Written by Malcolm Kern
Eating Bread from Heaven
August 2, 2015
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
In Psalm 78, the poet Asaph advises his people to “tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done”, and to warn “the children yet to be born … [to] put their trust in God and … not be like their ancestors … whose spirits were not faithful to him”. Then the psalm goes into a recital of God’s dealings with Israel from their time in Egypt up to the appointment of David as king.
It’s a tale of wondrous signs that God performed in their midst, including how “he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Human beings ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat.” And yet, Asaph says, “In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe.” In other words, in Asaph’s poem, Seeing is not believing! Rather, the ancestors are portrayed as people who saw, who ate, and who did not believe – eating, they did not eat and seeing, they did not see.
This is how our gospel reading began, with Jesus making a similar observation about the crowds who have been searching for him – that in seeing, they simply do not see. “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”
Now on the one hand, this observation of Jesus’ seems a bit contrary to the way John has told the story so far. Chapter 6 begins with Jesus crossing to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, and being followed by a large crowd, “because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.” Then, after Jesus has fed about five thousand men with a little boy’s small lunch, John tells us that “after the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.””
So, it seems, the people are quite capable of seeing the signs and recognizing them as signs. After all, it is the people who make the connection between Jesus giving them bread in a barren place where there is no food, in the days leading up to Passover, with the account of Moses and the giving of manna in the wilderness. They also are able to connect this with God’s promise in Deuteronomy 18 that God would raise up a prophet like Moses. And having made that connection, they are about to make Jesus king.
And yet Jesus says, “You don’t see at all. You are not seeking that to which the signs point. You are still chasing off in the wrong direction, after the wrong thing. Stop chasing after perishable food when the very signs you think you see are pointing directly to food that provides eternal life.” When I hear Jesus’ words, I am reminded of what God said through the prophet Isaiah to the mis-directed people of that day at the beginning of chapter 55:
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Now I have no idea if the crowd had Isaiah in mind when hearing Jesus’ answer, but I would certainly think they might have Moses still in mind, and how their ancestors had asked Moses to speak to God on their behalf and promised to listen to Moses and do whatever God told them to do. And they probably still remembered the reference to Deut. 18, where God tells the people to be sure to listen to the prophet like Moses. If so, then it is perhaps only natural they should ask Jesus “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Yet there is something in Jesus’ answer that they don’t seem to like. They have already identified Jesus as the prophet like Moses on the basis of the sign he performed, and so they know God requires them to listen to him. But now they ask for a sign to prove he really has been sent by God. But not just any sign, a sign related to the miracle performed by Moses – bringing down bread from heaven. Which makes this a rather confusing, and probably confused, request. Just yesterday they saw the sign where Jesus gave thanks and fed them with bread that had not been there. Are they now asking him to do it again? Are they asking him to keep giving them bread every day for 40 years, like Moses? Is that what it will take for them to believe? Or do they want something more miraculous – bread that doesn’t look like ordinary, everyday barley loaves, perhaps, or maybe bread made ex nihilo as it were, without starting with even five loaves.
Whatever it is they really want, the request seems to confirm Jesus’ point that in seeing they really don’t see. The manna didn’t come from Moses, Jesus reminds them, but from God, and eating the manna didn’t, in and of itself, bring life – the ancestors, after all, ate the manna and yet all died in the wilderness, not entering into God’s promised rest. So even though the manna was “bread from heaven” in one sense, it wasn’t the true “bread from heaven” in the fullest sense – just like the temple Solomon built was truly the dwelling of God in one sense, and yet was never the true dwelling of God in the fullest sense, as we discussed two weeks ago.
It seems that the people are a little too literally minded as they listen to Jesus. They seem not to be able to hear his words in any sense other than that of material bread which, when eaten, provides the glucose needed to fuel the activities of daily life. They seem to have forgotten Moses’ interpretation of the manna when he addressed the next generation poised to enter the Promised Land in Deut. 8:3: “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Whatever the crowd does or does not remember, the more Jesus speaks, the more offended the people get, until in the verses which follow, the crowds abandon Jesus, as do many of the wider group of disciples. Hearing, they do not understand. Seeing they do not believe. Eating they do not eat.
So what about us, how do we avoid the same problem? How do we avoid chasing after bread from heaven in the wrong way, in a way that leaves us never having truly eaten of this bread? With that in mind, may I suggest we begin by examining the variety of ways Jesus speaks of this bread in this passage.
