. A Meditation by Christoph Fleischer, 2013, translated from the German
BREAD OF LIFE
Sermon on John 6, 47-51
by Christoph Fleischer
[This sermon published on February 26, 2013 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.der-schwache-glaube.de/?p=1583.]
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Using the word “I” or the statement “I am” as Jesus does here may be an arrogance or presumption. For us, “I am” may be possible with our name or with some particulars like I am married or single, German, protestant and so forth. But hardly anyone would say I am a dog, I am a river or I am a food. That would sound out of place although such comparisons could be used toward other persons, either to praise them or make them stand out or sometimes to insult them. Still self-adulation is regarded as presumptuous.
In the Bible, “I am” is emphasized in another regard since it is connected to God’s name. God’s original name in Israel is Yahweh – “I am who I am” or “I am who I will be.” This means: I will be there; I will show myself; I am there. Jesus as God’s Son is also linked with this “I am” in relation to his life and his message. The Gospel of John hands down seven “I am” sayings of and about Jesus. In the Gospel of John, the special characteristic is that Jesus’ designations refer to his whole person and his whole mission. In this regard, the Gospel of John is a narrative, not an eyewitness account. Jesus’ speech should not be understood literally. It offers the religious interpretation of the evangelist John. The words of Jesus handed down here always highlight his significance as happens in a sermon. That is the community reference of John’s gospel.
Therefore I’d like to first interpret this brief section about the bread of life and Jesus. The Evangelist John praises Jesus as
food for eternal life
food against death
food for the life of the world.
The word “food” sounds profane and provocative in view of our current food scandals. Whoever needs a cup of rice certainly isn’t satisfied with a good word. The hunger in the world is still a great scandal. A superficial religious answer cannot be given. Firstly, Jesus’ “I am” was meant purely symbolically and refers to the message of God’s salvation. Religion is not absolutely apolitical. But it doesn’t give any direct political answer to political questions. The bread of life is not automatically bread for the world. On the other hand, it is entirely possible and sensible to pray with Jesus “Give us today our daily bread.”
In our reflections, we started from the explicit “I am” sayings of Jesus. Now we look more closely at what Jesus connects with this I. Three expressions are very striking in the statements about bread joined with “I am”:
I am the bread of life.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven.
The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.
These three sentences taken from the text and connected with the I of Jesus are three statements about the food “bread” which Jesus represents for hearers and all Christians. Firstly, the bread is described. It is standard as with all other bread. It is a bread of life, not rye bread or wheat bread. Jesus enters into the origin of this bread which makes it completely clear that the term bread is used symbolically here. It is the living bread which came down from heaven. The living bread means Jesus as a person, his significance and his work, as the word which came down from heaven. The third is what the bread should accomplish, the goal and function of this bread. It is the flesh for the life of the world. To our ears, the word flesh sounds a little comical in this connection, that bread becomes flesh here. Is this a food confusion? In no way. In the Bible, flesh is always in opposition to the word and to spirit. When we reflect on this opposition, the word flesh that irritates us opens up the meaning of the text. Previously the emphasis was on the word that is now practically applied. Thus flesh means here in antithesis to the spirit and to the word: praxis, action, execution of faith in the daily routine.
I will first add several statements from the text in which the theme is indirectly the word, the spirit and the I of Jesus. Jesus is the word. Whoever doubts this should recall the beginning of the Gospel of John. It does not only say “In the beginning was the word” but also “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Thus many stories and expositions of this gospel are explanations of this statement with which the Gospel of John illuminates Jesus’ significance from the first chapter.
Thus the term word must always be understood with the name Jesus:
Jesus – as the word – gives eternal life.
Jesus – as the word – is the bread of life.
Jesus – as the word – came down from heaven to overcome death.
Jesus – as the word – is a person who was devoted and engaged for the life of the world.
Jesus – as the word – is a declaration for the meaning of life.
