We’ve spent a few weeks now talking about the names of Jesus. Many are descriptions of a quality or a title – names like Redeemer or Messiah or King or Lord. But others, like this morning are a description Jesus gives himself – and it describes not so much a divine attribute, but a very common, almost ordinary word that we might be tempted to dismiss (it’s just bread)… except that when Jesus says it, there is a sudden and dynamic moment of “aha!” that makes it not so common.
When Jesus told his disciples “I am the bread of life” they weren’t sure they heard him right. The story is in John 6, and it begins with the feeding of the 5,000 (which actually, if you include women and children in the count it would be closer to 15,000), but either way, Jesus had made five loaves and two fish – a little boy’s sack lunch – feed many thousands of people. Nobody went away thinking it was all done with smoke and mirrors – their bellies were full and nobody could pull that off with slight-of-hand.
So, they had no doubt that Jesus could give them bread. In fact, they were so impressed they tried to make him king so he could feed them every day. But that’s not what Jesus had in mind.
Jesus didn’t say, “I came to give you bread,” he said, “I am the bread of life.” And then he makes an even more audacious statement: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” (John 6:51,54)
Here we are, this side of the cross, and we think that sounds just fine – we read it before communion sometimes and we talk about the cracker being a symbol of Jesus’ body. But that’s not what Jesus said, and that’s certainly not what they heard.
If I stood here this morning and told you that if only you would eat my flesh and drink my blood you would live forever, that would likely be my last sermon – at least for a while until I could check out of the psychiatric hospital where I would undoubtedly end up. That’s crazy talk – cannibalism and magical promises.
Truthfully – that’s exactly what Jesus’ listeners were thinking that morning. A few verses later John will tell us that when they heard him say this, many of them said “He’s gone too far!” and then he writes: From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66)
Now, we’d like to sand this down and round sharp edges off it and say he’s just using a figure of speech, and of course he is. But if, in the process, we dismiss it as having no real meaning, we’ve lost the power of what he’s really saying.
When Jesus said, “ If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. … whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” he was saying “I have come to do more than ask you to be a little more religious, I want you to be swallowed up by life in me.”
We, like they, want our religion to be non-demanding, minimally invasive, and convenient enough that we can pick and choose what we like and leave the rest. We want to pack it in a box we leave in a closet by the door and pull it out as we’re walking out the door to come to church on Sunday – if we decide to come to church that Sunday. We want our religion, literally, to be all about me.
But Jesus said it’s not all about you. And I didn’t come to make you more religious, I came to give you life. But that life doesn’t come easy, and it’s certainly not cheap. It takes everything you have and are, and it demands that you die to yourself and take up your cross and follow me. And here in John 6, he says it this way – “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever … whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”
Why did Jesus use that kind of language? Because it was something they could understand, something they related to. We probably miss the point because most of us don’t think about bread or worry about where our next meal is coming from. We open up our pantry and our refrigerator and they’re loaded with food – food of every kind and there’s more at the grocery store.
We need to put on their sandals for a moment and see life through their eyes. Most of Jesus’ hearers lived on the edge of poverty. If they had food, it was enough for that day (thus, when Jesus said to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” it really meant something to them.) And if they had food, it wasn’t fancy and it didn’t come from the store – it was bread they had made that day. And there was no guarantee that they would have more tomorrow.
Bread was their sustenance. It was, literally, life. And so when Jesus said, “I am the living bread,” he caught their attention, probably a lot like the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus said, “If you had asked me, I would have given you living water” and she said, “Give me this water so I’ll never have to come and draw from the well again!”
The idea that Jesus could give them something that they were constantly in need of was very appealing – a constant source of bread – like living next to a bakery owned by your best friend who never charges you – every day you walk in and he says, “Take whatever you need, take whatever you like – it’s on the house!” Now who wouldn’t like that?
But Jesus wasn’t talking about bread made from flour and yeast. And he wasn’t talking about filling your belly with food, whether it was the plain fare of the common folk or the sumptuous feasts of royalty. He doesn’t want to be king because he fills our bellies – he wants to be king because he fills our souls.
When Jesus said, “I am the living bread,” he stirred within them a memory of scriptures they had long remembered, but thought were so many empty promises. Isaiah had written centuries earlier: “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? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” (Isa. 55:1-3)
Haggai put it this way: “You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” (Haggai 1:6)
Times change, people don’t. We still spend money on what is not bread and we labor for what does not satisfy. We still eat and never get our fill and spend like we’ve got a hole in our pocket. We get our priorities turned upside down and fill our lives with things and starve our souls. And God said, “Hear me, that your soul may live.” Only God can truly provide what we need, only he can really fill our souls.
Our spirits hunger for something to fill that emptiness inside. And if we can’t get the bread we hunger for, we’ll settle for something, anything. You know what I’m talking about – you find yourself standing in front of the vending machines considering week old tuna sandwiches, ding-dongs and a can of diet Coke. Or worse, the homeless person who digs through the garbage dumpster for a half-eaten burrito. When you’re really hungry you’ll eat almost anything.
