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The Bread of Life

How do prefer to eat bread? Sliced multi-grain, lightly toasted and spread with marmalade? French baguette, thickly cut, with raspberry jam? Crusty loaf fresh from the oven, with melting butter and vegemite?
Yes, bread comes in many shapes, sizes, styles and flavours. Many of us eat it every day in some form or another. No wonder it’s called the ‘staff of life’ — a staple food the world over. And little wonder that much of the world’s agricultural land is given over to growing the grain to make the flour comprising about 60% of the mass of any loaf of bread.

Bread is one of the most ancient of foodstuffs. It was being made ten-thousand years ago in Egypt because querns that old — two grindstones for making flour —have been found in archaeological sites there. Not surprisingly, bread is frequently mentioned in the Bible, in which there are 395 separate references to bread. 
Jesus himself often referred to bread, in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the word. For example in the prayer he taught his disciples, which we sometimes say at TUC, he told his disciples to pray “Give us this day our daily bread”. You can take that two ways and at two different levels of meaning. First and literally, it means “Please God, provide daily the nutrition our bodies need”. Second and metaphorically, it means “Please Lord, sustain us spiritually, intellectually and emotionally as well as physically”.
Jesus used the word ‘bread’ over 30 times in the Gospels, often metaphorically. It’s in John 6 that he famously refers to himself as ‘the bread of life’; and he says it not once but five times. This sermon explores what he might have meant by calling himself that, but first let’s examine the context of his pronouncement.

According to John, Jesus’s claim to being ‘the bread of life’ comes the day after he had miraculously fed his audience of 5000 with just five small loaves and two fish beside the Sea of Galilee. That night, as described in John 6, Jesus had crossed back over the lake, walking on the water, before getting into his disciples’ boat, which miraculously arrived on the shore near Capernaum as soon as he stepped aboard.

As we heard in today’s Scripture reading, the next day the crowd he had fed came looking for him, having caught boats across the lake. When they catch up with them, he chides them, telling them they only want another free feed and don’t recognise the significance of the miracle he had performed. He then tells them they shouldn’t be focussing on food that will perish, like bread stored in a cupboard. Instead, they should be seeking ‘bread’ that will last forever and bestow everlasting life upon them. Where, they ask, can they obtain such miraculous bread?

It’s at this point, in John 6:35, that he famously proclaims, ‘I am the bread of life. Those who come to me will never go hungry, and those who believe in me will never go thirsty.’ But what was he actually saying about himself? It’s fairly obvious to us, 2000 years and countless thousands of sermons later, that he was speaking metaphorically, telling them that belief in him would sustain them spiritually, and that such belief would wholly satisfy them. That, however, was not obvious to his audience, who usually took him literally, seeing only the most basic meaning in his teaching. The higher-level, allegorical meaning often eluded them.

So what was he trying to tell them? Jesus’s ‘I am the bread of life’ pronouncement is the first of his seven famous ‘I am’ statements made in John’s Gospel. You’ll be familiar with the other six — ‘I am the light of the world, … the gate for the sheep, …the good shepherd, … the resurrection and the life, … the way, the truth and the life, … the true vine.’ Each is an allegorical explanation of who he is. The first three Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — tell us what Jesus did, whereas John’s Gospel explains who Jesus was. It was through his seven key ‘I am’ statements that Jesus explained to his followers that he was God’s Son and that his Father had sent him to show humanity what its right relationship with God should be, and also to save humanity from the wrong relationships with God that we habitually fall into because of our fallible human waywardness.


    But why liken himself to a loaf of bread, emphasising his point by repeating the metaphor and then, for good measure, also saying twice that he was ‘the bread that comes down from heaven’?
    The answer to that is that bread was very well understood by his audience. It was the staple food of Judaea. Making it — grinding the grain into flour, mixing and kneading the dough, then shaping and baking the loaves — was the hard labour in any housewife’s day. And I’ll briefly point out here that my Methodist daughter in England, Rosemary, informs me that the name of the town where Jesus was born, Bethlehem, means ‘house of bread’ in Aramaic, Jesus’s native language. Bread was eaten at most meals; and the custom of ‘breaking bread’ and giving thanks to God for providing it came at the beginning of each meal.

And so in saying he was the ‘bread of life’, Jesus was telling his audience that just as bread was vital in their diet, he was vital in their spiritual lives. “I am your daily spiritual food,” he was saying; “take me into your lives and your souls will never go hungry.” Further, “Just as my Father God sent manna from heaven to sustain your ancestors when they were wandering round the Sinai desert, now God has sent me to be your sustaining life force.”
 This was all too much for some of his audience. Some of them begin muttering against him. “What does he mean by saying he’s ‘come down from heaven’? We know he comes from Nazareth and he’s the son of Joseph the carpenter.” Jesus senses their scepticism. “Quit grumbling,” he tells them; “accept that my Heavenly Father has sent me as living bread, and by feeding on me you’ll be doing God’s will.” He provokes them further because he then takes his ‘living bread’ metaphor a step further by saying that if they eat his flesh and drink his blood they will achieve eternal life.

And how do they respond to this apparent invitation to cannibalism? It causes great confusion. As John 6 tells us, ‘On hearing it, many of his followers said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”’ Our Scripture reading this morning didn’t go that far, but in the succeeding verses, John 6 tells us that ‘from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him’. Jesus had pushed the boundary of credibility too far. Jesus as ‘living bread come down from heaven’ was a notion challenging enough; however, the idea of ‘eating his flesh’ and ‘drinking his blood’ was not only unbelievable but wholly repugnant.

