John 6:35, 41-51
One day a humble and compassionate rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth transformed five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed a crowd of 5,000 people. Then he left; and even though everyone ate their fill, the crowds were still not satisfied. So they went and found Jesus and demanded more of him. We heard about this in last week’s gospel reading. Jesus accuses the crowds of looking for him “not because [they] saw signs, but because [they] ate [their] fill of loaves.” Jesus thinks the crowd is more interested in the miracle than the one who performed it. The people don’t want Jesus, they just want another free lunch. So Jesus then tells them to stop trying to satisfy their earthly hunger and, instead, let God satisfy their spiritual hunger.
But the people don’t get it. They say, “Give us a sign! Our ancestors received the sign of manna in the wilderness. Give us a sign too!” This exasperates Jesus because he just gave them a sign by feeding all 5,000 of them with the fives loaves and two fish. The crowds miss the point. They have God incarnate standing right in front of them, beckoning them into a relationship with him; but they don’t want a relationship, they want a magic trick. Jesus then laments that these people have seen him and yet they still don’t believe in him. No amount of miracles or signs is going to change that.
That brings us into today’s reading. An exasperated Jesus is then confronted by religious leaders who take issue with some of the things that Jesus has said. Jesus claims that he is the bread of life that has come down from heaven. The religious leaders find this to be crazy, if not blasphemous. You can imagine them reminding Jesus that there has only ever been one bread of life that came down from heaven and that was the manna that God gave the starving Israelites while they wandered in the wilderness. That, the religious leaders remind Jesus, is the bread of life that came down from heaven because it came from God and it saved the Israelites from starvation.
But Jesus throws this back in the religious leaders’ faces. He says that the manna from heaven was a good thing, but it was no life saver. It preserved the Israelites a little longer, but really it only postponed the day of their death. “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, and they died,” Jesus says. Maybe not right then, but eventually, they died.
Jesus says that there is a new bread of life that has come down from heaven, not one that will just keep you going a little longer, but one that will give you eternal life. But the religious leaders balk. Like the crowds, they don’t get it. If Jesus is not talking about manna, then there’s only one other thing he could be talking about, and that is the scriptures.
Bread was synonymous with life in the ancient world. It was the main staple in most peoples’ diets. Without bread, many claimed, there was no life. Because it was linked with life, there was a long tradition in the Old Testament of seeing the scriptures or the word of God as a form of bread, a form of spiritual sustenance. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says to Israel that “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna…in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3).
Hearing the word of God is like eating a piece of fresh baked bread. It brings strength, nourishment, energy, and warmth. This is what the religious leaders think about when Jesus talks about the bread of life. If Jesus isn’t talking about manna, then he must be talking about the scriptures.
But of course, Jesus isn’t talking about manna or about the scriptures. He’s talking about himself. The problem for the religious leaders and the crowds is that they get hung up on the wrong thing. They’d rather focus their attention on the things of God rather than God himself. Their focus is on the physical bread that they can eat, on the miracles, and on the words of scripture, rather than on Jesus.
Imagine you’re getting ready for a fancy dinner party and your husband comes down the stairs in a tux or your wife comes down in a ball gown. What might happen if you sang the praises of the tailor who made the tux or the dress, the jeweler who made the watch or the earrings, the cobbler who made the patent leathers or the stilettos; what if you said “that dress looks beautiful” or “what a hansom watch” or “nice socks!” but never once paid a compliment to the human being standing inside all these pretty clothes? I’ll tell you what—you’d earn a one way ticket to a night on the couch! The gown, the tux, the accessories, they’re all worthless without the body who fills them, wears them, makes them work. They are all there to accentuate the beauty of the person, not the other way around.
But this is what the crowds and the religious leaders do when they draw all their attention to the miracles, the manna, and the scriptures. It’s as if they fawn over God’s accessories rather than God. Jesus does what he does not so that he can wow the crowds or shame the Pharisees. He does what he does because he desires a relationship with these people. He doesn’t want them to love him for his miracles. He wants them to love him for who he is, just as he loves the people for who they are. But the people would rather love Jesus’ works, rather than Jesus himself.
We still struggle with this today.
We’re a lot like those crowds who fawned over Jesus’ miracles and asked for more signs. I think about this when I see the prosperity gospel rear its ugly head. The prosperity gospel teaches us that if we are faithful to God, then God is going to help us get rich, or at least bless us with lots of good things. Faithfulness equals rewards, unfaithfulness equals punishments. But that theology is far more concerned with what God gives us, the accessories, if you will, than with an actual relationship with God. The motivation is not love of God but love of money, real estate, fame, and success. Like the crowds, the prosperity gospel would rather have a relationship with God’s miracles than with God.
We’re a lot like those religious leaders, too, who looked to the scriptures even when they had God standing right in front of them in Jesus. I think of this every time I hear mention of a so-called “Bible-believing” church—as if there were any other kind? So many Christians have elevated the scriptures to the place of God. One of the ways we do this is by saying that the Bible is inerrant, meaning perfect or without flaw. But the thing is, we also claim that only God is perfect. If that’s the case, then either the Bible is God, or the Bible isn’t perfect. And since the Bible isn’t God, then we can’t claim that the Bible is perfect.
And yet if you go to the Statement of Faith page on most church websites, you will see inerrancy of the scriptures as the very first point on the list. This is one of the reasons why I’m attracted to the Lutheran faith. If you look through our statements of faith, the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord, the Small Catechism, and all that, you will not see any articles labeled “The Bible.” Nowhere in our beliefs do we claim that the Bible is inerrant or perfect. It’s not that we don’t believe that the Bible is a trustworthy source for understanding God, it’s that we know the Bible is not God. The Bible is not the focus of our faith; God is. That’s why God is the very first article in our statement of faith. The Bible is simply a tool that helps us to better understand who that God is.
So the next time someone asks you if you believe in the Bible, say “No. I believe in God.”
Sometimes we would rather have a relationship with the Bible than God. Thomas Merton once claimed that “we don’t need another book about prayer. It would be far better,” he argued, “if people would put down their books about prayer and actually pray.” We can pick up our Bibles and read about God all day and all night, we can learn all kinds of things about God—and that’s all good—but that doesn’t mean that we actually have a relationship with God.
When we confuse the Bible with God, we become just like the religious leaders who ate their manna in the desert and then died without having experienced the living bread that came down from heaven.
Today’s gospel reading shows us that God wants a relationship with us, but there are a lot of things we use as substitutes for that relationship. Receiving God’s blessings or reading books about God are not the same thing as having a relationship with God. To have a relationship with God is to talk to God, to trust in God’s promises, and to be open to experiencing God in your daily life.
When we first came back to having communion here at the altar, I heard a lot of groaning about using wafers instead of real bread. That’s because there is no substitute for real bread. A faith that is founded only on the “accessories of God” is like going to a French bakery and being handed a communion wafer. It ain’t the real thing and it’s not what you’re here for. Don’t settle for a relationship with your blessings or your Bible. Seek a relationship with the living God, Jesus, the bread who has come down from heaven.
 The book of Wisdom claims that, “For neither herb nor poultice cured them, but it was your word, O Lord, that heals all people” (Wis. 16:12). The prophet Amos says, “The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread…but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11).