[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s Gospel reading is John 6:24-35. You can read the text here.
One of my most deeply ingrained childhood memories has to do with bread. My mum went to work part-time when I was six or seven years old; before that, she would bake fresh bread every single day. So whether I’d been playing out with friends or was coming home from school, as I opened the door I was always greeted by the same thing: the wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread. Even now, the smell of fresh bread immediately takes me back to the house I lived in as a child, and evokes strong feelings of home, care and provision.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, we lived in France for a few years. On our first Christmas in France, we went out for a walk on the morning of Christmas Day, and were astonished to see the local bakery open, and people queuing out the door to get their fresh bread for the day. To us, this was an unexpected sight because in our experience, shops stayed closed on Christmas Day. But fresh bread is so central to French culture that the idea of not being able to get it on any given day – even Christmas Day – was and is simply inconceivable.
Bread is, of course, a key theme in today’s Gospel reading, which culminates in the first of Jesus’ seven great “I am” statements given to us in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life.”
But before we think about what it means that Jesus is the bread of life, let’s take a few moments to review the events leading up to this statement.
In last Sunday’s Gospel, we heard about how Jesus fed five thousand men (not counting women and children) with a few loaves and fishes. Shortly after performing that great sign, Jesus sensed that the crowd was so impressed that they wanted to make him king by force, so he withdrew to a mountainous place to be alone.
There then comes a slightly strange episode where the disciples get in a boat and set out across the lake for Capernaum, only to get caught in a storm. In the midst of the storm, they meet Jesus walking on the water; he gets into the boat with them, and in an instant they’re mysteriously transported to the shore where they were heading.
Today’s reading picks up back on the other side of the lake. The crowd from the previous day realise Jesus and his gang are all missing, so they all get in boats and cross the lake looking for him. When they find him in Capernaum, they ask when he came there. He doesn’t answer their question: we know about his journey across the lake the previous night, when he walked on the water, but he never tells them that. Perhaps he’s now extra wary of giving them any more reasons to be impressed by him.
So instead of answering the crowd’s question, Jesus rather curtly tells them, “You’re not looking for me because you saw the signs I performed, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” More questions follow from the crowd: they want a sign, and their minds are clearly on the free lunch they had the day before. They also bring up the subject of how Moses fed the people of Israel with “manna” from heaven.
To understand what’s going on here, we need to know that there was a Jewish tradition that said that when the Messiah came – when God’s chosen one appeared on the scene to kick out the Romans and restore Jerusalem to its full glory – he would repeat this sign that Moses had performed. Jesus had done something similar, and it seems the crowd had made this connection with Moses and the giving of the manna, and decided Jesus must be the king they were waiting for.
Jesus refuses to give them straight answers to their questions – or, at least, they seem to consistently miss the point of the answers Jesus does give them. He finally begins to speak to them about the “bread of life that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”. This gets their attention, and they ask him to “always give us this bread”. We get a sense that what they’re really asking for, though, is something to fill their bellies. But instead of doing another miracle-on-demand to satisfy their physical, temporal desires, Jesus instead answers with, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Two types of bread
So, what can we understand from all this? I put it to you that the crowd is seeking one kind of bread, while the bread that Jesus is offering is a different kind of bread altogether.
What kind of bread is the crowd seeking? They want two things: another free lunch to feed their physical hunger, and Jesus to step into the role of warrior-messiah to feed their political hunger. In other words, they seem to see Jesus purely as a useful resource to fulfil their desires, goals and agendas. To put it another way, they’re following him for what they can receive. The bread they’re seeking is the short-term, perishable, unfulfilling kind – the kind Jesus calls “food that spoils” and tells them not to go after.
It’s very easy for us, too, to fall into that same trap of using Jesus as a resource – of following him for what we can receive – isn’t it? Perhaps what we want Jesus to provide for us is peace and security in an uncertain world. Maybe we want him to make us feel better when we’re sad or lonely. Perhaps we want him to help us fulfil our career ambitions or other life goals. Maybe we just want him to be our “ticket to heaven” when we die. These are all very understandable desires… but fundamentally, none of them correspond to the kind of bread Jesus is offering.
What Jesus is offering instead is the bread of life. This is not some nice-to-have, feel-good product designed to pep us up and keep us happy; it’s our very being and sustenance, and Jesus says we get it by coming to him and believing in him – which means aligning ourselves with him, committing ourselves to him, and allowing our lives to be moulded and shaped by his life. Far from using Jesus as a means to fulfil our various agendas, however innocuous and even virtuous they might seem, this bread that Jesus offers requires us to lay down our agendas – our “kingdoms”, if you like – and to seek first his kingdom, to make his priorities our priorities, his values our values, and his goals our goals.
This is costly bread that Jesus is offering, then, because it requires us to set aside our transient and often self-oriented desires, and to ask him to retrain us according to his desires. This means no longer calling on Jesus to help us manage and make a success of our lives, but rather asking him to be our life, to live His life through us – which, of course, means His life of compassion, mercy, humility, service… in short, His life of all-embracing, everyone-encompassing love. It means, when we come to God alone in prayer, no longer simply coming with a shopping list of requests we want Him to answer for us, like some kind of divine vending machine, but rather baring our souls to Him and inviting Him to do the deep and sometimes painful work of transformation that will make us more like Jesus. And, of course, all this is not just for the sake of making us nicer people; it’s so we can be the ones Jesus sends into the world to carry on the work his Father sent him to do, which is the work of reconciliation.
The challenge, then, is clear: will we keep on telling Jesus what kind of bread we want, and expecting him to obligingly provide it; or will we agree with him that what we really need is the bread of his life, which is freely given for us, but which requires us to give up all our firmly held ideas about what he should be doing for us and how he should be doing it?
One preacher put it like this:
“One of the marks of maturity of faith is you come to accept your limits, and you accept that God is not going to give you everything you want, like you want it, when you want it. That’s a sign of maturity: not the weakening of faith, but the deepening and the strengthening of faith, in which you put to bed all of those bad desires in which you’re trying to get God to be a resource for the life you want. That’s what idols are: idols are resources that you use to build the life you want. But our God is not useful in that way. He’s not there to resource the life you want to build, or to save you from what you want to be saved from, or to give you what you want to be given. He’s there to make you what he intends for you to be.” 
In a few moments we’ll share communion, where we receive the bread of life Jesus offers. This bread reaches the parts no other bread can reach. May we truly take it in, and dare to allow it to change us.
 Dr. Chris Green, from a sermon preached at Sanctuary Church, Tulsa on 15 May 2016.