Scripture: John 6:35; 41-51
In the summer of 2012 I led a youth mission trip to Nashville, TN. We went with a group called Students Living a Mission. This organization combined elements of a church camp such as fun activities and a structured evening worship with a day full of service. In the evening there was always a meeting where the youth group leaders and the organizational staff would meet to check in and be briefed on what is coming up. On one particular evening the plan was to serve communion. The other group leaders had participated in previous years, and one of them asked if they “were going to use the good bread like last year?” The other two group leaders were pleased to hear this, and the one of them followed up and asked, “Where did you get the idea to use that bread for communion?” The Students Living a Mission leader replied, “From the Methodists. It is what they all use. “
At that point I instantly understood, the good bread was King’s Hawaiian bread, and he was right it is what the Methodists use. I tried to track down why this is, to see if there is some lost story behind the tradition as to why Methodists use Hawaiian bread for communion so regularly. I could not find it. The best explanation I can come up with is an educated guess. There is a directive that when communion is served a full loaf should be used. This Holy Mystery is a treatise that outlines the Methodist belief and practice of communion and it states: “The use of a whole loaf best signifies the unity of the church as the body of Christ, and when it is broken and shared our fellowship in that body.” So it seems that with the tradition of using a full loaf of bread, Methodists as a whole gravitated to using Hawaiian bread because, well, because it is THE good bread. There is a simple but irrefutable logic to using the best possible bread for communion, because as this morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus is good bread, the best bread, the bread of life.
For those of you who grew up in a church setting, you have little problem, associating Jesus as a human being with bread. Even non-believers today are often familiar with the idea of communion. They may not understand it, but it is not considered scandalous or shocking. This was absolutely not the case though in Jesus day. In this morning’s scripture Jesus declares himself the bread of life, and there is some serious fallout to this. If we kept reading in John chapter 6, we would get to verse 66 which states, “From this time many of his disciples turned their back and no longer followed him.” This incident happens right as Jesus’ ministry is beginning to pick up steam. People were truly beginning to flock to him, and a movement was beginning to coalesce around Jesus. However, that comes to a big speed bump here. There was something about Jesus stating he is the bread of life that caused many people ready to follow Jesus to pause, state this is a hard teaching, and then to ultimately walk away. This should cause us to pause and really ask, just what made this such a hard teaching then? Is it still a hard teaching today, and as 21st century people seeking to follow Jesus of Nazareth, just what does it mean to believe that Jesus is the good bread, the bread of life?
The scripture we focused on this morning picks up in the middle of the story, I think to fully understand why this teaching was so upsetting we have to take a step back. In John’s gospel, Jesus proclaiming I am the bread of life happens right after the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus then gets in a boat, but because of rough water they are slowed in crossing, and a lot of the crowd traveled by land to go and find Jesus. The gospel of John makes clear the people sought Jesus out because they wanted more bread. They had been part of a miracle where Jesus multiplied food and they wanted more of that good stuff. They sought Jesus out, not because they wanted to follow Jesus but because of what Jesus could do for them. They wanted Jesus to give them something they wanted that was tangible, and that is when Jesus declares that what he offers is greater than physical bread. Bread may be the food that keeps a body going, but Jesus is the food that keeps a soul going for eternity. Following Jesus is not about meeting our wants or even are physical needs, following Jesus is about fulfilling a greater need we may not even be aware of at first, the need to be reunited to our Creator, the Father in heaven.
Today, there are still people who only seek out Jesus not because they have a longing in their soul but because of what Jesus could do for them. The old saying has a lot of truth to it: there are no atheists in foxholes. When people want or need something they tend to become a lot more religious. Sadly, there are no shortage of con artists who will take advantage of this impulse and will promise all kinds of physical blessings and wealth to those people who give them money so they can buy a fourth private jet. The whole concept behind the prosperity gospel is that following Jesus is the key to getting what we want to be happy. That is the same kind of attitude that the people who sought out Jesus and then later abandoned him had. They were only into following Jesus because of what they could get out of it, not because they truly believed that Jesus was worth following. One of the questions that this morning’s scripture really challenges us with is why do we follow Jesus? Because if it is just for the “stuff” then we are not really following Jesus.
