Scripture Readings: John 35-51, Ephesians 4:25-5:2
How many of you like to eat bread? Raise your hands. Okay, put them down. Now, how many of you love to eat bread? I’m in that category. In my book, there’s hardly anything better than homemade bread, fresh from the oven. Okay, now, how many of you have some kind of trouble with bread? Maybe you’ve discovered you have a gluten allergy. Maybe you’re on a low-carbohydrate diet. Maybe you’re just tired of it: “not bread again!”
Well, whether we like it or not, bread is on the menu again today, as Jesus continues his discourse in John’s gospel, after feeding 5000 people with just five loaves and two fish. In today’s reading, Jesus has two conversations which explore the question, “Just what kind of bread is this, anyway?”
The first conversation is with the crowds who followed Jesus home from the miraculous feeding. Remember that they want to make Jesus king? But Jesus suspects they are motivated,not by their recognition that he is the One sent from God, but because he had satisfied their urgent need. They lived in a time, after all, when “panem et circenses”— “bread and circuses”—was the formula used by the Roman Empire to keep the population pacified. These folks have learned to eat any bread plopped down on their plate. They don’t know how to discriminate between what will feed their momentary cravings, and what will nourish them for the long haul.
Now it seems these crowds are uniformed “outsiders” in relation to religion. They remember the “greatest hit” story of the manna in the wilderness, but maybe they skipped Sunday school a bit too often to get deeply rooted in their faith. But the second group of people Jesus converses with are the Sunday school know-it-alls, insiders of the Jewish tradition to which Jesus and the disciples also belong. These people know their tradition so well, their alarm-bells start going off when it seems proper teachings are being violated.  And maybe they know the stories of the manna in the wilderness a little too well, for they start to resemble them.
Remember how the Israelites, delivered from Egypt, begin to complain? Wandering from slavery’s relative safety into the dangerous freedom of an “unknown land and an insecure future,” they feel that Moses has led them into an impossible situation. First they complain about the lack of food and water; then, after God provides the daily manna, they complain that this prototypical “bread of heaven” is “miserable.” The complaint of this second group talking to Jesus differs in content from the Exodus complainers, but the substance is the same. Jesus is “making impossible claims about himself.” “We know where he lives. We know who his parents are. How can he claim to have come down from heaven?” Deeply settled into their so-called knowledge they reject the bread Jesus offers before they even taste it, certain it will be “miserable” because of its too-local origins.
Now, it seems to me the crowds and the complainers represent the extremes of typical reactions to newness and change. The crowds are thrilled by their new provider of daily bread—at least until a more promising one comes along, whereas the complainers object to any change in their tried and true meal-plan. The only possible bread of heaven for them has already been served.
Throughout his entire life, my grandfather refused anything except slight variations on the same meals. For supper, meat. Potatoes. Peas or celery. White bread. Maybe ice cream for dessert. I understand that my grandfathers’ predilections were shaped by the world in which he was raised. From a farming family in a time when much more of our country was rural, Grandpa was a young man during the Great Depression. And so there was stability and security in his meals, if not a lot of creativity.
Now, while my mother never ceases to remind me that I also used to be a picky eater, I’ve become much more adventurous. It would be hard not to—What a diversity of foods have been added to American food culture over the past thirty years! I remember when it was hard to get good Mexican food, and when I’d never heard of Thai food. But these days, the trouble in my kitchen is not sameness but rather an overwhelming variety with endless possible menus. Add to that a flurry of conflicting information what is healthy and what is not, what is environmentally friendly and what is not, picking “What’s for dinner?” becomes an endless research project. Which is among the reasons my last week of study leave was so dreamy. I was fed, body and soul, at the Grunewald Guild. Not only were the classes, worship, and conversations fulfilling, but a chef named Nathan made eating quite simple, providing splendid meals with the garden’s produce and delicious, homemade fresh bread. I could have made him king, though my grandfather would have refused most of his offerings!
And so it turns out that the world we live in is the world of the crowds and complainers. When Jesus declares “I am the bread of life” he exposes our conflicted histories of eating and drinking, the patterns by which we seek our life’s sustenance. He asks us, “Where and how are you seeking the life abundant?”
