When I think back over all the events (and there were several) that came together to shape in me a sense of my being called to ordained life, this text is one of the major ones. Let me tell you the story.
I was 19 years old and was living in Crewe, England where I was studying to become a Primary School teacher. During my time there I had connected with the Christian Union group that were active on campus. The work of Christian Unions on college and university campuses was to create a space for Christians to be in fellowship with one another, and to seek to grow together in Christ. One aspect of this fellowship and growth during this time was the commitment of our little group to come together and study John’s Gospel together. I really do not remember much about the entirety of the study except for this one night that we gathered around this same passage that we are reading today. One of our group had brought along a contact that they had met somewhere when they were out on their errands. The guy was a member of a church that might have been described best as a little “out there.” What I mean by that is that they were a church group who seemed to focus their doctrine and theological understanding on one main central point. For this guy’s church it was baptism. He and his church-folk believed strongly that one cannot truly be ‘saved’ if one is not baptized, and in conversation and debate with our group that night it was very clear that overtime he spoke he was going to attempt to bring the conversation back to this single issue – salvation by baptism.
We talked through the text verse by verse and then we got to verse 35. Together we were talking about what Jesus might have meant when he said he was the bread of life and somehow our new friend brought the conversation back to baptism and its necessity in salvation. I found myself entering the conversation and before I knew it I was preaching a mini sermon on this verse. When I finished speaking my good friend Jo looked at me from across the room and exclaimed: “You are going to be a minister!” At that stage I had no idea that her words would prove to be true in the long run, but they were, and ever since that night, I cannot read this text without thinking about it and telling the story of what happened.
The first two stories of chapter 6 point back to the ancient story of the Israelite people. By doing this, John is continuing to build the case to say that Jesus is who he says he is: the Son of God; the Messiah, who has come to fulfill everything that has been said, and to establish the new work of God’s grace for all people. In this particular passage Jesus is no longer giving cryptic signs to the people. In this passage Jesus is explicitly saying who he is, and he is informing his followers just what the appropriate response from them ought to be, namely to believe what he is saying.
Foolishly, these followers ask for another sign. As I read this I thought to myself, “Really? You want another sign? The picnic for 5000+ was not enough for you? You want more?” They actually did! “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness: as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” It would seem that these people had an insatiable appetite for signs.
Instead of giving them another sign Jesus gave them a corrective by reminding them that it was not Moses that brought the manna down from heaven, rather it was God himself who had sent the bread down from heaven to their ancestors. It is God who sends the bread from heaven and gives life to the world. And then, having couched his statements in the bread image, Jesus hits his followers with the first of the “I am” sayings that are found in John’s gospel:
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus is simply saying that he is who he says he is.
He is the Word of God.
He is the light in the darkness.
He is the Son of God.
He is the Chosen One of God.
He is the Messiah.
He is all that and as such he is the bread of life.
Jesus is the one who has been sent from heaven to bring life to the world. His work is not to merely offer physical nourishment, but soul nourishment. He has been sent from heaven to take care of the hunger that remains no matter how many fish and loaves have been eaten – the inner hunger; the God shaped void which seems to exist in all people. And his promise is very simple: When we believe him – when we believe that he is the one sent from God to bring life to the world – then the inner work begins and the inner hunger begins to disappear. When we believe Jesus we will neither hunger nor thirst any more.
Do you recognize what i am referring to when I mention the God-shaped void? Is it possible that today, having read this, you are thinking to yourself that it is time to believe Jesus? Don’t think that that is not possible. Like I shared with you in the story I started with – big things can happen when this text is read, studied and understood afresh.
The other thing that always comes to mind when I read Jesus telling his followers that he is the bread of life is the words of the opening verse to an old hymn – Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer. I share those words and suggest that if you are hungry today, you might make these words your prayer:
Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.