The bread of life

(see also translation in Macedonian and Swedish)

Sermon, July 31, 1994, St. Andrews, Murray Hill, N.J. (USA)

Arnold Neumaier


Lord, you have the power to transform our ordinary lives into fires of love so that others warm up and catch fire themselves. Let my words and my life speak of your glory, and let them be a help to bring people closer to you. Amen.

Before thy throne, O God, we kneel: Give us a conscience quick to feel,
a ready mind to understand the meaning of thy chastening hand;
whate'er the pain and shame may be, bring us, o Father, nearer thee.

Search out our hearts and make us true; help us to give to all their due.
From love of pleasure, lust of gold, from sins which make the heart grow cold,
wean us and train us with thy rod; teach us to know our faults, o God.

For sins of heedless word and deed, for pride ambitious to succeed,
for crafty trade and subtle snare to catch the simple unaware,
for lives bereft of purpose high, forgive, forgive, o Lord, we cry.

Let the fierce fires which burn and try, our inmost spirits purify:
consume the ill; purge out the shame; o God, be with us in the flame;
a newborn people may we rise, more pure, more true, more nobly wise.

(The Hymnal, No. 574)


Align your heart to the prayer of generations

I hope you all meant what we were just singing; I hope you used the opportunity to align your heart to the prayer of countless generations who wanted to be transformed into Christ-like people, genuine, full of purpose, courage, compassion and love, and to be freed of all desires that are an obstacle for this.

The primary passion of your life

I hope this is or will become the primary passion of your life: That you become more and more aware of God - as Christ was aware of Him. That you see God's closeness in times of joy and times of difficulties. That you appreciate both joys and difficulties as God's correction tools that allow you to grow into the personality God designed you to be.


Readings from Scripture

In the desert the whole community told Moses and Aaron they weren't happy with them. The Israelites said to them, ''We wish the Lord had put us to death in Egypt. There we sat around pots of meat. We ate all of the food we wanted. But you have brought us out into this desert. You must want this entire community to die of hunger.''
Then the Lord spoke to Moses. He said, ''I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people must go out each day. Have them gather enough bread for that day. Here is how I will put them to the test. I will see if they will follow my directions.'' ''On the sixth day they must prepare what they bring in. On that day they must gather twice as much as on the other days.'' So Moses and Aaron spoke to all of the people of Israel. They said, ''In the evening you will know that the Lord brought you out of Egypt. And in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord. He has heard you say you aren't happy with him. Who are we? Why are you telling us you aren't happy with us?''
Moses also said, ''You will know that the Lord has heard you speak against him. He will give you meat to eat in the evening. He'll give you all of the bread you want in the morning. But who are we? You aren't speaking against us. You are speaking against the Lord.'' Then Moses told Aaron, ''Talk to the whole community of Israel. Say to them, ''Come to the Lord. He has heard you speak against him.'' While Aaron was talking to the whole community of Israel, they looked toward the desert. There was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud! The Lord said to Moses, ''I have heard the people of Israel talking about how unhappy they are. Tell them, 'When the sun goes down, you will eat meat. In the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.' ''
That evening quail came and covered the camp. In the morning the ground around the camp was covered with dew. When the dew was gone, thin flakes appeared on the desert floor. They looked like frost on the ground. The people of Israel saw the flakes. They asked each other, ''What's that?'' They didn't know what it was. Moses said to them, ''It's the bread the Lord has given you to eat. Here is what the Lord has commanded. He has said, 'Each one of you should gather as much as you need. Take two quarts for each person who lives in your tent.' '' The people of Israel did as they were told. Some gathered a lot, and some gathered a little. When they measured it out, those who gathered a lot didn't have too much. And those who gathered a little had enough. All of them gathered only what they needed. Then Moses said to them, ''Don't keep any of it until morning.'' Some of them didn't pay any attention to Moses. They kept part of it until morning. But it was full of maggots and began to stink. So Moses became angry with them. Each morning all of them gathered as much as they needed. But by the hottest time of the day, the thin flakes had melted away.
On the sixth day, the people gathered twice as much. It amounted to four quarts for each person. The leaders of the community came and reported that to Moses. He said to them, ''Here is what the Lord commanded. He said, 'Tomorrow will be a day of rest. It will be a holy Sabbath day. It will be set apart for the Lord. So bake what you want to bake. Boil what you want to boil. Save what is left. Keep it until morning.' '' So they saved it until morning, just as Moses commanded. It didn't stink or get maggots in it. ''Eat it today,'' Moses said. ''Today is a Sabbath day in the Lord's honor. You won't find any flakes on the ground today. Gather them for six days. But on the seventh day there won't be any. It's the Sabbath.''
In spite of what Moses said, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather the flakes. But they didn't find any. Then the Lord spoke to Moses. He said, ''How long will all of you refuse to obey my commands and my teachings? Keep in mind that I have given you the Sabbath day. That is why on the sixth day I give you bread for two days. All of you must stay where you are on the seventh day. No one can go out.'' So the people rested on the seventh day.
(Exodus 16:2-30, NIV)

