January 15, 2021

Teaching One Another: Jesus, Bread of Life

fresh bread  and wheat on the wooden

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

• John 6:35, 41-51 (NRSV)
The Gospel for Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015

Help me with my sermon!

This Sunday, I will be preaching at a local Lutheran church on the Gospel text for the day: John 6:35, 41-51. It is a common practice in our synod for Lutheran pastors to get together on a weekday and discuss the sermon text for the coming week. Our friend David Cornwell has testified about the joy he has found participating in a similar weekday gathering, when church members come together with the pastor to work through the passage for Sunday and begin to meditate on its meaning and significance for their lives.

You, my fellow iMonks, are my community, and so I’m calling you to come together today and help me think through this Gospel message of Jesus. As with previous “Teaching One Another” posts, I’ll prime the pump and then give you the opportunity to give input.

Here are some of the things I’ve read about this text and how to preach on it from other students, teachers, and preachers. After reading these, thinking about them, and responding to them, perhaps you would like to share some of your own insights and ideas about the meaning of this text and how it can be presented effectively.

• • •

Craig A. Satterlee at Working Preacher. A key sentence in Satterlee’s sermon says, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it can lead us to the wrong conclusions.” He focuses his attention on the complaining of the crowd and where it comes from. His observation is that they thought they knew too much and it kept them from hearing Jesus’ words. They knew their own history, they knew their scriptures, and they knew certain things about Jesus and his family. “The Judeans knew some things, but their knowing was limited, and they let it close their ears, shut their hearts, and limit their vision.”

Then Satterlee takes this observation and makes it personal:

So when are we like those Judeans? What issues reveal that we know too much about the Jesus of our traditions and not enough about the living Word God speaks to us now? When do we allow our knowledge of the history of the past to close our eyes to the working of God in the present? When are we looking and listening with open hearts? When are we willing to be drawn to the Bread of life, rather than put our trust in what we know?

• • •

Rev. Anne Paton from the Church of Scotland suggests illustrating this message with Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Ugly Duckling. The crowds listening to Jesus could only see him as an “ugly duckling,” a small town preacher who came from Nazareth, from an ordinary home and parents. But appearances can be deceiving. Jesus knew that he had come from the Father and had seen the Father. He knew his true identity — he was a beautiful, powerful swan — and told his listeners that if they would listen to God rather than simply judge by what they saw with their own eyes, they would see the truth about him and come to him. Paton quotes this great line from a summary of Andersen’s story: “It does not matter in the least having been born in a duck yard, if only you come out of a swan’s egg!”

• • •

David Owen and Mark Smith. Like others they also note that the people in this story murmured against Jesus because “they were judging things by human and purely external standards.” Then they give examples of those who, in contrast, found God in unlikely people and places — such as Mother Teresa, who found the Lord in the “distressing disguise” of the poor.

They also observe that the people got distracted by their arguments, and that this caused them to miss what Jesus was trying to tell them.

Some of the people rejected Jesus and his message because they were arguing among themselves. They were so taken up with their arguments that they failed to do what matters most and take the matter to God. They were all too eager to have their point of view made known, but did not seem to care to deeply about what God had to say.

Throughout these reflections, there is an emphasis on “missing” Jesus because we allow other things to keep us from being “drawn” into God’s presence where he can teach and feed us.

• • •

Karyn L. Wiseman. Like many, Wiseman takes the opportunity when preaching about “bread” and Jesus’ “flesh and blood” from John 6 to discuss the sacrament and what it means to “feed on Jesus” and be nourished by faith in him. I really like the way she has illustrated and personalized this for us.

Granddad used to say we go to church on communion Sunday to feast on the bread and juice — on those and other Sundays we feast on the Word of God as well. He would say that “anyone who goes away hungry — it’s their own dang fault.” The feast is laid out, the invitation is given and the table is before us. So if we go away hungry, why did that happen? What is stopping us from joining in the feast?

…I am reminded of the times I have been at the table of Holy Communion receiving the bread and cup and was moved in such astonishing ways. One Sunday I was serving communion to my son, who was about 4 at the time. I offered him the bread, saying, “This is the bread of life,” and he looked up at me and said, “I want a BIG piece of Jesus.” He knew this was a feast. He was asking for what all of us have a hard time finding the words to request — more. More God, spiritual nourishment, connections to the Holy, hope, abundance, being part of the Body of Christ, bread that keeps us from hungering and belief that keeps us from thirsting.

When we go away hungry, according to my grandpa, it’s our own fault. So what stops us?