Sadly, for those who left he had failed to explain himself adequately. He had been trying to tell them that if they spiritually assimilated his being into their own, like they did bread and wine physically, they would become one with him and share his relationship with God. But his metaphors had failed. The ‘bread and wine’ imagery conveyed ideas which for many in his audience were just too difficult to grasp. And so he provoked such discord that he lost many of his followers.
Fortunately, post-crucifixion, those who remained eventually passed their faith on. To them he left an abiding metaphor for who he was; and also bequeathed to us the most sacred ceremony of Christian worship. We call it the Sacrament of Holy Communion and it’s when we symbolically take bread and wine in remembrance of his death on the cross. As we do our Minister tells us to “receive this holy sacrament of the body and blood of Christ and feed on him in our hearts with thanksgiving”.
 The Sacrament of Communion aside, how relevant are notions like ‘bread of heaven’ in this sceptical day and age? The answer is that they’re central to our belief in a Christ who was crucified, died and then rose from the dead. The crucifixion and then the resurrection validated all Jesus’s ‘I am’ statements about himself. He said he was ‘the bread of life’, ‘the light of the world’ and ‘the way, the truth and the life’. By rising from the dead that first Easter Sunday he demonstrated the truth of these teachings. He proved that he was indeed the Son of God, that he can sustain us, enlighten us and show us the way into new life.


    Our faith, Christianity, is one that is all about a relationship with God. By accepting Jesus as our spiritual food, we enter into a right relationship with God. Those who are in a right relationship with God are often referred to Biblically as ‘the righteous’ and the state of being in such a relationship is called ‘righteousness’.

Conversely, there’s a wrong relationship with God, and we call that ‘sin’. Sin is our wilful rejection of Jesus in thoughts and actions that separate us from him. Through sin we remove ourselves from a right relationship with God, condemning ourselves to spiritual death. By feeding on Jesus, the ‘living bread’, absorbing him so that he and we become one with each other, we enter into a right relationship with God and are restored to righteousness.

Achieving righteousness is a common aim in all religions. There seems to be a basic human need to gain merit with divine, to earn a place in God’s kingdom. All the religions I can think of endeavour to satisfy that need. Jesus himself spoke of this need in Matthew 5 when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” In John 6:35 he tells us how to achieve it. We take him as our ‘living bread’. He becomes part of us, our lives filled with his. He becomes the ‘Christ within us’. When that happens, we enter into a correct relationship with God, or, as Paul tells us in Romans 3, we are ‘justified’, granted righteousness by God through our faith in Jesus.
    That’s all very well, isn’t it, as far as it goes? By feeding on the ‘bread of life’, we feel fulfilled in knowing that Christ is within us and that we live for and through him. But is that the end of it? Well, no, because by accepting Jesus we also agree to live the Christian lives that are his will for us; and Christianity is not only about inner peace but outward action — our relationships with others in the world beyond ourselves. We have an obligation to live like Jesus did, expressing our faith in our compassion for those who need us in deeds and practical action.

 How you do that will be a matter for your own conscience and you’ll exercise your compassion as opportunities present themselves — just as Jesus did when the afflicted were brought to him or when he came across them in his travels. We practise the ‘New Commandment’ that he gave us in John 13: we love one another as he loves us, and we express our love practically. Like him, we become servants, serving God through serving others. As he said in Mark 10, he came among us to serve not to be served; and those of us who wish to enter his Kingdom must learn to serve others as he did.

There is no shortage of fields for service. As Matthew 9 reminds us, ‘the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few’. Whatever harvest you help gather is something for you and Jesus to decide together. Speaking for myself, I see two vast fields ahead of me.  The first is only 150 metres from here, at the entrance to the Erindale shopping centre, where most days of the week I must walk past desperate people who’ve hit rock bottom and lost all dignity, begging for whatever small change passers-by might drop into their upturned caps. I cannot go past without Jesus reminding me, as he did in Matthew 25, that “You needed clothes and I clothed you, you were sick and I cared for you, you were in prison and I visited you.” I feel ashamed then that I live in a house bigger than what I need, cannot eat all the food in our cupboard and rarely wear some of the clothes in my bulging wardrobe. “And so,” I hear Jesus saying, “you must go to the field where the destitute homeless are. Serve them as I have served you.”

The other field is far away, in bomb-shattered cities like Mosul and Aleppo, whose physically and emotionally scarred citizens I see on my TV screen nightly. “What will you do about these my brethren?” I hear Jesus ask. I’m not yet sure how I’ll answer that one, but a starting point will be to respond to the appeals for money I receive almost daily via emails from international aid agencies like the UN High Commission for Refugees.  
    And you? How do you live out the ‘New Commandment’? Which field will you help harvest? As you feed on the ‘bread of life’ what avenues of service will you enter?
     In pondering these questions, we now pray: “Lord Jesus, bread of life, living bread, bread of heaven — however we call you, you sustain us and give us new life. By following you we come into a right relationship with God and with each other. We hunger after righteousness, so feed us with your living bread. Help us to live in you and to strive to have you living in us. May the Christ within us shine for others as we seek new fields to harvest. Amen.”

 Ian Willis  Sunday 7 May 2017

Ian Willis

Dr Ian Willis is a long-term lay preacher at TUC.

Ian has a deep commitment to prayer and regularly gives his time to pray with preachers and worship leaders before worship services each Sunday.

Ian is also a writer and historian.

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Our faith community began in 1975 as a small ecumenical gathering of people who settled in the new Canberra township of Tuggeranong. We have grown with the Tuggeranong Community, and our parish centre is the hub for our work, as a place of worship, of gathering and ministry.

We aim to help people have life to the full. We welcome people into a our Christian community where they can connect with God, with one another and with opportunities to make a difference in our changing world.

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