The following is a sermon that I will preach to the good people of Clairmont Presbyterian Church on the fifth Sunday of Lent (tomorrow). It’s also a continuation of our series, “Jesus Epithets,” with a view to exploring what it means that Jesus is the “Bread of Life.” Will you pray for me tomorrow as I give this Word?
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.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.” - John 6:35-51
When was the last time you were hungry? Really hungry-ravenous, I mean, like you could almost eat anything in sight?
When I’m really, really hungry, it doesn’t seem to matter what I stuff myself with. Filling my stomach becomes more important than whether the food is actually good for me.
Every once in a while I take my kids to Krispy Kreme donuts. Going to Krispy Kreme is always a full-sensory experience, because while we breathe in the sweet, inviting smells we also get to watch the donuts being made, how they go down those conveyor belts, take a dip in lard and then shower off in warm glaze.
We love watching those donuts materialize, and we love eating them even more. The first, second, even third donut can go down so easily. Usually by the time we’ve waited for our donuts, we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re ready to down a truckload of them.
Funny thing is that no matter how yummy those donuts taste, a few hours later I am regretting that I even touched one. When I’m there, deep in the sugar dumps, I can pretty much kiss off exercising that day, or doing anything that would require physical activity on my part. Even thinking deep thoughts becomes harder than it usually is. In these instances, the expression, “you are what you eat,” comes true: I feel like a donut. Because if a donut had a personality, I’m convinced it would be listless, tired and lazy.
Still, while I intellectually may know that some sweet dough with a hole in the middle dipped in grease and sugar isn’t ultimately the best way to satiate my hunger or refuel my body, I need more to convince me than a cerebral argument. I need first to know what it means to hunger for and be fed with real food. Food that isn’t just sweet, empty calories that leave me feeling tired and listless, but food that gives me real sustenance. Food that satisfies.
There’s a saying that we preachers sometimes trumpet, and it goes something like this: “Preach to yourself and let others overhear.”
To be honest, I procrastinated a whole lot on this sermon. I didn’t want you to overhear what I was going to tell myself. Because if truth be told, I hunger for other things, too. Donuts are not the only thing on my conveyer belt. I hunger for things that sometimes threaten to undo me.
One of the things I most hunger for these days is a way to escape the messiness of life. Believe it or not, we ministers- many of us- don’t have perfect lives. We make mistakes. We fail to be who God intended us to be. We’re certainly not always “spiritual” (whatever that means, anyway). The apostle Paul’s instruction to “pray unceasingly”? If I’m able to work 20 minutes of prayer time into my morning, I celebrate! We ministers often find that the things we set out to do, things, for example, like being a good wife or mother, we are pretty mediocre at really.
And in that space in which I find myself really hungry- hungry for help, hungry for an encouraging word, hungry for the strength to persist with life’s challenges in less-than-ideal circumstances- that is when I am often least likely to fill my stomach with the good stuff, the stuff that will really feed me and give me life. Instead I am more likely to go stuff myself with the worst things for me. Like self-destructive narratives and behaviors that would tell me I’ll never amount to anything, or that I’m too broken to be helped, or that I have nothing to give the world because I’m too much of a mess myself.
But here Jesus is saying that He’s the Real Stuff. He’s the Bread of Life. That when I feel hungry, I can feed on Him and be satisfied, so satisfied that after a time I’ll hunger less and less for other things. Because I’ll recognize that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the answer to my deep hunger.
Someone the other day was observing that we, in the church, have managed to so “overspiritualize the Lord’s Supper that we’ve turned what was supposed to be an actual meal into a pantomime of a meal.” He went on to say that the “church is hungry because of it.”
The church is hungry. Not just those people out there in the world. We, the church, you and I, are hungry. Some of us are starving to death. Because somehow we have reduced what was supposed to be an extravagant feast, or at least a long, leisurely dinner hosted by God Himself, into a few, short bites. God’s abundant provision for us becomes little more than a tiny nibble of Wonder bread, or a tasteless wafer, followed by a thimble-sized cup of grape juice. We make the scandalous generosity of Jesus’ invitation to feed on God Himself- or, as the original Greek puts it, to actually munch or gnaw on Jesus at our leisure and with enjoyment- into nothing more than a polite ritual.
And when we do this we deny our hunger. And we deny the Good News that God Himself is both the Source of our hunger and the One who can fill us.
And this is exactly what the crowd is doing in today’s passage. They’re hungry alright. They’ve been looking for Jesus because they’ve seen the miracles He can do. They’ve seen Jesus take a boy’s lunch box meal of five loaves and two fishes and turn it into a feast for five thousand people, with loads left over. They’ve seen Jesus take scarcity and make it into abundance; they’ve seen Jesus take emptiness and make it into wholeness; they’ve seen Jesus satisfy their physical hunger right before their eyes.
