Bread of Heaven

by David Baer, August 5, 2018

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Text: John 6:24-35

Back in 2012, Norwegian explorer Aleksander Gamme was on his way back from a solo expedition in Antarctica. It took him about three months in all, alone—just himself, his skis, his sled, and the sky, wind, and snow. Gamme was very limited in what he could take with him—just the bare essentials. In an online question-and-answer session, Gamme claimed he weighed only about 130 pounds by the end of his trip,1 what with the strenuous physical exertion of the trip and the limited food. But on day 86, his body worn, his stomach hollow, his journey almost over, Gamme came across a cache of food and supplies he had left for himself. He set up a video camera to record himself opening the cache.2 Gamme says that as a “motivational strategy,” he didn’t keep a record of what he left at each drop-off point, so each time he recovered these supplies, he could get a bit of a surprise. Now, on the video you can hear him talking to himself in Norwegian, muttering about the things he was pulling out, until he gets to a package of Cheese Doodles. “Jå!!!!!!!!” he shrieks, at the top of his lungs, erupting into giddy laughter as he throws the Cheese Doodles into the air. Someone was kind enough to translate his words: “Is it really true? Did I leave that! Wow, it’s a DOUBLE pack of cheez doodles. YEAH I am SO hungry!” He repeats the performance, with more laughter and shrieks, as he discovers chocolate and candy in the stash. The video ends with Gamme, his fists held high, falling back on the snow as he sings the Hallelujah Chorus.

Surprise. Delight. Anticipation of the physical enjoyment of these tasty snacks after months of hunger. Aleksander Gamme’s video went viral, because his reckless, expressive joy is so genuine, so uncontrived, and so rare in anyone over the age of, say, 10. When you have felt such a deep need for so long, even one as basic as getting a bite to eat, it’s a deeply moving experience!

Last week we heard about a different astounding moment involving food, when Jesus fed a crowd of five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Now, John’s gospel doesn’t use the word “miracle” to talk about the amazing things Jesus does. Instead, it uses the word “sign.” Jesus performs not miracles, but signs, intended to demonstrate who he is and why he has come. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll hear him as he tries to teach what the sign of feeding so many people means. Like the manna God gave to the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus himself is the bread from heaven that gives life—not just to the chosen people, but to the world.

The form that this teaching takes is a back-and-forth exchange between Jesus and the crowd. The people who received the gift of food out in the wilderness, the ones who wanted to seize Jesus and make him king by force, have caught up with him. And Jesus immediately questions their motives—the sign he’s just done for them has touched their bellies, he tells them, but not yet their hearts. He tells them they’ve got to redouble their efforts as disciples, to watch and listen all the more attentively, so that they might perceive the meaning behind what Jesus says and does. The work of God, the work that brings the food of eternal life, Jesus says, is believing in the one God has sent. Faith is ultimately God’s gift to us, and not something we create for ourselves. But opening and yielding ourselves, letting go of what we thought we knew and understood—that’s the work Jesus is asking of them.

But they don’t get it—they want to put the onus back on him. “What are you going to do to convince us, eh?” they demand. “Are you going to show us that you’re the prophet like Moses God promised us? Moses gave us bread from heaven to eat.” What they want from him is a repeat performance of the miracle of loaves and fishes. But Jesus asks them to aim their understanding higher. It wasn’t Moses who gave you bread, says Jesus. It was God. Look upward. Look up from the visible sign that you can touch and taste. Look up to the invisible reality that the sign points to. The point of manna was not manna. The point was that God provides, God gives life, God nourishes and sustains God’s people on their journey. Even Moses understood this, when he told the people, as they were about to enter the promised land, “[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, 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” (Deuteronomy 8:3). The point of the manna was a relationship of trust and dependence on God in order to live. The manna stopped when the Israelites reached the promised land, but the reality represented by the manna did not stop. Notice the verb tenses Jesus uses: “It was not Moses who gave you the bread …, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread… .”

The point of the multiplication of loaves and fishes was not loaves and fishes. The point was a shepherd who cares for the sheep and leads them to green pastures, who sets a table before them in the presence of their enemies. The point is that the shepherd’s sheep know his voice and follow him in order to live. The point is Jesus himself being not just the shepherd of the sheep, but the bread of heaven that comes down and gives life to the world: “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Lifegiving bread is all around us, especially where people who trust in Jesus gather together. Maybe you’ve experienced it for yourself—a thoughtful word or act that was just what you needed, a meal that arrived just at the right time on a bad day, a reassuring word and a hand on the shoulder from someone who’s been in your shoes. There is grace to fill the empty longing inside us, if we open our eyes to see it. There is abundance here, in this community, because Jesus is here.

stained glass window with hand giving bread
Stained glass window in the Cathedral of São Pedro de Alcântara (Petrópolis, state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).
Image courtesy of flickr user “waitingfortheword”. Used with permission

When we gather at the Communion Table, I usually make a point of saying that it’s not a Presbyterian table. That’s important, because as Jesus says in our scripture today, God is the one who gives bread, who gives nourishment and life. Moses doesn’t own manna, and this congregation and our denomination don’t own Communion. All we do is offer it to those who respond to Jesus’ invitation with trust and love.

But there is something powerful our tradition has to say about what’s happening at the Table. Some Christian traditions believe that the substance of the elements of bread and wine is spiritually transformed into Christ’s body and blood. But as Presbyterians, we look somewhere else for the presence of Jesus. Christ is here—there’s no doubt about that. Christ is here, because he is alive, and he promised to be in our midst wherever two or three are gathered. But the bread and the wine are just bread and wine (or juice!). They only become something else when we share them, when we hand them to our neighbor and say, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven!” It is in this act of sharing that they become for us the body and blood of Christ. It’s when we come together as a community to remind one another of God’s love and God’s promises, breaking bread and sharing together in God’s blessings, that Christ is real and present, filling not just our stomachs but our spirits with the food of eternal life. The point of the bread and wine is not bread and wine, but believing and sharing in the crucified and risen Jesus.

“Sir,” the crowd says to Jesus, “give us this bread always.” But because Jesus is himself the bread of life, he is always there for the eating and sharing. He is bread when you comfort someone who’s sick or sad. He is bread when you speak up for someone with no voice. He is at this Table, of course, but also out there—wherever people believe and share in him together, just as he said: “I am the bread of life.”

I’m not suggesting that we act like Aleksander Gamme in our Communion celebration today. But if you imagine what that might look like—a raucous shout for joy, giddy laughter and singing—then you have some idea of what a precious gift we have… Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed us till we want no more—till we, all of us, believers and non-believers, rich and poor, citizen and stranger—share together in the rich blessings you shower on us. Amen.

Footnotes

  1. “I Am Aleksander Gamme, …” https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/rjp0w/i_am_aleksander_gamme_the_cheez_doodle_loving_guy/c46fji8/. Accessed 8/3/2018.

  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC8gJ0_9o4M&feature=youtu.be&t=60. Accessed 8/3/2018.

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