by John Jewell
Gospel: John 6:35, 41-51
The Gospel Story
Listen once again to the first two verses of our gospel reading:
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty ... Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." [John 6:35 & 41]
The gospel reading for this week takes us back to the last verse of last week's reading. It sets Jesus' claim about who he is and what he does dead center in the discussion. It's a kind of a, "You came for bread... well, let me tell you the truth about bread. I am the bread that came down from heaven!"
Now the crisis that will lead to a cross on the outskirts of Jerusalem begins:
"Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, 'I am the bread that came down from heaven.' "
The use of the term, "the Jews," is not an ethnic slur -- Jesus and his followers were Jews -- It was rather a focus on Judaism's absolute commitment to monotheism. Anything that even hinted of attributing divinity to a human being would be anathema to Jewish people. The complaining of the people had to do initially with a discomfort with Jesus' words about coming down from heaven.
"How can that be?" They ask, "This is a local kid. We know his parents. What's he talking about?"
It gets worse. Jesus tells them to stop complaining. Interestingly, the word is "grumble" or "murmur." It is the equivalent of the Hebrew word used in Exodus when the children of Israel got into the wilderness and were complaining against Moses because they were hungry. In other words, the ancestors of the people who were now complaining against Jesus' words were those who complained against Moses because they had no bread.
In the words of Jesus to those who had initially gathered hoping to reap more of the free physical bread, there was the most radical claim. It set their minds spinning.
"I am the bread of life!"
Hearing Jesus' Claim - for the Very First Time
It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for a group of Jewish people in the first century to hear the words, "I am the bread of life." And even more difficult, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
The gathered crowd was only beginning to understand that Jesus was taking them way beyond the issue of physical bread to a claim of being able to impart life. As the bred in the wilderness sustained their ancestors in a physical way, so now a young man whom many of them had watched grow up was claiming that he could give them bread that would impart everlasting life.
It would be more than most of them could bear.
From the sacred words of the Torah, Israel's faith was expressed in the "Shema Israel." (Hear Israel) "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one." [Deut.6:4] ³
For a devout Jew in the first century, hearing the words of Jesus would come uncomfortably close to blasphemy. Although Jesus does not utter the words, "I am the Lord," in this dialogue, there is a claim that will divide the crowd.
When the Words have become Familiar
"Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you."
"This is the body of Christ, broken for you."
Of course, Jesus Christ is the bread of life. From a child we have heard the words. A week would never go by that a devout Jew would not hear the words many times, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." And for we who gather regularly around the Lord's Table, the words, "This is the Body of Christ," are deeply ingrained in our hearts.
In the familiarity of the words we hear a gracious invitation to "come to the table." The boldness of the claim, "I am the bread of life" however, may not carry the pungency it did for the hearers in our gospel reading. For them the claim became a challenge. Are the claims of this person to be accepted or rejected? Is he for real or is he an impostor who should be eliminated.
Many of us no longer struggle with these questions. The basics of Christian faith have been taught to us since we were children. Others of us may have come more recently to a life of faith and we received the core of Christian faith as truth. Yet, there are surely many among us who struggle with the meaning of faith and quietly wonder about some of the concepts of the faith.
But, the boldness and audacity of the young man from Nazareth who stood before a crowd of his contemporaries no longer strikes in the way it must have hit them. In the midst of supporters, detractors and the just plain curious, Jesus says, "I am the bread of life!"
Hearing Jesus' Claim - Again - for the Very First Time
It would be a good thing if each of us would stop and listen to the claims of Christ again - as thought it were for the very first time. If his claims were simply true or false in the larger scope of things - ramblings or reality that made no actual difference in our lives - we could simply let them sit there on the pages of the bible without giving much thought to them.
But... these claims are not simply statements about the world "out there," they are claims about our own lives. Jesus' words go to the heart of who we are and who God created us to be. Listen to the sense of Jesus' words and hear the claim on your life as though Christ himself were standing before you:
* "I am the bread of life. I am the one who will feed your heart and soul. If you give your life to me and trust me, you will never be without meaning or purpose in your living." [6:35]
* "I will not only provide the meaning and purpose of your life here on this earth, but I will give you life that will endure for all of eternity." [6:47]
Can you hear how truly radical Jesus' claims are? What if a friend or neighbor said these things to you? You would look for the nearest exit.
As it turns out, some of those who heard the claims of Jesus that day did look for an exit.
Those who stayed became disciples for life. To encounter the person of Jesus Christ and respond to the claims of Christ with faith and trust is the beginning of authentic discipleship.
It is good for us to renew our faith and trust in the One who has claimed us by hearing his words afresh, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
May God give us grace to hear the words of Jesus again -- for the very first time -- and receive in our spirits the bread that will feed us forever.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost
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