The text today begins with a group of people searching for Jesus.
When we think of search parties, we might imagine people comb through the wilderness shouting, “Jesus, Jesus, where are you?”
And perhaps these people literally did that.
But on a deeper lever, they were searching to know Jesus on the deeper level, they wanted to know, “Who are you? When did you get here? Where did you come from?”
They didn’t just want to locate his exact position or coordinates,
They wanted to know who Jesus truly is.
And they had a lot of questions.
After all, Jesus was young guy in his twenties who had grown up in the area. They kind of thought they had him pegged; they knew what he was about.
He had been doing all this strange stuff recently. Like bring life to the dying, giving sight to the blind and healing those who had been paralyzed.
And then yesterday.
Did you hear what happened yesterday?
Yesterday he had shown up at the shoreline and this was an entire crowd of hungry people.
And by crowd I mean thousands and thousands of people.
Possibly more people than there are in the entire town of Essex ….
How do you feed a group that size?
One of his followers had suggested just sending them away and having them fend for themselves.
But then another guy had located a little boy with just a couple of bits of bread and fish …
And the boy shared what he had of his own food and somehow … somehow … from those small beginnings the entire crowd was fed.
And after that, people began to talk, speculating …
“Surely this must be God’s prophet.”
And shortly after, with full stomachs indeed, the people drifted off to sleep,
And while they slept, Jesus and the disciples went across the water to the opposite shore.
And so when they woke, he was gone …
And so they went searching …
Wondering all the while: Who is this person??
So they combed the shoreline until at last they found him on the other side.
And by the time they did all that walking, they were hungry again.
And so, they say to him – what are you going to do today?
Don’t forget that our ancestors who were stuck in the desert were fed manna from heaven.
Hint, hint, they are saying as their stomachs rumble, we would love a little more bread and fish.
And Jesus responds delineating the difference between bread that spoils
and bread that endures to eternal life.
That is something that I can give you, Jesus is saying, that is more fulfilling that a hastily made barley loaf.
And that is life eternal.
But what is that? What exactly do we mean when use that phrase – eternal life? What is Jesus offering us in this passage?
Often “eternal life” is painted only as something that might happen in the far off future, after we have died. When I hear that phrase, I can’t help but think of a time I went to a church as a parishioner quite a few years ago – and the pastor started her sermon off with a joke. I have forgotten the entire punch line of the joke … all I remember is that she said you die and go to heaven and heaven has different sections that includes both slums and mansions and only the spiritual 1% get to live in the mansions.
I remember she said that because what it seemed so far off from the truth of the Gospel. In the Bible, when Jesus speaks about eternal life, Jesus tells stories of banquets where the whole community is invited, where wayward children are forgiven and lavishly welcomed home, and where lost sheep are sought out with compassion and tenderness. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
I can’t know exactly what will happen after death, but whatever comes, I have confidence that we will be enfolded in God’s healing love.
But, I think, when Jesus is speaking to the crowd about eternal life in today’s passage, I think he is getting to a bit more than just what happens after death. I mean, yes, eternal life does mean that death is not the final world and that’s beautiful but it’s not the whole picture.
Because, if life was only about what happened in the future, where would the Good News be right now? If life was only about what happened in the future, we would be walking around saying, well, in the future we will experience peace and joy.
But not now.
And so, then the people ask Jesus where they can find bread of everlasting life, Jesus says, I am it, you have found it, I am the bread of life.
He says, “I am.”
He doesn’t say, “I was” or “I will be”
But “I am.”
“I am the bread of life right now.”
When I heard those words this week, I began to wonder about the ways that Jesus gives us life, right now in our everyday lives.
When we talk about Jesus giving us new life as Christians, we often talk about being saved, about how Jesus brought us salvation.
Salvation is another term in our faith that is used often but is not always articulately defined. But what do we mean, when we say something like, I am saved?
When I wrote my twenty page paper on faith for the ordination process, I remember the pushback I got for my salvation section – all well and good, my ordination committee told me. It sounded nice, quoted scholars and was theological sound … but, they added, we want to know, what does salvation mean for you? How have you experienced it in your life?
I wasn’t sure how to put something like that into words until one of my colleagues reframed the question and asked, “What are you saved from?”
What are you saved from?
At the time, I ended up writing that, “In the moments when I weep over the violence in our world – the ways that we are killing each other, alienating each other, oppressing each other – God saves me from despair. [Jesus’ resurrection shows the power of God brings light to places of incredible darkness.] And as God’s Spirit works in us to transform the world and our lives, we are called to respond and to partake in Kin-dom building and reconciliation. It is not an easy process. It would be easy for me to hold grudges and not do the hard work of healing from my own hurt. Yet, I press on because I know that Christ calls us to the messy and difficult process of redemption because something better is a-coming. The process of salvation requires me to open my heart and soul to God. In the process of doing so, in the process of understanding my humanity and reconciling myself to my human siblings, I begin to experience God’s salvation [and life abundant].”
What does it mean for you to experience life abundant right now?
“I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus says.
Jesus’ words invite us into direct relationship with the Holy.
We go looking for Jesus.
And Jesus says, I am right here.
I was thinking about different ways that we experience life-giving bread when I remembered an encounter that I had when I was living abroad in France. At the time, I was feeling kind of lonely because I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any family there or friends yet for that matter and it was a struggle for me even to correctly order a coffee at a coffee shop because of the cultural differences.
I will never forget that one day, I had attended church where I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and afterward – when my stomach was rumbling a bit – a divorced, middle aged woman came over to me invited me and all the other foreign students at the church over to her house for dinner.
The meal at her house had multiple dishes and strong French wine and cheese and chocolate and dessert. We were a bit of an odd assortment – with students from Europe and Asia and me from North America. The students from Asia could barely speak any French and so they would often repeat their sentences over and over again in order to communicate.
But what struck me most was how we began the meal. Bread is an important part of any French meal and so, before we began to eat, the woman took a baguette and cut it in half and put it on a plate on the table.
As she did it, I looked at the bread, glancing, around at the faces of strangers and misfits around me, and I thought to myself.
This is the bread of life.
And it is. It really is.