Smell That Bread – John 6:35, 48
Bread, it comes in all shapes and sizes. We can buy a zillion varieties pre-sliced in plastic bags. We can bake it at home (waistline danger alert). One of my favorites gets served up in a little Ethiopian buffet nestled into a corner of the Eastern Market, the wholesale food and produce market on Detroit’s east side. This stuff is amazing; I can stretch one piece several inches and it springs right back to the original shape. It’s like a Slinky we can eat. Three or four pieces of it could wrap a Volkswagen.
I would probably not use bread to describe myself (a little crusty at times perhaps). “I am a scone.” Wouldn’t happen. But Jesus did and anything He does deserves serious attention whether we initially get it or not. In John 6:35, He says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” Later, in verse 48 of the same chapter, Jesus echoes, “I am the bread of life.” Before we get too wrapped up in bread, two small words at the beginning of those lines grabs us first – “I am”. These two words on Jesus’ lips in John 8 enflame a mob to where they’re on the brink of stoning Him. What’s the deal? Retroing back a few centuries, we see a simple shepherd leading sheep through desolate, semi-arid land when strangely enough, a small tree blazes with fire without burning up. We meet Moses meeting God. As things unwind, God intends Moses to be the spearhead as God plans to free Israel from their slavery in Egypt and make them a great people. Egypt stood as a great world power. Anyone standing in front of Israel to gain their trust and up to Pharoah making outrageous demands better have brass on their backside and sass on their toast. Holding out his palms upraised, Moses said, “What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, ” I AM WHO I AM…I AM has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:13,14) By Jesus’ day, Jews wouldn’t even speak this name because they held it in such reverence. Jesus, in John 8, not only says the name of God but uses it referring to Himself. Things got hot.
Jesus uses this name a lot both pointing to Himself and expanding what it means. These “bread” statements make up the first of the “I AM” passages in John’s gospel. Taken together, all these “I AM” passages show Jesus doing the remarkable; He broadens and deepens at the same time our knowledge of Who He is. The danger of going for breadth lies in becoming shallow. Intellectually and spiritually, the more we try to both include and integrate every option under the same umbrella, truth slips away and the juice drips out of reason. Contemporary notions of political correctness, tolerance and religious universalism (all religions say the same thing in different ways) show this today. It makes for dumbing down, like scooping out one’s brains and filling our head with corn flakes. But Jesus take these “I am” statements and shows that a wide, colorful array of meaning lay wrapped up in what God gave to Moses. We only see it now through Him. Jesus also goes deeper, laying bare some of the layers of complexity of God’s heart. In geology and spirituality, force must stay narrow to cut deep. Rivers cut narrow channels that become canyons; great craftsmen handling spiritual truth don’t speak and write in the shallows. Deepening the spirit requires stretching and challenging the mind. And with all these statements in John, who does Jesus do this for? Some graduate seminar in metaphysics? For a thesis committee obsessed with German and Latin footnotes? A journal editorial board doing peer review on submitted articles? Jesus practiced this soulcrafting on everyday people and they got it.
While bread can be all I mentioned above, for most of the people in the world (especially the poor) bread is a life-sustaining staple sometimes making the only difference between life and death. Like the widow in Elijah’s story (see I Kings 17:12-16.), we’re talking about a little flour (not just wheat but other grains) mixed with water and a dab of oil, fried or baked. When it’s gone, so are we. Jesus had this basic sense of bread in mind. But our abundance and spoiled palates give us different notions as to what bread is and we twist Jesus into unrecognizable shapes bending Him to our taste. Bread can be just a side to eat or leave completely alone. Who hasn’t left a restaurant table leaving bread behind to be thrown away? We can reduce Jesus to complete insignificance. Take Him or leave Him at our whim and/or taste. Bread can be an appetizer like the italian bread dipped in olive oil and spices before the main course. We look to spirituality today to, among other things, spice up our ordinary life, invigorate the mundane and infuse the everyday with flavor. Jesus can do that but He’s not the only fragrance in the spice rack. Besides, the appetizer isn’t the main thing anyway: the main course, peppered with self, is what really matters. Bread comes in so many flavors, shapes and textures – rye, pita bread, sourdough and multi grain so heavy that they take it to our car with a forklift. We just don’t get to choose Gods and Saviours like we choose bread, not real Gods and Saviours anyway. Jesus doesn’t bend to our tastes; He just can’t be whatever our tastes are and still be Himself. Sometimes bread, in the absence of silverware, becomes a utensil. My Ethiopian bread is the scoop, plate and fork at dinners where otherwise I would have to eat with my hands. Jesus sometimes gets reduced to what makes things work. He gets results for us and that’s what counts. If He doesn’t, what good is He? I’ll just keep cramming my soul with whatever using my own hands. Jesus, for many who name Him, can be like bread on a sandwich. It’s the wraparound but the really good stuff’s on the inside. Most college and university towns have a Jimmy Johns. If yours doesn’t, it’s God’s will that your school liquidate all their assets, sell their property and relocate to a place that has one of these. Who can think about bread when there’s all that stuff inside with provolone so thick a boa constrictor can’t get its jaws around it. My wife makes sour cherry preserves that almost causes people to drool themselves into acute dehydration. People have consumed whole jars in one sitting without remembering what it was spread on. Some of us give lip service and token obedience to Jesus but the cream of our lives gets spent on “the good stuff”; He’s the Sunday wraparound.
A word about eating and what happens to what we swallow. Eating does more than fill our belly for a while. This is all tha some of Jesus’ first hearers wanted. Bread eaten and digested becomes part of us – muscle tissue, blood cells, skin and nerve tissue. The nutrients latent in bread become us. Can Jesus be saying that the union He died to make possible between us resonates with an intimacy so deep that He (the bread) and the follower become part of each other? We shallow “born again” types might get uncomfortable with this but surely when He says that unless we “eat the flesh of the Son of Man…you have no life in yourselves” (John 6:53), He meant more than raising a hand or taking the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion once in a while.
“…He who comes to me will not hunger…” (John 6:35). None of the world’s incentives, pleasures, rewards or saviours will ever satisfy us. When we hit campus next fall either as a rookie or a veteran, all those voices will do their best to seduce us into a lifetime beyond campus of thinking they can satisfy us. My son attended an arts institute in Detroit. Some asked, “Aren’t you worried about all those homosexuals at art school?” What concerned us was a professor who, on the first day of class, jingled a set of keys to a Jaguar in front of the class, “If you work hard, you can have these. If you work harder (taking out keys to a second Jaguar), you can have these.” May Jesus burn deep into us during these hot summer days how deep and satisfying He can be. May we smell His bread knowing there’s nothing better.
My wife’s cherry preserves could be for sale if the price is right. Jimmy Johns delivers.
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