Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (August 2, 2009)
Based on a sermon by Luther (LW 23:40)
John 6:35—I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (ESV).
We’ve heard this Bible verse so many times, that it doesn’t sound very unusual. But take a step back from this for a moment. How can a man be bread? That’s an absurd statement coming from the mouth of Jesus.
The people who first heard it probably thought it was absurd, too. Their dialogue with Jesus in the Gospel lesson shows how confused they were. They were running after Jesus to be fed just like he had fed them on the hillside on the other side of the lake. But then Jesus tells them, “I am the Bread of Life.”
Wouldn’t you have been confused, too? Your stomach would have been full from the bread you ate on the other side of the lake. But what does this fellow mean by saying that HE is bread? You would have seen Jesus there, wearing some drab garment at the time since He was a poor man. He Himself spoke of His poverty in Matt. 8[:20]: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” In spite of this He says: “I am the Bread of Life. I am the One who can teach, satisfy, feed, and preserve the entire world, and give it life.” Though He Himself does not have a crust of bread to eat, He offers to become physician and helper to others.
To the people and to their thoughts about him, Jesus could not have given a reply that would have confused them more. It would be just as absurd if I were to send an email to the president, telling him “President Obama, I have all the answers you need. I can solve the recession, provide quality national health care, pay off the national debt, and in order to help the country afford this, I will donate as much money as this church can hold a hundred times over.” But where would I get this money if I can’t even pay off my own debt? How do you suppose my offer would be received? It would be ignored as a stupid prank. Perhaps some men in black suits and sunglasses might have some questions to ask me. And if I really believed what I had written, it would only be right for me to be taken off for some psychiatric treatment.
The people in our text may have thought Jesus was mentally ill when he said: “I am the bread of life.” It is, indeed, a strange way of talking, to ask someone to eat of a person who stands before him and says: “I am the bread of life,” offered to the whole world as food and nourishment, for all to find life and salvation in Him. The minds of the people were blinded by sin. They were fixed on grain and bread, but here Christ speaks of receiving him spiritually. And even though he stood before them as a pauper, He presents himself to them as bread, food, and nourishment which not only preserves life and refreshes the body, but a bread which gives eternal life to him who eats it. This he declares later on in the chapter, v. 58, where he says, he who feeds on this bread will live forever. This bread is to be a preservative against death. It’s as if a physician or a pharmacist were to tell a patient: “I will give you a medicine that will save you from death. You will no longer live in fear of death. You are now immune to death.”
The people could not comprehend this promise of a food or drink which would grant deliverance from death and give eternal life to him who takes it. Anyone who eats it will live and will be able to say: “I shall not fear you, death. You cannot harm me, for I have eaten the Bread of Life.” Even if every possible way of dying were heaped upon a person and attacked him fiercely, all death-delivering methods would not be able to consume and devour him, because Christ will resurrect him on the Last Day. Even if a person lay buried a thousand feed under the grass with his flesh rotting away, he would still live again.
Our Lord gets a bit more specific about what it means to be the Bread of Life when He says, whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. With these words, Jesus declares: “I will give you life so surely that you will never hunger or thirst, that is, you will never die. You will have enough to eat and to drink forevermore, that is, you will live in all eternity.” Jesus could hardly be more clear here. He is the God-given Bread and Food. Whoever eats this bread shall live forever and be satisfied, without ever hungering and thirsting. Jesus says: “He who comes to Me,” and then He then interprets those words even further when He says, “He who believes in Me.” To come to Christ is the same as to believe in Christ. That is what it means to have the bread and eat it. To eat, to come to Christ, and to believe in Christ are all one and the same thing.
God the Son comes to us with His words of love and forgiveness, the forgiveness earned for us through His death and resurrection. With these truths proclaimed to us God the Father gives us manna from heaven. We respond to His gracious call and God the Holy Spirit moves our hearts to come to Christ, to trust in Christ with all our hearts. You can come to Christ in no other way than by means of faith in Him. Jesus is closer to you through His Word than your children clinging to you with their arms wrapped tightly around your neck.
To come to Jesus is not a long journey. It’s not necessary for you to go on a mountain retreat. It is not necessary for you to go to the Holy Land. It's not necessary for you to struggle and agonize in prayer for a lengthy period of time and work yourself up into a certain emotional state. No, you come to Christ simply when you believe in Him. Then He is with you and very close to you. Trust in Him, and then you have eaten Him and come to Him.
In this chapter our Lord is speaking of spiritual eating. But he also graciously gives us another means whereby we eat the Bread of Life. In the Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus gives us his body to eat and his blood to drink, and this is not merely a spiritual eating. Jesus is really and truly bodily present in the Sacrament, for he said, “This is my body…This is my blood.” When received in faith, then, Jesus’ body in the Sacrament is a life-giving bread. But this eating and drinking that Jesus speaks of here when He says, “I am the Bread of Life” is a spiritual eating and drinking. Remember, he was speaking to people who thought that the bread they ate on the hillside was “the be all and end all.” But Jesus has a bread for them other than earthly bread. Jesus wants to satisfy the thirst and hunger of the soul. Our souls long to live forever. We don't want to stand condemned. We desire to have a gracious God and to be accepted before the judgment seat of a wrathful God. We don't want to be accused by sin and the Law or go to hell. This is our soul’s longing. We are spiritually hungry and thirsty for something satisfying. Only a spiritual food and drink can satisfy us, and it is offered to us when the Holy Spirit approaches and says: “If you do not want to die and be condemned, come to Christ, believe in Him, cling to Him, eat this spiritual food.”
These words of Jesus – “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” – inscribe those words on your heart. Then you will know where to entrust your soul and where you will go after this earthly life ends. Then you will be able to say at night when you go to bed, early in the morning when you get up, and at all times in between: “My soul remains with Christ. Therefore I will never hunger or thirst. This Man will not lie to me, for He is my trustworthy and faithful God. Trusting these words, I will lie down to sleep in the evening and get up in the morning. On these words I will rely whether I sleep or wake, whether I work or rest. For even if all about me should go to pieces, if father and mother, family or friends, should leave me, I can run to Christ and there find help. For these words are true.” Jesus says: “Hold to Me! Come to Me, and you shall live!”
But hold on a second. Everyone still has to die sometime, right? Jesus answers this question for us a little later in John's Gospel (11:25), where he says: “Though he die, yet shall he live.”
Impress Christ's words today on your conscience and believe them as true, come what may, firmly believing that He who made this promise is trustworthy and does not lie. And with trust and faith, we cry out to our Lord: “Give us this bread always” (John 6:34). He will reply: “Yes, with all My heart I will give it; for that is why I came from heaven. Let Me be your food. Do not pin your hope on another food. For I alone am the bread. No one except Me will help you. And if you cling to Me, no suffering nor sickness, no tyrant nor terrorist, no evildoer nor the Evil One will do you any harm; for here is the bread which will never let you go hungry.”