So let’s take a look at our sacred eating patterns. How often are we, as individuals or as a community, frightened to try something different, for fear it will leave a bad taste in our mouths? How often do we limit ourselves to the same “menu” handed down by the ancestors, on and on ad nauseum? On the other hand, how often do we flit from table to table, meal to meal, stuffing ourselves so full of whatever the world says is “good,” that we can no longer recognize truly hearty fare when it’s served? How often do we wander bewildered along a smorgasbord, ultimately giving up discernment to eat whatever appears to help us get through another day? When do we adhere to one pattern, and when to the other? Underneath these patterns of eating, what are we truly hungry for?
Jesus wants to put a superior bread on our tables, and so he tells us, “The true bread of heaven is found right here.” But just what kind of sustenance does Jesus offer? How can the bread that we need the most be a person?
To the crowds seeking their moment-to moment satisfaction, Jesus nourishes in a relationship of enduring faithfulness. I am the bread of life. Eat this bread, and you will never be hungry. Eat this bread, and you’ll never again dine alone. I will never let you go, even to the end of time, I will be with you and I will raise you up.
To the complainers stuck in their “settled knowing,” Jesus nourishes with a relationship of creative newness. He says, your ancestors ate manna, and they died in that desert. That bread has gotten stale for you. I am the living bread of life. I offer you a new and living future.
Now, notice that Jesus-bread is usually different than what we are looking for, but always what we need. There is resistance, as Jesus-bread makes our old patterns and preconceptions indigestible. Often we swing from one extreme to the other, yo-yo dieting. “I am the living bread of life,” Jesus says again, reminding us that the bread he gives us is a relationship which endures all the ups and downs, all the times we reject him only to accept him again later.
The bread of heaven is a person, because the sustenance we need is relationship.The daily bread of eternity nourishes us through a dynamic relationship, reliably providing, strengthening and sustaining us to encounter the ever-new ways the Spirit unleashes God’s creativity through us.
The first night eating Nathan’s wonderful food, I serendipitously sat down next to a man named Paul, who it turns out is someone I’d read about in a book called Take this Bread. Paul is a priest at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, a colleague of author Sara Miles, who experienced Christian conversion in the moment she first ate the bread of communion at St. Gregory’s. Later Miles founded The Food Bank at the church to extend the hospitality of Christ’s table to others. Paul figures prominently in her books, as a companion in the love of cooking and the work of the Food Bank. He just happened to be at the Grunewald Guild painting icons on his sabbatical. At any rate, he is someone I would trust to know something about the bread of life. Toward the end of last week, a group of us at dinner were talking about worship—what is its purpose? Without a second thought, Paul answered, “Worship is a safe space in which we do things that scare us.”
As I chewed on that tasty morsel, I’ve come to agree. Sometimes we show up to this place on Sunday, scarcely able to rally enthusiasm for bread on the menu, yet again. And we as a community certainly need to guard against serving something stale. But at its best, this place is a safe space, truly a sanctuary, where the often terrifying reality of God’s creativity, forgiveness, and empowerment might take hold in us—that we might be shaped to become, in the Apostle Paul’s words, “imitators of God, as beloved children,” liv[ing] in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” That we might become those who, in the Way of Christ, are ready to offer ourselves as sustenance for others in need.
The bread of life is on the menu here whenever we gather to worship the One who comes down to us from heaven. And it turns out that, if we stick with it, a steady diet of the Word, proclaimed and preached, the sacraments, rightly administered, and the disciplined prayer and practices of our community, really can sustain and nourish us for this lifetime and eternity. God’s love in Jesus Christ, is generously offered to all, crowds and complainers alike.
Last week, Keith left you with a question: “Why are you here?” For what do you hunger and thirst? If your answer, by the grace of the Spirit, is the unchanging yet ever-creating love of God in Jesus Christ, then know this: the bread of heaven is set before you, a living relationship with the One in whom heaven and earth meet. Will you take this bread, again, or for the first time, and eat?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
 Morse, Theological Perspective, Feasting on the Word, 334.
 Wayne A. Meeks, Feasting on the Word, 337.
 Meeks, 337.
 Morse, 334.
 These are the Reformed “marks of the true church,” as derived from John Calvin.