Lectionary Year B
August 13, 2000
John 6:35, 41-51

Step VI: Contemporary Address



When I was a child, Saturday was one of the big days of the week for me. Early Saturday afternoon, my dad and I would drive into town and pick up my mom from work. She used to help out my aunt and my uncle who owned a bakery downtown, a family business that had been passed on from generation to generation. I was always looking forward to this day. I remember sitting in the back of the store, waiting for my mom, smelling the sweet barley smell of oven-fresh bread wafting through the air. I am sure you know what I am talking about. Just close your eyes for a moment. Can you smell this unmistakable smell of fresh bread, or the smell of something that is baking in your wife's, your mother's or your grandmother's kitchen? There is something soothing and something exciting about it at the same time. The soothing certainty of home, of food prepared by careful hands with love, and the excitement of the feast that is about to be shared with your loved ones. Not to mention that fresh baked stuff just tastes great!

Furthermore, I remember feeling the warmth of the huge ovens in my uncle's bakery that held dozens of loaves, seeing the not-yet baked dough placed neatly on racks, just "waiting," so to speak, to receive their crispy-brown crust. I remember shaking my uncles hands that were always dusted with flower, and the taste of the freshly baked bread covered with real butter from happy cows in my mouth. And most of all, I remember that when all the work was done, the whole family would gather together in the small Cafe that was adjacent to the bakery and would sit down for a chat over coffee and cake, or some of the goodies that my uncle used to bake. As I already said, these Saturdays were very, very special.

Now my uncle was an excellent baker--never mind that I might be just a tad biased--who provided his customers with a rather large variety of breads. White bread, wheat bread, nine-corn bread, sourdough bread, rye rolls, baguette rolls, small rolls, big rolls--I can't even begin to recount all the types and kinds of breads. And last week I read in a German newspaper on the internet that there are more than 2000 different varieties of breads available in Germany to this day. Pretty amazing. The meager 35 varieties that the H.E.B. flagship "Central Market" in Austin has to offer, appears to be a mere trifle in comparison. What is more important than the sheer number of varieties of bread, however, seems to be that this food group is of great importance in a particular culture. Granted, 2000 kinds might be going overboard a little; nevertheless, bread is an integral element to the diet of a particular people--in this instance, to the Germans. They love to eat bread--a lot of bread!

I am sure that the palette of breads in Galilee was not as sundry in Jesus' times, but the people in general were familiar with bread. Bread for the Jews was just as an essential part of their diet as it is for the Germans today. It was a part of every meal, especially of the Passover meal that reminded them of their freedom from the Egyptian bondage and their journey into the land of milk and honey. Their understanding of bread seemed to have focused mainly on "sustenance" or "nourishment" or remembrance." There was no such perception as "life-bread" that would have pointed to something more, something that they could not explain. Life in Judaism comes from and through Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible which we commonly call the Old Testament. Torah, the teachings and law of Judaism, was--and still is--believed to be the "Tree of Life" or the "Medicine of Life" because it is God's holy word. If you walk into the synagogue of the Jewish congregation "Agudas Achim" in Austin today, you can see a huge sliding glass door in the center of the chancel that protects the sacred Torah scrolls. And on this door, the "Tree of Life" is depicted that springs from the Torah and branches out, thus reaching from generation to generation. For the Jews, Torah is more than bread. It signifies God's life-giving word that stretches beyond mere nourishment for one's body.

And here is Jesus, a Jew in the midst of Jews, who declares that He is the bread who has come down from heaven, who boldly claims: "I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (v.35)." No wonder that the Jews were beginning to complain about him. We can almost hear the wheels clicking in their heads as they were thinking: "Now wait a minute! Hold it right there! As far as we recall, this Jesus guy is the son of Joseph, the carpenter, and his wife Mary, who live just a few blocks down the street. He is just a guy like you and I, and yet he claims to have come down from heaven? Yeah, right. Some joke. And then he says that he is the bread of life. We always thought and were taught that Torah gives life, and that bread nourishes. This guy needs to straighten out his theology. What he says there really does not gel." But somehow there was more to their complaining and questioning. Underneath the surface they must have sensed that when this peasant spoke, His words appealed to more than just the intellect or tradition. His words touched their hearts, their souls, their very life. We read in v. 26 that Jesus tells the Jews that sought His company that they came because they ate of the bread He gave them and were filled. Jesus told them that He was able to provide nourishment for their bodies as well as for their hearts and souls. And more than that, He promised that He would raise everyone who believed in Him in this life on the last day, thus granting them eternal life.