It’s true in our spiritual lives – we look for something that will satisfy our hunger. We’ll try a shopping spree and fill our lives with possessions – surely a new dress, or a new car or a new house will satisfy that emptiness inside. We’ll go looking for a relationship and we’ll pin our hopes on him or her to fill that need for intimacy that we long for. Let me tell you a secret – some of us try to fill up on church – we come to church, we sing the songs, we bow our heads in prayer, we throw a couple dollars in the collection plate – that ought to make us feel better about ourselves. But it doesn’t because what we really need isn’t just more religion, but more of Jesus.
When Jesus stood in the Temple courts and promised them the living bread that came down from heaven, they remembered the manna that God had sent their ancestors back in the wilderness. The Israelites had fled from Egypt and were in the wilderness – they were hungry and there wasn’t enough food – couldn’t possibly be enough food to feed all of them one day, let alone week upon week and month upon month. And then God promised them manna – the bread of heaven. It filled them and satisfied their hunger. Every morning they would go out and gather it from the ground around their encampment – just enough for the day. Every morning God would provide enough for that day. They were completely and absolutely dependent upon God.
Living bread that comes down from heaven – that’s how Jesus described himself – the true bread that comes down from heaven. Only when we are completely and absolutely dependent upon him for life will we ever really experience life. As long as we are independent and self-sufficient – as long as we’ve got things under control and our hands firmly on the wheel – God can’t do much with us.
Have you noticed that in the kingdom of God there are no fractions or percentages? Jesus never says, “whoever would follow me must give up ¾ of his possessions.” He didn’t say the greatest command was “Love the Lord your God with 60% of your heart, and with 70% of your soul, and with 80% of your mind.” Jesus didn’t tell his followers, “Seeking his kingdom must rank at least third place in your life and all (or most of) these things shall be yours as well.”
Following Jesus was, and is, an all or nothing proposition. The kingdom of God isn’t available in a time-share arrangement. There is no lease with option to buy – no escape clause in the fine print. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:32-24)
When Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever … whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” that’s what he was talking about. When you consume Jesus, you are swallowed up in his life – completely and absolutely.
I’ve always like the song, “Break Though the Bread of Life.” Sometimes we sing it before communion, every now and then before the sermon. It has some great thoughts – but when Jesus talks about the bread of life, he’s not talking about communion and he’s not talking about preaching, he’s talking about himself. And when we sing “break though the bread of life,” what we’re really saying is, “Give me Jesus – I want more of Jesus in my life.”
We always seem to want more of everything – more money, a bigger house, more things – more of everything but Jesus. Why is that? Why are we happy with just a little dab of Jesus in our life, like a little seasoning to spice up life, instead of that all-consuming passion to be God’s man or God’s woman? What would your life be like – what would my life be like if we were consumed with Jesus? I’m pretty sure my priorities would change – I would spend less time and energy and money on the things of this world and more on the things of God. There would be less apathy and more intentionality. I would treat people and relationships differently – I’d be more concerned about people’s souls than I would about what they can do for me, or how they’ve insulted me. I’d spend less time in front of the TV and more time in God’s Word.
You tell me – if you were honest with yourself – how would your life be different if you really got serious about Jesus?
In the 15th century, Ivan the Great conquered his way across eastern Europe and Asia, creating the great Russian empire and ruling as tsar over his vast kingdom. But he had no queen. His advisors set about searching for a woman who was worthy of this honor and decided upon the beautiful daughter of the King of Greece. Ivan agreed to marry her sight unseen and the king of Greece was delighted to align Greece with this powerful empire to the north. He stipulated one condition upon the union, that Ivan must become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. Ivan readily agreed, along with his personal guard of 500 soldiers. Priests were dispatched to teach Ivan and his soldiers the basics of Christianity. Soon the day of baptism came and Ivan along with 500 soldiers and priests waded into the waters of the river. One hindrance remained – professional soldiers were required to renounce bloodshed upon becoming Christians. They came up with a solution. As the soldiers were lowered into the water, each one grasped his sword and raised his arm into the air above the water, thus exempting their arm from the rule of Christ.
And I wonder what you and I have raised above the water at our baptism, out of the reach of Christ, exempt from his rule. We tell Jesus, I submit to you in everything except this – this I reserve, this I withhold. This is our unbaptized arm.
Contrast that story with this one:
William Borden was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents were both descended from British aristocracy and his father had made a fortune in real estate in Chicago and in silver mining in Colorado. William was already worth a million dollars by the age of 21, an amount equivalent in 1908 to more than 50 million dollars today. He was handsome, intelligent, well-educated and popular. But in 1912, at the age of 25, William did two things that made headlines. First, he gave away his entire fortune, half to God’s work in the U.S. and half to overseas missions. Second, he dedicated his life to mission work among the Muslims, first in Egypt where he would learn Arabic, and then ultimately to northern China. To the public and media, and even to many of his Christian friends, his actions seemed incredibly wasteful, especially when after only a few weeks in Egypt he was stricken by spinal meningitis and died. It seemed like a tragic loss and waste of a life full of promise. But when his parent received his belongings and were looking through his Bible, they found written on the first page these six words: No reserve, no retreat, no regret. No reserve – he had held nothing back, he had surrendered everything to the lordship of Jesus. No retreat – though everyone thought he shouldn’t go, he pushed forward toward his goal to serve Christ. No regret – even as he faced death, he had no regrets about his decision to honor God and serve his Lord with his life.
I hope those can be your words this morning: no reserve, no retreat, no regret.