  1. I’ve come to believe that the key to understanding what’s going on in this passage is to read it with an eye to the Old Testament. The links between Jesus’ sermon and God’s giving of manna to the Israelites in the wilderness is obvious. What might be less so is when He links it to His own flesh. The eating of flesh, for a listener steeped in the practice of temple Judaism, I think would have brought to mind the worshiper sharing of the meat of a sacrifice he or she brought to the Temple. Jesus, IMHO, was linking His own flesh (and His upcoming sacrifice) to being a sacrifice offered to God, which His hearers would have to partake of to consummate and participate in that sacrifice. Shocking enough. But then He doubles down and adds His blood into the argument – even more shocking, since according to the Law the eating of blood (even of a sacrifice) was forbidden. But the blood of a creature is its life (Lev 17:14), and Jesus here as everywhere else is emphatic that His life is the source and sustainment of ours. A jewish hearer of Jesus’ sermon here in John 6 would have gotten the message emphatically – and His hearers apparently did, and were properly scandalized.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      This. Focusing on the Jewish elements is key; without those this passage is not a helpful one.

      I’ve heard so many aw-shucks-american-common-sense sermons focusing on the evil stupid crowds; that is not helpful. Removed from its context the story sounds very much like an experience I have had many times, and most people in an audience have had – that of the street preacher who is claiming he has been ‘sent’ to save us or has had some type of vision. We, with the benefit of modern concepts like mental illness and civic space, just ignore these fools and keep-on-walking. Aw-shucks makes Jesus look very much like just another nut. The Jewish context is ***critical***.

      For a preacher to properly address this passage requires some time in lectionary mode; a bit of education regarding culture and history is required.

      • But the OT context in this particular part of the passage IS the distinction between the crowds (who “murmur” like the people of Moses’s day) and those Isaiah foretells, who will be “taught of God” and will come to him.

        “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”

        It’s important to see that we are not dealing with ALL of John 6 in this particular sermon, just this portion. If I were doing a series (there are 5 Sundays where this chapter is in view in the lectionary) then I might bring in some of these other elements.

    • Some for argument sake may want to read a book by Paul Zahl titled The FIrst Christian. He argues that Jesus was more Christian than Jewish. Jesus teaching concerning the kingdom of God is replete with Christian perspectives on human nature, salvation, original sin, and grace are closer to core Christianity than the idea of Jesus as portrayed by the historical Jesus critical thinking out there.

      • That is a good book. I am also of the opinion that Jesus was forming a “new” religion more than “reforming” an existing one.

      • Christiane says

        ‘more Christian than Jewish’ . . . that is an interesting phrase to describe Our Lord . . . the strange thing is that I have used that phrase in describing some of my Jewish friends who seem to me to be more ‘Christian’ in the way of their living and in their interactions with others than some among my ‘Christian’ acquaintance . . .

        so when I come to that famous Scripture in St. Matthew’s Gospel when some who say ‘Lord, Lord’ and are still sent away, I always think of those good Jewish people and how they are practicing the teachings of Our Lord in their compassionate care for others in ways that could only be called ‘Christ-like’ . . .

        what makes a person ‘Christ-like’? for sure, it’s not a ‘title’, or even that a person calls out ‘Lord, Lord’ . . .

        whatever that something is truly at its core, it is not exclusive to any denomination . . . it transcends differences even beyond our own abilities to comprehend . . . for me, that is something hopeful for those who have been called ‘the lost’ by those who really were lost and didn’t know it

        • Christiane says

          “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast . . . ”
          (St. Paul to the Corinthians)

  2. In this passage, Jesus says that he is the bread of eternal life that has come down from heaven. It is the coming down of this bread of eternal life, which is Jesus, that makes it possible for us to be lifted up to participate in the life that Jesus shares with the Father. The way we eat of this bread of eternal life, of Jesus’ flesh which has come down that we may be raised up, is by believing, trusting, Jesus himself; this is eating his flesh; this is receiving eternal life, this is being raised up by his coming down. And it is because of this eternal life that we receive by eating his flesh, believing him, that we shall not die. We will be raised up on the last day by the eternal life that we have received by the eating of this bread which is Jesus.

    • Robert, excellent thoughts on the passage. Coming down and being raised up. The passage is not about the crowd but is about who Jesus is for us in every generation until his return. This is the good news !!!

    • Given the Church’s historical connection of these words and others from John with the Eucharist (and despite the fact that the gospel of John makes no explicit mention of the Eucharist), it may be that the trusting, the believing of Jesus involved in this passage is partaking of his body and blood in Holy Communion. For me, the jury is still out on this issue.

  3. David Cornwell says

    I’m glad we are doing this together. I am on another computer today because of some issues with mine. So not sure how much I can participate today, but definitely will in the future when Chaplain Mike sees fit to do it again.

    The group I attend is made up of laity and some retired pastors of various backgrounds. It is led by the pastor of our church, and always centers around the lectionary passage he will be using on the following Sunday. Usually he makes a brief statement about other concerns of the Sunday, such as the baptism of an infant, etc also.

    As with many mainline Protestant churches of our era, we have people from many church backgrounds. Some of these have been very conservative churches, all the way to liberal. We have several former Catholics.