But I believe that as daring and bold these assertions were, they were not even as bold as the invitation that Jesus extended afterwards: "I AM the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Quite an invitation, and quite a promise. But can He keep it? Why should the Jews follow this invitation? This must have been more than just a little strange. Arrogant at least and plain weird at best. A man, a word, bread, flesh, resurrection, eternal life. Invitations just don't come any more enigmatic than this. And it must have been just as puzzling and invitation back then as it is today. After all, Jesus issued it to "whoever believes in Him," so I suppose that this concerns you and me as well. Just imagine that one day you stroll down to your mailbox and find an invitation in it that reads something like this: "Your presence is requested at a banquet that you cannot see. At this banquet, you will eat bread that tastes like flesh of a dead person who is alive. This is an 'all-you-can-eat occasion' and you can take home a doggy bag that contains resurrection and eternal life. RSVP. Signed, Jesus."

You think this sounds too hokey, a little too cute? Well, I can certainly understand that. After all, there are so many other invitations out there that do not seem to be quite so strange. Take this one. "Good job offer. Pays well and will support your family. Just give up all your free time to the company and we will take care of the rest." Perhaps another one: "Church work. Easy to handle, good hours. Modest pay but lots of free time. Leave questions at home, this way life will be easier for everybody." Or another one: "Spouse wanted. Low maintenance, easy to get along with. Mind reading ability required." There are so many invitations out there that seem to make so much more sense than the one that Jesus issues. I am certain there are many more choices available than a meager 2000 types of bread. Is this why are we so reluctant to pick that one "life-giving" bread out of a sea of others? Is it the mere amount of choices, the strangeness of this "bread," the way the invitation to participate is presented that makes us hesitate.

The way that "bread" is used in the New Testament is predominantly linked with the father, or the lord of the household who takes the bread at the beginning of a meal, gives thanks, breaks it and distributes it to those who sit at the table. It does not matter who sits at the table. It can be those whose lord he is, or one who is welcomed as a guest, a stranger. Now, if you are a stranger and guest, and if you choose to accept the invitation, you abide by the rules of hospitality that have been the same in the Middle East for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. If you accept such an invitation to sit at the table, you acknowledge that your well-being, your life is in your hosts hands. And your host, in return, acknowledges that he or she will honor your trust and vulnerability, that she or he will take care of you, your well-being and indeed your very life that in his or her hands. It is a promise!

To give up power, even the control over your very well-being is a scary thing. To be served by hands other than those that are all too familiar to us, to eat bread that we do not really understand where it is coming from or how it is baked, to sit at a table that we cannot see with our own eyes is scary. Very scary. It is out of our control and certainly beyond our comprehension and power. If we accept Jesus' invitation to sit at His table, we acknowledge that our well-being, our very life is in His hands. But in return, He acknowledges our trust and vulnerability in saying: "Thanks for RSVP-ing. Come on right in and have seat. I will take care of you, don't you worry. I know that you have placed your life into my hands, and you will not regret it. You'll see."

The country singer Emmylou Harris has a song on her latest album that captures, I believe, this mixture of longing for something beyond our understanding, of loneliness, vulnerability and trust. The words of her song "Orphan Girl" go like this:

I am an orphan on God's highway
But I share my troubles if you go my way.

I have no mother, no father,
no sister, no brother.
I am an orphan girl.

I have had friendships, pure and golden,
but ties of kinship, I have not known them.

I have no mother, no father,
no sister, no brother.
I am an orphan girl.

But when He calls me, I will be able
to meet my family at God's table.

I'll meet my mother, my father,
my sister, my brother.
No more an orphan girl.

So blessed Savior, make me willing,
walk beside me, 'til I am with them.

Be my mother, my father,
my sister, my brother.
I am an orphan girl.

There is another special day in my life besides those Saturdays of my childhood that I remember so fondly and with a certain sense of melancholy. This day, however, bears some of the same characteristics as those treasured moments on those Saturday afternoons. There is the soothing certainty of something that is prepared by careful hands and with love. There is the excitement of the feast that I am about to share with loved ones. There is the gathering together of the family to share, after the work is done, what has been prepared. The day I am talking about is Sunday, the Sunday when we share the LORD's Supper. It does not matter where I am partaking, for all who are partaking with me are family. They are my mothers, my fathers, my sisters, and my brothers. On this day I am no longer an orphan, on this day I belong. And when I close my eyes I can smell the sweet smell of the bread, and the sweet-sour smell of the grape juice, and I can hear the words: "Taste and see, taste and see, the goodness of our LORD." And with melancholy in my heart I long and yearn for the day that the prophet Jeremiah has foretold long ago: "But this is my covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. 'I will put my law within them [I wonder, if this happens by ingesting the "Bread of Life], and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other 'Know the LORD!,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more." AMEN.

Let us pray!
LORD, out of our melancholy and our longing we raise our voices to you. Hear us, O Lord. If you would look on our sins, we could not stand before you. Forgive our hesitation to accept your invitation that you issued through Jesus Christ, our Lord. We wait for you, our souls wait, and in your word, in your invitation we trust. Only at your table we find peace, love, hope, and redemption. This bread give us, gracious and merciful God, each and every day of our lives. Amen.

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