I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”When I was a student I had a good friend named Jack. He was extremely tall (particularly when standing next to my 5’4”) and carried not an ounce of surplus weight. He was a great cook and a famous host, but the meals I remember him by most clearly were those I never actually got to eat. You see, Jack was generous with his invitations to afternoon tea, and his rooms were only a short walk from one of Cambridge’s better bakers. When he was expecting guests, Jack would set forth to Tyler’s, on a mission to buy bread for the tea-party. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion the smell of the new bread, and its fresh-baked warmth proved too hard to resist, and he would arrive back in his rooms with only the stub end of the loaf, having consumed the rest on the walk between bakery and college. Legend has it that on one occasion at least, he visited the bakery 3 times before actually making it home with an untouched loaf. Bread from Tylers was pretty wonderful, but for someone Jack’s size, one loaf was only a short-term solution.
I often think of Jack as I break the bread at the Eucharist.
Of course, we generally use wafers, and sometimes people complain sadly that they bear no resemblance to real bread at all. Perhaps that’s a good thing. There’s no room for confusion. We’re not eating a “proper meal” together, but taking part in something quite different, whose value lies far beyond any standard nutritional benefit. The fragment of unleavened wafer we receive becomes something much greater than itself, for it is here that we are offered Christ, in all the fullness of his risen life.
In our gospel this morning, John sets out to demonstrate that Jesus is the One for whom Israel was waiting, and to do this he aligns Jesus with Moses...To understand his technique, we need to remember that for the Jews, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) provided a constant frame of reference. The contents of these books were not abstract concepts for the Jew - these were living words, pregnant with layers of meaning, and each new generation of Jews felt themselves living in the story in some way.
And so John has Jesus evoke memories of the defining period in Jewish history, the Exodus from Egypt, and recall God’s provision of manna, “bread from heaven”.
This was the freedom food, which enabled God’s people to travel onwards to the place they had been promised.
The food which sustained them, and made it possible for them to live as a people on the move, following wherever God lead them.
But, though this food seemed miraculous, it had to be consumed on the day it appeared, or it rotted and became worthless.
The Israelites were not allowed to build up supplies in case of crisis. They just had to trust God’s provision, day after day after day.
Now Jesus compares himself with that bread…in terms guaranteed to have any observant Jew sitting bolt upright on the edge of this seat
I am the bread of life.
I AM is the name God gives himself when he meets Moses, at the burning bush
Say I AM has sent you.
And so Jesus identifies himself with God and urges the crowd
“Stop looking only to your physical needs!
Your ancestors ate manna but died!
You who ate when I fed the 5000 will die in time!
But belief in me is ‘food’ that leads to eternal life.”
Jesus, the bread which now comes down from heaven sustains those who eat for ever.
This is no less the food of pilgrimage, no less a food provided directly by God,- indeed this food represents God’s very life, available to be absorbed by all God’s people.
Jesus is offering himself to his disciples…whoever eats me…
Imagine the impact of that, with Jesus himself standing beside you, on a hot day in Palestine, as the crowds press around, murmuring in doubt or disapproval.
A living, breathing man inviting you to eat him.
Shocking, unthinkable words.
Frightening, unwelcome words – in the same way as those words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper
“This is my body…this is my blood...”
John wrote several decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, as part of a community that would have regularly celebrated the Lord’s supper together. For them, as for us, Jesus’ imagery - eating flesh and drinking blood - had come to life in a new way as the church shared the meal Jesus instituted.
So it is, week by week, when we gather and make Eucharist.
We bring ourselves, just as we are, broken, flawed, hungry for love and reassurance.
We bring the mess and muddle of our lives and lay them with our gifts upon the altar.
And as the bread and wine are consecrated and transformed, as Christ becomes truly present in those ordinary things made holy by the power of the Spirit, so we find ourselves joined with Christ and with one another.
There is a story* told about a Eucharist that took place in prison camp – where rations were low, and morale lower.
Neither bread nor wine was available but the longing for Christ, the prayers of the faithful and the words of the priest together made this a true Communion.
It was Easter in the camp. There was not a single cup.
No bread or wine. The non-Christians said, "We will help you; we will talk quietly so you can meet for worship." Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards' attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. "We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine," the preacher told them, "but we will act as though we had."
"This meal in which we take part," he said, "reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death, and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body that he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings…but in Christ all our hungers are satisfied. The wine, which we don't have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, the hope of the kingdom to come...."
He broke the bread and held out his empty hand to the first person on the right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: "Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me." All of them raised hands to mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. The communion of empty hand..."
Was Christ present there? Need we really ask that question?
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”
Hear Christ speak these words to you as you make your way to the Communion rail.
In that tiny fragment of bread, we receive Jesus himself, all we will ever need to sustain us on our pilgrimage.
Bread is the traditional staff of life, but the life that this bread represents is everlasting.
It is the life of God himself…and we are invited to share it.
Thanks be to God!