We begin in verse 27, where Jesus tells the people to pursue “food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” In verse 33, “the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then we jump to verse 50: “here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die” and 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.” And finally, verse 58 “This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
What is common to all these descriptions is the close connection between eating this bread from heaven and having the eternal kind of life. That could be understood in the way the crowd seems to have understood Jesus, as referring to a miraculous kind of material bread, except for two things: first, there is that strange comment in verse 51 “this bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world”, and second, in this passage having eternal life is not just tied to eating bread, but also to several other expressions Jesus uses. Let’s look at some of those next.
Let’s start with verse 35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Here, hunger and thirst are eliminated not by eating and drinking, as one might expect, but by coming. In verse 40, it is looking and believing that bring eternal life: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” In verse 44 we discover that coming is a result of the Father’s drawing: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” And in the next verse, coming is tied to hearing the Father and learning from him: “Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.”
In verse 47 we return to believing: “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life.” And then in verses 53 and 54 we go back to eating again, but not bread this time: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” Then finally we get the summation beginning in verse 56: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven.”
So what do we do when we are faced with such a collection of expressions like this: eating, coming, believing, looking upon, hearing and being taught, being drawn, eating and drinking, remaining or abiding, and feeding? One approach is to focus on the one expression that makes the most sense to us – eating perhaps, as it seems logically connected with bread – and downplay the others. We might call that a narrowly-focused, or reductionist approach. Another approach, which we might call a broadly-focused approach, is to assume that somehow all the expressions really do refer to the same thing, and we try as best we can to understand each in light of the others, even if for awhile some, or even many, of the parts don’t seem to fit. If we follow this approach, we might find that some of the expressions draw our attention to other scriptures – the way Jesus reference to “remaining in me just as I live in the Father” might draw our attention to his upper room discourse in later chapters of John – resulting in an even broader scope and more metaphors, like vines and branches, all of which somehow inform each of the others.
I suspect the crowd which followed Jesus and then ultimately left him were operating with a narrowly-focused approach to Jesus’ words – at least that’s what Jesus’ criticism of their unbelief suggests. And I also think that all too often in the church’s history, a narrow-focused approach to texts such as this one, trying to nail things down to the one right metaphor that explains everything, have led to divisions over things that ought to have been held together.
I am sure that the Twelve were just as challenged, just as disturbed, just as confused by Jesus’ words on this occasion as were the crowds and the disciples who left. And yet, when confronted by Jesus’ black and white challenging question, “Will you also leave?” Peter, on behalf of the Twelve replied with his own question, “To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” No matter how confusing, no matter how unconventional, no matter how different from anything they had expected, the Twelve understood that there really was nowhere else to turn. Unlike the crowd, who wished to satisfy themselves first of the correctness of Jesus’ message before they would believe, the Twelve chose to accept, to reflect upon, to chew over, in effect to eat these words of Jesus, because they had come to believe in Jesus.. And eventually they would teach and proclaim them in all the multi-faceted, diverse combinations of images and metaphors that Jesus expresses in this passage.
Which is why I suggest to you that as we seek in our own lives to eat the bread from heaven, that we do so in an expansive way, trying as best we can to hold on to all the words and expressions Jesus uses in this discourse, and allow each of them to inform all the others. In that way, our consuming of that heavenly food is simultaneously understood as looking upon Jesus and believing in him. Our coming to Jesus is simultaneously about hearing the Father and learning from him. And whatever we mean by believing in Jesus is equally expressed by feeding upon him, by taking him into the very core of our beings, in however many different ways we do that, so that he becomes a living part of us, our very flesh and blood, and we become his dwelling, even as he becomes our dwelling.
In closing, let me leave you with the prayer of the Apostle Paul for the Ephesian church:
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God, and eat every day the bread from heaven.
 This sermon assumes that John 6:25-58 has been previously read. Scripture quotations from The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011) unless otherwise noted.
 Collect for 2nd Sunday in Advent, Book of Common Prayer, 1962
 Psalm 78:4
 Psalm 78:6-8
 Psalm 78:24-25
 Psalm 78:32
 John 6:26
 John 6:2
 John 6:14
 John 6:28
 Ephesians 3:16-19 (NRSV)