How can all this occur for people if bread isn’t really distributed here but rather symbolically? What should this word accomplish if it is so important for life, if it overcomes death, champions the life of the world and communicates the meaning of life? The emphasis on religion which came into the world through Jesus is very clear. It is a religion that arose on the foundation of Judaism. Many terms have their exposition in the Old Testament. But Jesus’ significance goes beyond that since he invites the life of the world world into this covenant and doesn’t exclude people from the covenant with God.
On this exposition of Jesus as the word and the message, I’d like to quote a prayer from Wilhelm Willms. It is a Lord’s Supper prayer that explicitly refers to bread:
we thank you God
for Jesus’ sake
who as a light
entered our world
we thank you for Jesus’ sake
who in the hunger of this world
and in the thirst of this world
we thank you for Jesus’ sake
who among us was a person
who among us remained a person
to the very end
we thank you O God
for Jesus’ sake
who for us was bread
who for us was a person
who for us became hope
who was a king
who remained a king
who for us was
heaven on earth
we thank you for Jesus’ sake
who spoke of you
like no one before
testified of you
up to shedding of blood
up to death
and therefore lives for us
as our Lord
as our king
wilhelm Wilms/ roter faden gluck, lichtblicke, 5th edition 1988
Starting from this prayer, I come to the question how “we” the hearers appear in this section from John’s Gospel… Jesus addresses hearers directly. Four sentences are striking:
Your fathers… died in the wilderness.
If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever.
This bread… is given… for the life of the world.
He who believes has eternal life.
Four words refer to us:
1.The reference to dying is admittedly somewhat strange. “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and died,” we read. This is astonishing because the people of Israel first profited from this miracle under the conditions of wandering in the wilderness in that they survived. Their death naturally could not be prevented by the manna. They only didn’t die miserably in the wilderness. What is really meant here is intimated in the text with the word “eternal life.” In another passage, Jesus says “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me will live and not die.” The question is why does the Jewish community need another relation with death than in the time of wandering in the wilderness? Why do we need another relation with death and what does this survival after death mean for us? Ofter it is assumed that life after death compensates for something that one did not have or did not have enough in life. The speech for Paradise goes in this direction. Sometimes one hears something like a point-system in which all faith points and all good deeds are repayed after death…
Death destroys life. On the other hand, God’s word outlasts death when it is carried forward and lived out. The Resurrection is a spiritual reality, not a material reality, for coming generations. The question is not why do I need eternal life but what conduct eliminates death that as a means of power frightens people.
2.If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. Previously it was clear that a spiritual reality is meant here. However what is called spiritual here is a presupposition for the real. From here, reality is formed or redesigned. A life that includes just conditions in the here and now is meant with the sentence “if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever,” not a future Paradise after death. Eternity must be understood a little politically. People will no longer be dependent on the more or less accidental moments of material prosperity or on the powers that decide over prosperity and hunger in the world. Jesus emphasized real life, not material or spiritual profit.
3.The bread of life is given for the life of the world. Jesus illustrates how he understands this. Sharing bread and giving himself is the same for him. For some, the cross was conceived as an instrument of power with which people were ruled. For Christians, the cross of Jesus is a sign of sharing and a world in which bread is distributed justly and eternal life prevails. This idea of the eternal has to do with the word divine or heavenly, not with timelessness.
4.“He who believes has eternal life.” The question which this sentence answers is the question about the meaning of life. One’s life begins where life is based on trust, not on calculation. Violence and love exclude one another. The church is not a power institution. Where it was such an institution, it had to change. It is only a church of the word without external power. It cannot enforce anything with power but trusts only that it implements the word. Eternal life is the shared bread that always brings Jesus’ life and devotion into the present. Trust overcomes death because it is not ended by death, because it is an experience that spreads on and on, erects no walls and borders but opens them where they exist. Death is the picture of the border that is overcome. Bread is the picture of justice that reaches all people.
We live today in a time when all this has become the condition of survival for the whole planet. “He who believes has eternal life.” Amen