35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
41 At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
43 “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. 44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 I tell you the truth, the one who believes has everlasting life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread, they will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
I’m honestly not sure why we start the year with these readings. In the passage, Jesus mentions coming down from heaven, which suggests a connection with the Christmas story, but most of the emphasis of the passage is on his statement “I am the bread of life,” which is repeated twice here. That obviously brings to mind our Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In the words of institution for the sacrament – the words that are always said when we observe the sacrament – we quote Jesus’ words, “This is my body broken for you.” That’s an obvious connection to this reading.
But it seems to me that there’s more going on in this passage than just a reference to the sacrament.
Jesus calls himself “the bread of life.” Bread is commonly used as a symbol for all of our daily needs. Our understanding is that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re asking God to provide, not just bread or even food, but all our worldly needs. That’s why in one of the alternative versions of the Lord’s Prayer we sometimes use in worship, we say, “We ask that you would provide for our needs this day.”
But the scholars who study the ancient language that Jesus himself spoke – Aramaic – tell us that in that language, the word used for ‘bread’ had an even broader meaning. In ancient Aramaic, they tell us, ‘bread’ really did symbolize our material needs in general, but it also referred to the guidance and understanding we need if we’re going to thrive spiritually as well as physically. So in this passage for today, it seems that Jesus is declaring himself to be the source, not just of what we need physically, but also of what we need for a healthy and growing spiritual life.
And Jesus says that anyone who comes to him in search of a spiritual life of genuine power and meaning will find it. And what’s more, those who come to him searching for that spiritual power will share in his everlasting life. In fact, Jesus says, he has come into this world from heaven for exactly that purpose: to provide what we need to be sustained, not just for mortal life in this world, but also for an abundant and eternal life.
In this reading, the Jewish leaders who hear Jesus make this claim about himself are said to “grumble.” That’s because to them, claiming to be sent into the world from God was blasphemy. But of course, we know what they didn’t know – that Jesus was in fact not just a representative of God, but actually God in human form. That’s an idea they weren’t prepared to wrap their heads around. (In fact, it took the followers of Jesus something like three centuries to figure this out.) So Jesus just told them that he had “come down from heaven.” But even that was beyond their grasp.
And Jesus makes one other point in this passage that seems to me especially worthy of a moment’s reflection. Jesus contrasts himself to the manna the Hebrews ate in the desert on their way to the promised land. Both Jesus and the manna were, in the Aramaic sense, bread from God. But the manna was bread that only sustained the people physically. It kept them alive, but only physically and only temporarily. Jesus, on the other hand, had come to nourish and sustain people spiritually and emotionally as well as physically – and also eternally.
So maybe that’s why the mothers and fathers of the church picked this reading for today in the lectionary. It seems like an appropriate subject for our first reflection of the new year that stretches out before us. I say that because it invites us to open ourselves to receive more ‘nourishment’ from Jesus than we’ve settled for in the past. Jesus invites us to open ourselves to be nourished and empowered for a deeper spiritual life than we’ve ever experienced before – not to settle for a shallow and lukewarm experience of faith and a hope of heaven when we die, but rather to allow Jesus to provide us with a bread that can let us live with a joy and power we’ve never known before.
Let’s pray. Lord, in this new year, move in our hearts and awaken in us a hunger to experience your love more powerfully than ever before. And day by day, help us to open our lives to receive and be nourished by the bread of life he came into the world to bring us. Amen.
May you and those you love be happy, healthy and richly blessed in 2019 and always.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 29 and 48; Genesis 12:1-7; and Hebrews 11:1-12.)