“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” When we hear this statement read aloud, it comes to us through a series of filters such that we don’t find it at all surprising. For one thing, anything Jesus might say midway through any one of the four gospels is filtered through our basic familiarity with how it all turns out; we’ve been trained to hear his various teachings in light of the whole. And anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Christian tradition is accustomed to hearing symbolic language for Jesus: he is the light of the world, “the way, the truth, the life,” the stone the builders rejected, the living water, the bread of life. We sing such images in our hymns, we use them in our prayers, and we read them in our bibles—and particularly in John, whose gospel is thick with this language. “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life,’” and we just nod.
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Not so with Jesus’ original audience. Where we see Jesus the Christ, they see only Jesus from Nazareth. Yes, those who are closest to him are beginning to clue in to the extraordinary nature of this particular Nazarene, while all sorts of other people—generically identified as “the crowds”—have been drawn to him both by his words and his healing presence. Yet for all that, when they look at Jesus they’re not seeing him through the filters that have so shaped our reading of him. And so in response to his statement that he is “the bread of life,” eyebrows begin to be raised.
“Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” Two things to note here. First of all, this is part of a long dialogue that began 20 verses earlier, and up to this point it is “the crowd” that had been engaged with Jesus. Now suddenly there is a transition, and the crowd is identified as “the Jews.” That identifying label of “the Jews” is very important in John’s narrative, as it signals tension and even opposition. Sadly, John’s use of the term also been twisted to form a part of the long, sad story of anti-Semitism. It is important to not lose sight of the fact Jesus and the twelve disciples were themselves Jews, and so when John refers to “the Jews” he’s not doing the ancient world’s version of racial profiling. The tension and opposition John wants to highlight is all about the way in which Jesus’ teaching—his very presence, in fact—stretches and pushes the parameters of conventional religious practice and language. John is not suggesting that this people called “the Jews” are of necessity wicked, but rather that the way in which Jesus uses the language of the tradition—his tradition—is going to be unsettling for his own people.
Secondly, in our translation tonight, the text said that they began to “complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” It then continued, “They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’” Other translations use the word “murmur” rather than “complain,” and that is actually a more accurate translation of the original Greek. They began to “murmur about him,” which catches a sense of it being something more like gossipy, under-the-breath grumbling. “Who does he think he is, anyway? He’s just Jesus, son of Joseph. You know that family, don’t you? A carpenter’s son… really, now…” All accompanied by lots of eye rolling, head shaking, dismissive glances.
It is interesting that the lectionary also had us read a section from the Epistle to the Ephesians, in which Paul addresses the issue of destructive words. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths,” he writes, “but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (4:29) And then a few verses later he adds, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (4:31-32) Why do you suppose Paul feels it necessary to write such words? Because he knows that people in the various church communities he has planted are doing damage to each other with words; with malicious gossip and with those dismissive little side-comments that can be so cutting.
Jesus said to them, “Do not complain among yourselves,” or “Stop murmuring among yourselves.” Where some of us might have been tempted to try to ignore the small talk in the audience—and then to later complain about it to our sympathetic friends—Jesus addresses it. Stop with the gossipy grousing already; I do have the authority to say the things I am saying. It comes from the Father, from the very God who has given you life, and to whom you claim to be faithful. And then he says again, “I am the bread of life.”
Do you see what he’s doing? Not only is he not interested in letting the “murmuring” just run its destructive course, but when he does name it and confront it Jesus is not prepared to soft-peddle his message in order to keep people from being unsettled. His words are strong, but they’re not cheap; and they’re certainly not in the class that Paul describes as being fueled by “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander.”
Yet to a first century Jew, what he says next would have been troubling. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” Bread in the wilderness—manna—would have been one of the most treasured images in the faith language of that people. Yet for all of the wonder that was manna, your ancestors still died. And now, he continues, I am “the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” And as if that wasn’t enough, he adds, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Well, this exchange goes on for another fifteen verses or so, which we will be reading over the next two Sundays. If anything, Jesus’ language becomes even starker as he continues to build image upon image, and so we’re told in verse 66 that, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
As I said at the beginning of this sermon, because we hear these words and images through a series of filters we don’t find them all that surprising. We hear Jesus say “I am the bread of life,” and we say “sure.” We hear the words, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” and we think, “yes, because even though we die, we are given life.” We hear him say, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” and we think of the last supper and the cross, and of the way in which we are fed in communion; an act of bread and wine shared in the context of prayer, worship, and the story retold.
All of this is right and good, of course, and we should be thankful that we have been shaped by the filters that are this faith, these songs, this bible. But for a minute, place yourselves with that audience, hearing it all for the first time. Hear the scandal of his words, and the way in which he refuses to let the audience get off easily by just murmuring dismissively about him. And then, when he says to you, “I am the bread of life” and therefore the only thing you truly need, do you believe it? Do you shape your life accordingly, follow him on whatever road he calls you to, trust him? Because whatever filters we might hear this text through, those are the questions Jesus insists on asking us, every step of the way.