But when the very food that will feed them forever, the “Bread of Life,” is right under their nose, they’re still hungering for the Krispy-Kreme quick fix. They’re wanting a Messiah who will simply rescue them from the pain and muddle of their lives as a people in captivity. They’re longing for some speedy getaway to the tune their ancestors took many Passovers ago on that night when Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt and I’m guessing they’ve forgotten that whole “forty-years- in-the-wilderness” part.
Chances are you and I aren’t wistfully remembering dramatic signs and wonders in our lives, like plagues of locusts and the parting of the Red Sea, but I suspect most of us have our wish lists for God- those things we’re convinced would make us whole or happy in a flash. We would like to think that if God just did “X”- heal us from depression or fix our marriage or give us a partner or eliminate our financial woes- just fill in the blank- then we would be whole. We, like the crowds, can often go to God impressed with God’s signs, Jesus rising from the dead being maybe the most obvious. We can go to God asking for a full-blown make-over of our lives or at least a change of scenery. We think whatever it is we’re asking for will be an answer to our hunger and a solution to the gnawing emptiness.
And Jesus is saying, “Don’t you see? You’ve been eating the wrong things, things that won’t ultimately fill you up. And you don’t have to do that anymore, because you can feed on me. I’m your answer, and I’ve been here all along. I am your miracle. I am what’s best for you. I am the real food that doesn’t just fill your tummies but makes you into real people. Real mensch, so to speak, with real life that just keeps on going.”
Maybe the question then is do we really believe Jesus? Do we really believe Him when He tells us He is actually the Bread of Life? Because if we really believed Him, we would acknowledge how hungry we are and we would ask Him to feed us. Right here and right now.
Some of us have gotten so used to filling our stomachs with other things that tonight we don’t even realize we’re hungry anymore. Tonight we may look at this feast we’re about to partake and see it as just going through the religious motions because that’s what we do. We may not even believe that Jesus is really here in the words the preacher is spouting or in the meal before us.And if that’s how you’re feeling this evening, we’re glad you’re here. Our passage today would insist that God Himself led you here- regardless of how hungry you thought you were when you sat down in these pews.
But there is something you can do even when you’re not feeling hungry. You can tell God that you’d like to hunger for the Good Stuff, the Bread of Life stuff, and then ask God to give you that hunger. You can ask God to help you want it.
Those of us who have struggled with addiction of any kind know that the process of handing one’s life over to God happens one day at a time. Sometimes we have to pray even for the will to do so. When we’ve hungered for the wrong things for a while- the things that won’t ultimately give us life- it can feel at first like each day is an exercise in asking for daily bread.
And maybe that daily surrender is just where Jesus wants us to be. In fact, I’m sure of it. Because Jesus was well acquainted with the reality that our stomachs can’t go for very long without needing to be filled. Which is why He uses this metaphor of bread, and why, when He teaches us to pray, He tells us we should ask God for our daily bread.
This is the season of Lent in the church calendar. It’s the time when we remember how Jesus freely chose to give his life up for the world and overturn death itself. Not simply to wow us with a sign, but to draw us to God’s very Self. Not simply to zap us into flawless people with perfect lives, but to form us into the people we were meant to be. Real, whole people who know they’re hungry for real food and remember who it is who gives them life. Who remember their Lifegiver when they’re feeling dead inside.
When I was a hospice chaplain, I had the privilege of sitting at the bedside of a man in his twilight years. When I met this man, his mind was so wracked by dementia that it often seemed like he lived in a faraway land; his moments of lucidity were few and far between.
This man had once been a leader in the civil rights movement. He had devoted a big part of his life to helping African Americans like himself attain the same freedoms whites had come to take for granted, so one day I decided to do what I usually only do in the shower. I decided to sing. And I sang a song that would have been familiar to him. Its verses had been sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons. It went something like this:
We shall overcome, we shall overcome, We shall overcome someday; Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome someday.
Something happened when I began to sing that song. A lone tear dribbled down this man’s cheek, and then he began to sing, too. He began to sing those lines with me, and when he sang, he sang with heart and conviction, like the meaning had become real again, only this time maybe even deeper from within the prison of his dementia.
There are a bunch of verses to the song, but I only really knew the first verse, so there we were in a nursing home belting out “We shall overcome,” over and over again. We shall overcome, we shall overcome, We shall overcome someday…
When in a few short minutes we come to this table to eat the bread and drink the wine, we, too, are in essence singing the very same song. We’re singing “we shall overcome someday.” Because we come to this table knowing full well that we’re hungry, and that the only One who can really feed us is also the One who Himself overcame- who overcame even death- and He’s the One whose life we now share. He’s the only one who can give us what we really need to live. He’s the real stuff. The Bread of Life stuff. Real food for real people.
The question is: how hungry are you?