That idea leads directly to the second reason the people of the first century had such a hard time with this teaching. Jesus was directly comparing himself to the manna from heaven. In Exodus this is the bread that God gave the Israelites while they were in the desert. Jesus is claiming, that like the manna, he too is from God but he provides a far greater function than fulfilling hunger. The use of food metaphor is very intentional here and very literal. When we eat bread, we consume, we bring it into us. In the same way Jesus is the bread of life as he states in verse 51, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.” For Jesus to be the bread of life that we are to make him part of us. Just like eating provides us with literal life, making Jesus part of who we by believing in him and accepting him as the guiding Lord of our life, provides us with eternal life.
The first century hearers understand this, but they did not like it. They wanted to experience Jesus on their own terms. This is not uncommon. In the days of John Wesley he sarcastically called these people almost Christians. They went to church when it was convenient, paid attention to the parts of the faith they liked, but their belief had no true bearing or impact on their life. We see the same pattern today. Consistently research in religious attitudes today show that people try to envision Jesus as a divine butler who’s only occupation is to meet their needs and ensure they are content and feel #blessed. This is the same attitude the crowd had in the first century. When the first century crowed realized that Jesus was saying they had to make him, his devotion to God and his compassion for others, part of them that is when they jumped ship. To accept Jesus as the bread of life, to rely on him, to meet the deep needs of our soul, then Jesus must be part of our mind, part of our heart, part of our soul. This saves us eternally because we are united with God the father in Christ, because Christ is in us.
Jesus is the bread of life. Jesus is the good bread. In this morning’s scripture our Lord and Savior uses the analogy of bread that he is the one and only substance that provides eternal, un-ending life. The point is further developed that the only way to get this soul sustaining substance is by making Jesus part of who we are. This metaphor uses the physical item of bread to describe a spiritual and metaphysical reality. With these kind of high ideals it can be hard for us to truly feel it, to truly interact with the idea. Which is why from the beginning Christian tradition has held onto and emphasized the sacrament of communion. In communion we remember the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, but communion is more than just a sacrament. As This Holy Mystery summarizes, “We receive spiritual nourishment through Holy Communion. The Christian life is a journey, one that is challenging and arduous. To continue living faithfully and growing in holiness requires constant sustenance. Furthermore, John Wesley wrote on communion “This is the food for our souls: This gives strength to preform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.”
It is through communion that we are best to experience Christ as the living bread. In the United Methodist church we believe the sacrament of communion is a means of grace. It is a physical action through which we can tangibly experience the love of Christ. The sacrament of communion is more than an act of remembrance. We call communion a sacrament because that word has a special and specific meaning. A sacrament is a ritual where our physical, outward actions reflect and inward change in our hearts and souls. Communion is a holy mystery where we can and hopefully do experience Jesus as the living bread. Communion is meant to be a holy moment where we join with the entire body of Christ and once again experience the love, the forgiveness, and the acceptance of Christ. Communion is meant to be a point in time where we the good bread we eat becomes for us like the body of Christ, the living bread that came down from heaven. That whoever eats this bread, who makes Christ part of themselves, will live forever because Jesus gave his flesh for the life of the world.
One of the great ironies of this morning’s scripture is the result it had. Jesus declared himself to be the bread of life, and the result is many people stopped following him. It is ironic because Jesus offers an open invitation. In this morning’s scripture when comparing himself to manna he states, “here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which ANYONE may eat and not die.” Jesus is the living bread for everyone, and the gift of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life are for all. Charles Wesley captured this perfectly in one of his communion hymns when he wrote, “Come sinners to the gospel feat, let every soul be Jesus’ guests. Ye need not be one left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.” Then he continues in the last verse: “Ye who believe his record true shall sup with him and he with you; come to the feat be saved from sin, for Jesus waits to take you in.”
The beauty of communion is that it is goes both ways. Communion is not just us reaching up to God, but it is God reaching to us through Christ. Jesus is waiting to take us in, as we take him in. During that holy moment, during the sacramental means of grace, we commune with our savior. Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. You are invited. May you come to the feast, after all we brought the good bread.