This sermon is about what Jesus offers a world that the world is missing.
I could preach on the Gospel of John all day. I could, but I won't. It is by far my favorite text in the Bible, and it does not have its own year in the lectionary, so it always feels like a rare treat. It is also quite rare that all three readings- the old testament and new testament lessions, and the gospel- all tell the same story and speak to the same eternal truth. On a fortunate day like today, the stars are aligned, and God’s voice calls us from the pages of these ancient texts. So buckle up.
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
On my drive from Berkeley CA to Winston-Salem, I stopped and spent the night with my best friend Steven, who is a minister of students in Jackson, Mississippi. I arrived on a Saturday when he and his youth were going to serve lunch at a local food shelter. If you know anything about Jackson, of it you have read the book “The Help” you know that it is incredibly segregated between the “haves” and the “have-nots” Steven’s church represents the haves, and those receiving the meals, are, obviously, the “have- nots”. I went along, put on my gloves, and served up some fruit cocktail.
As the homeless came into the room and sat down, the director said a brief word about how God loves everyone there and would provide for them. He shared his testimony about how this place turned his life around and found God. He concluded his testimony by saying that there was a visiting minister in the room, and he pointed to me to say the blessing.
As the room turned around, their eyes all fixed on me. I stood there stunned, how could this man know that I was a minister? And in the corner of the room I saw Steven grinning, and I realized that this was a little friendly hazing for Steven’s newly ordained best friend, me.
I stumbled over my words as I conjured up a prayer. My heart was a mixture of love and guilt as I prayed for the “have nots” knowing that I would soon be going to Schlotsky’s with the youth group, paid for by a wealthy member of the congregation.
I don’t remember what I said. But if I could do it over, I would have said something like this:
In the 6th chapter of John, John the Baptist is killed. His followers are all wandering the streets now looking for something to believe in. One day, they see Jesus and they flock to him for comfort and leadership. After the great feeding of the 5000, Jesus and his disciples continue on their journey. But the crowd continues to follow because they know they will be hungry again tomorrow.
This story isn’t new. In Exodus the Hebrews are hungry in the desert, and they complain to Moses to give them food, and God makes it rain bread from heaven. But the Hebrews still don’t believe in God, so they try to stuff manna into their pockets for the next day, but it goes bad. Now these new followers of Jesus are doing the same thing, but their history is a little fuzzy.
And Jesus gets into a bit of a conversation with them. To paraphrase, it goes something like this.
“Hey Jesus. We know what you can do. Give us bread, like Moses gave people bread back in the desert.”
To which Jesus says, “Hang on. It wasn’t Moses who gave them bread, it was God. The bread that comes down from heaven is from God. Not Moses.”
“Well, Jesus, you’re kind of a poor man’s version of Moses, could you hook us up with some of that bread, you know, like always, so that we never have to work for food again.”
But Jesus says to them, “I am the bread of life.” In all of our lives, bread helps for a little while, but Jesus fills our lives for eternity.
I imagine that I would say something like that to the homeless men and women who were looking for words of inspiration from the “guest minister”
Then I imagine, as we preachers always do, that someone there wants to talk more about what we said in our message.
To that person I would say:
When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” he is uttering the name of God himself. He does this 7 times in the gospel of John.
These are important sayings, because remember that God called himself “The Great I am” in the Old Testament. So, in John, each time Jesus refers to himself starting with the words, “I am, he is speaking to his divinity.
7 times he does this in the gospel of John.
“I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger.” John 6:35
“I am the light of the world; he who fallows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12
“I am the gate; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” John 10:9
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” John 10:11
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies.” John 11:25
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” John 14:6
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.” John 15:1
* The divinity of Jesus Christ is further illustrated in John 8:58. Jesus said, “Truly, Truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am”, which means that Jesus existed before His human life on earth.
So, when Jesus says, “I am” he makes it known for the first time to the crowds that he is God. This is funny, because they were looking for a prophet. They were looking for someone like Moses to give them bread from heaven, not THE bread OF Heaven, which is Jesus himself.
There is an important lesion in this for us. We know that we are slaves to our flesh, that we always need more in order to survive. But God calls each of us to look past our mere creature comforts at something more enduring than the bread that fills our bellies for a short time.
Now I ask you-
How many people do you know have all of their physical needs met, and are still miserable? How many people do you know have more than their needs met, their lives are full of toys and extravagancies, and they don’t know Jesus? God provides us with a world that has more than enough resources. And for those of us lucky enough to have access to those resources, we find out an important truth: If our lives are meaningless, then our food is empty calories. We all need the bread of heaven to fill our bodies, not just food that feeds our flesh.
One last distinction I’d like to make. You didn’t think you were going to get through a whole sermon from me without a little bit of greek, did you? You hear earlier in the second lesion that Paul writes that we are all prisoners to the body of Christ. I have also said throughout this sermon that we are also prisoners to our own flesh.
Now listen up because this is going to be on the test later.
Paul makes a very important distinction between the words flesh and body.
Flesh causes us to Sin
The body brings us to God.
While we use these words interchangeably, they are not the same. Flesh in Greek is sarxa. Paul talks about our flesh as the thing that causes us to sin because our flesh is perishable and self-centered. Our flesh needs food to survive. Our flesh gets old. It bleeds, and it dies.
But Paul uses a different word to talk about the body of Christ: in greek the word ins Soma. It is almost the exact opposite of flesh because the body of Christ is an idea bigger than ourselves. The body of Christ is eternal and imperishable. The body of Christ is strong, even when our flesh is weak. The body of Christ is what raises from the dead, even when the flesh died hanging on a cross. Our flesh leads us to sin and selfishness. When we hoard the world’s resources, when we value our lives higher than others, when we take care of ourselves first and look to our neighbors if there’s time, we are living for the flesh.
When the flock of people following Jesus ask him for bread for themselves, they are living for their flesh. This is their sin. This is how the confuse the Messiah as a prophet- because all they can see are the signs that give them immediate gratification.
So when Jesus tries to offer them more, by saying that he is the great I am, they don’t know what to do with themselves.
That’s where the text from Paul comes in. Paul writes that we are all one in the body of Christ. This is part of his brilliance. Our flesh divides us. Our body- the body of Christ binds us.
Culturally, this is one of the great shifts in the history of the world. Paul actually convinces people that we are better together than alone. And while our individual hunks of flesh lead to sin, the body of Christ over powers our individual sins with grace and love.
One of my favorite 20th century thinkers was Theologian and pre-civil rights activist Howard Thurman, who takes this a step further.
Thurman says that Paul’s idea of the church coming together to form the body of Christ is nothing new. He says that was the plan all along, all the way back in Genesis.
We were created by God “ not in an individual expression of his creation, but in the collective sense; not as mindless instinct-bound creatures- but by those created in His own image”
What Thurman is saying is that we were not made in the image of God as a man or a woman, but the image of God is the community, the body of Christ. God does not look like a human with flesh and bones, the image of God is our spirit, our hope, and our love. We best exemplify the image of God when we raise our collective conscience, and our love for God and one another. We are created in the image of God when whenever we act like God as a community.
That’s why Paul writes what he does in Ephesians chapter 4.
1 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7 Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.
Our flesh is made for this world. We can be greedy and shallow. We can be selfish and only look after our own. But Jesus calls us to see creation from God’s perspective. We were not created to be mindless instinct-bound creatures who live day to day looking for eternal happiness in earthly products.