread of life.
Bread of life is food that endures
First, the bread of life is food that endures. Jesus is concerned that the disciples are too fixated on food that fills their stomachs. He is stretching their horizons. For this we have to think beyond the food metaphor because all food has a shelf life. No matter how much we try to stretch the bread metaphor, with yeast and its expansive properties, at the end of the day food perishes, just like everything that is created. Jesus is pointing towards Godly food that endures. And here we need to be careful not to spiritualize things. Jesus isn’t just talking about a ticket to heaven but something more.
This past week I accompanied a group of grade one kids on a class trip to a composting centre field trip. There we met Dr. Wiggles, a worm puppet, who taught us all about the values of composting. One of the takeaways Dr. Wiggles provided was not only to understand the benefit worms provide us breaking down the green and brown material in our compost. But also as one kid correctly identified that it’s a cycle that continues. What matters is that compost breaks down and nourishes soil which grows more vegetables which in turn creates more compost and the life cycle continues. There is a sense of enduring over time. Again there are limits to this metaphor, but Jesus is pointing beyond one meal to the life cycle of discipleship. As we partake in the bread of life, we are re-oriented to an abundant garden. A garden of grace, a garden of unconditional life that feeds us no matter where we find ourselves in life. In the midst of joy and sadness, in the midst of mourning, unemployment, ill health, feeling lonely. Jesus as the bread of life offers a food that endures through faith, especially in moments we might feel we aren’t being fed by other areas of life. This is our first takeaway, bread of life which endures.
Bread of life as holy communion
Our second takeaway: Jesus is bread of life in holy communion. While this is not stated explicitly in our gospel reading, this is our analogue to the manna from heaven the would-be disciples mention. Jesus reminds them that manna is also a gift from God. So too for us the bread we share around the table is from God. As Martin Luther liked to say it is just plain old bread together with the Word of God. It is just plain old wine together with the Word of God. It’s about taking something plain and ordinary to which the Word of God is joined. God is present and endures in the bread and wine. Like the disciples we are forgetful about things that endure. We also think meal to meal.
This is one reason as Lutherans we gather together and share in an actual meal that is also at the SAME TIME a meal that is enduring (Ginger Barfield). We eat actual bread, which is also Jesus as bread of life. However communion isn’t only a weekly teachable moment, but a moment of grace. It is the time at which we are reassured that God is with us and God is among us as a community of Jesus followers.
Communion is also the one meal every week at which everyone is welcome to participate. No matter our divergent views, no matter our partisan affiliations, no matter our differences of opinion and interpretation of the world. One thing that connects us together is receiving the bread of life every week. Even if no one wants to sit next to cousin Frank at the Thanksgiving table because of his rants about government and taxes, we all stand together with Uncle Frank and the rest of our own idiosyncrasies around the table. Together we are Jesus followers, we are messy, we aren’t perfect, we make mistakes, we break promises, and yet somehow despite all odds we are made whole in Christ. We are gathered together and offered a meal of healing around God’s table. This is our second takeaway: Jesus is bread of life for us in holy communion as we gather together each week.
Bread of life as free of hunger and thirst
Our third takeaway: Jesus is bread of life, free of hunger and thirst. To be clear Jesus is not minimizing the needs of people who hunger and thirst in the literal sense. In Matthew 25 we hear Jesus explicitly talk about the duties of Jesus followers feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Bread of life metaphors are not meant to obfuscate these real issues. Which in part is why we are collecting food for Shelbourne Community Kitchen today and why at Church of the Cross we are providing a home for the Kitchen’s food storage directly beneath our feet in the unfinished space.
I think one of the challenges we have at times as church is learning to slow down and prayerfully reflect upon Jesus’ words. We need to tap into that life that is free of hunger and thirst in order to respond to the needs of those who hunger and thirst today. At Church of the Cross we have a lot of good projects on the go worthy of our support. So many projects in fact that we need to sift through them, discern which ministries we want to emphasize in the coming years. Which is why we are having a second goal setting conversation two Saturdays from now, as well as developing an online and paper version of a survey to get your input. The ministry needs we see around us are always greater than what we can answer well.
That too can be hard because to choose one emphasis means not focusing on something else. And so we pray for patience to slow down, to take in the surroundings, to enjoy the time we have together, to witness to God’s grace in our midst.
One story on slowing down I heard from Kim, the executive director of the Shelbourne Community Kitchen. She was feeling anxious to get the refrigeration storage built downstairs. Talking with the general contractor for the project he said, “Slow down big rig, you have to put things in low gear.” He emphasized this is just how it works coordinating multiple trades people together on a relatively small project. These people have to tend to their bigger projects and fit in the Kitchen project in their spare time. Expect delays, have patience, have faith that it will work out on its own time through the continual diligence of doing the work.
Sometimes I wonder whether that is true for us as well. “Slow down big rig,” can be heard as words of grace. A reminder that we don’t have to come up with solutions overnight. We do the work day by day. Anxiety and worry doesn’t make things happen any faster and surely doesn’t contribute to our joy as Jesus followers. If anything it’s what burns people out when they feel the hurdles and work to be done are too much. As we continue doing our goal setting as church, let us keep this mind. How do we move forward while tending to our spiritual nourishment. Let us heed our third takeaway, tending to a life in Christ that is free from hunger and thirst.
Wrapping up, remember the three takeaways about Jesus as the Bread of Life:
First, the bread of life is food that endures. As Jesus followers we aren’t chasing a quick fix, but a life of discipleship which endures.
Second, Jesus is bread of life in holy communion. Receive this meal of grace.
Third, Jesus is bread of life, free of hunger and thirst. God grant us patience in our life together.
Think about one thing from our time this morning that you will take with you over the Thanksgiving week. Jesus as the bread of heaven is sustaining you, feeding you, loving you no matter where you are at and how you are feeling. Amen.