    So one of the unwritten rules is that we listen to what everyone has to say. We may have disagreements, but we do not shoot the other person down. And– we stay with the text and context. The pastor makes quick lists on a whiteboard, makes comments, and is generally in charge of direction.

    The group is almost always well attended.

    This can be enjoyable, as well as informative.

  4. Michael Z says

    Especially in Protestantism, we tend to behave as if the way we grow spiritually is through intellectual effort: our church services center around something not unlike an academic lecture, and in more traditional Protestant churches the pastors wear garments patterned after academic robes. Even though we talk about grace, we behave as if the way we grow in faith is by learning something new or figuring something out in our own heads.

    So, it takes a lot of humility to instead approach Jesus as he commands in this passage: eat his flesh, drink his blood, come to him with empty hands and be transformed not by what we do, but by what we receive.

  5. Marcus Johnson says

    This is a story about Jesus, as a Jew, talking to Jews about their Judaism. The common understanding, from what I have read, was that the Jewish faith centered around the Torah and the temple. The true “Messiah” would be zealous for both. So Jesus’ statement here almost seems like blatant heresy, a declaration that truth and fullness of life were to be found in Him alone.

    The manna reference here is interesting. Israel was sustained by manna in the wilderness, and yet a whole generation died in the wilderness because of their lack of faith when given a directive from God. If Jesus places himself in this reference as greater than the manna, is the manna intended to represent the Torah and the temple? Is he perhaps claiming that those institutions, as central to the Jewish faith, were either insufficient, or not eternal, or both?

  6. I recently heard a sermon on this same topic and heard so many side issues being brought up that i felt missed the central issue. I think the people were bringing forward all that was precious and holy to them: the exodus, the manna provided by God, the religious history that they stake their souls upon. But the Lord says that He is the true Manna from God, whatever transpired in the past is nothing compared to what is happening right now in front of them, this is the substance of which their religious history ultimately points to.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Perhaps so; but then what does this say to those for whom those things are not their religious history? Or who have *no* religious history with which they identify themselves? This reading – perhaps correctly? – makes this passage one quite specifically spoken to the Hebrews.

  7. I wonder if you want to bring Hebrews 1:3 into this…
    “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word…”

    Thus, when Jesus mentions the prophecy, “And they shall all be taught by God,” he’s talking about himself as the exact representation of God. And when he says, “I am the bread of life,” he’s essentially saying his essence IS God and is ETERNAL. He is the bread that comes down from heaven, because he IS God, and he can claim truthfully that “whoever eats of this bread will live forever” because he is the exact representation of God.

    Just some thoughts.

    I really like this, by the way! This is like we do in our Saturday men’s group, toss out some scripture and listen to all the different angles people bring to the discussion.

  8. What David Cromwell( and many others) are saying about meeting together is interesting as well….. from the perspective of what was being done “by your ancestors in the wilderness”. You know we have explored the spiritual meaning of Passover, as well as the feast of weeks(Pentecost). But Tabernacles…not so much.
    I’m saying that spiritually the booths are a type of wayfaring gathering. It is by definition both….traveling between and… somewhat unsettled. I like that David has mentioned the diversity of traditions, because it seems to me the branches of the ingathering signify that spiritually. I like the idea of multi-voice worship as it were…everyone brings a psalm, a message, a tongue, an interpretation. In the wilderness booths they ate…..I think David and all of us know Christianity to be a meal fellowship with the leaders as servers.
    Let us all practice all of the three feasts that were mandatory in the Old Testament. I mean spiritually and in truth. It’s about time we focus some on Tabernacles. To me it could happen in every Christian “church” sometime other than the “regular” worship. To this responder it really could be the impetus toward a real ecumenicalism……..teaching one another…….actually a grassrooots approach that seems more viable than a denominationally inspired approach. And it gives me chills to think that it approaches the prayer “that they will all be one, as You and I are one”.

  9. David Cornwell says

    ” His observation is that they thought they knew too much and it kept them from hearing Jesus’ words. They knew their own history, they knew their scriptures, and they knew certain things about Jesus and his family. “The Judeans knew some things, but their knowing was limited, and they let it close their ears, shut their hearts, and limit their vision.”

    I really like this. It’s easy to become so involved in our intellectual snobbery, our reasonableness and bookishness, and perhaps our knowledge of the “real Jesus” that we forget the immediacy of the gospel and the offering of Jesus to us of the Bread of Life in this moment.

    When we walk to the table partake of bread and cup we have no need for an intellectual understanding of what eucharist is, or might be, and just to accept the assurance that He is the offering. If we understand, we just might have it wrong.

  10. Here’s a link to an online article I wrote many years ago on John 6 and the bread of life discourse: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/info/john-food.html

  11. Ronald Avra says

    The manna / bread of life which Jesus offers is that which we need daily. I need daily sustenance.

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