When the crowd realised that neither Jesus nor the disciples were there any longer, they themselves got into the boats and went off to Capernaum to look for Jesus. When they had found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ''Master, when did you come here?''
''Believe me,'' replied Jesus, ''you are looking for me now not because you saw my signs but because you ate that food and had all you wanted. You should not work for the food which does not last but for the food which lasts on into eternal life. This is the food the Son of Man will give you, and he is the one who bears the stamp of God the Father.'' This made them ask him, ''What must we do to carry out the work of God?''
29 ''The work of God for you,'' replied Jesus, ''is to believe in the one whom he has sent to you.'' Then they asked him, ''Then what sign can you give us that will make us believe in you? What work are you doing? Our forefathers ate manna in the desert just as the scripture says, 'He gave them bread out of Heaven to eat.' '' To which Jesus replied, ''Yes, but what matters is not that Moses gave you bread from Heaven, but that my Father is giving you the true bread from Heaven. For the bread of God which comes down from Heaven gives life to the world.'' This made them say to him, ''Lord, please give us this bread, always!''
35 Then Jesus said to them, ''I myself am the bread of life. The man who comes to me will never be hungry and the man who believes in me will never again be thirsty.''
(John 6:24-35, Phillips)


The miracle

Sometimes, something special happens in our life - God liberates us or feeds us in unexpected ways. We are excited, and we want to make it permanent, crowning Jesus as the king who serves our interests. Later, when troubles come, we complain about the hardship God placed before us, and, as the Israelites in the desert, we are inclined to dismiss Him as our leader. 'You are looking for me,' said Jesus, 'not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves.' Why are we looking for Jesus? Why are we in church? Know thyself.

The God of our liking

This would be a god of our liking (cf. Micha 2:11):
- he helps us to be successful;
- he adds to our respectability;
- he rescues us from oppression;
- he responds quickly to our complaints;
- he gives us bread without the need to work for it;
- and he is far enough away when we want to do our own thing.
But such a one-sided image is an insult to God; it has nothing to do with the God pictured in the bible, the Ruler of the universe (Ps. 46), the Lord over life and death (Psalm 90), the creator of blessing and disaster (Isaiah 45:7).

A miracle of our times

One of the great miracles of God in our time was the fall of the wall in Berlin a few years ago. In East Germany, the hope and the relative freedom of the churches attracted many, and for some time the prayers in some of their churches were mass attractions making headlines in the newspapers. But their real God was revealed a little later: 'Let the Mark come and we stay; but if not, we run away' was the motto on their banners. The miracle happened; God satisfied their greed, as he did for the Israelites. But if the motives are wrong, such miracles come coupled with a curse: You'll get so much that you get sick of it (Num. 11:20). And now the churches are as empty as before.

Jesus wants friends, not admirers

Jesus is not interested in admirers or big crowds, he doesn't need them to demonstrate his greatness. He has tender love for those who need him, for whom he is life itself. And he is interested in friends, in people who are available to him and with whom he can share his concerns. But he frightens away people who come for secondary reasons, who want his company simply to add an extra diamond to their worldly crown.

Signs are only pointers to a goal

The reply Jesus gives to his 'followers' clarifies the basic misunderstanding. Essentially he says: This is not the way I intended you to take things. The signs you have seen are just signs pointing to the goal, they are not the goal itself!

The impact of external signs fades quickly

The striving for external signs of power and happiness leaves us unsatisfied; the impact of what we have or have seen quickly fades away and we are always hungry for more. A collector of sign posts to a goal will never reach the goal! Signs of power have their place as occasional shocks designed to cause people to wake up and to reconsider the direction of their life; but such signs have no life in themselves that would induce growth.

Real life brightens the day in good and bad times

Signs show the power of God, but not the life that he gives, which refreshes us and brightens every ordinary day. The real life persists through good and bad times, even through death; it does not pass away but grows in us stronger and stronger. This is why Jesus discourages people from looking for miracles, but emphasizes over and over again the importance of striving for true life, for life with an innate capacity for renewal and growth.

Life is trusting that God really cares

How can we find this life? We cannot get it by a tour de force; it is 'the work of God', promoted only by 'trusting him whom He has sent' (v.29). Trusting his assurance that God really cares.

Anxieties

To be asked to trust may create anxieties. Especially if we consider what Jesus asks us to do: Not to give first priority to what everyone takes as important, not to worry about our future, but to rely on God's generosity and love. Can we really trust? All our bad experiences with people surface. We must be cautious!? The signs of power God had shown the people didn't make them trust; they made them curious, excited, but that only lasted for a while. Trust is a matter of growth; only growing familiarity with someone teaches us the extend to which we can trust him or her. And only growing familiarity with God teaches us that we can really trust Him.

As a little child helps the father...

God does the real work in preparing our heart to trust Him more and more; we can only cultivate what He lets grow. It is like with a little child helping the father in the garden - what seems like a big effort on the part of the child is probably offset by the damage the child does by unwittingly trampling on the soil. But the father appreciates the desire to help and shows his child how to be careful and considerate. And in this way he prepares patiently and actively for the day when the grown-up child loves to do the right thing in the right way. And healthy children can hardly await the time when they will be grown up!




'I am the bread of life' (v.35)

Why does Jesus compare himself to bread (as earlier in the gospel to living water)?

Food must be digested to give life

Bread and water are basic necessities of life. And if we want to get life through them they must be eaten and drunk, digested, so that they become part of ourselves, naturally integrated into our body. If we fail to do this because we don't eat, or because we are too sick to digest what we eat, we'll starve and our life is miserable. And if we eat and drink the wrong things, our health will be affected, and our body will show it.

What is our spiritual food?

What is it that we eat and digest? The TV news, with their unhealthy dose of disaster and crime we can talk about but not act upon? Does it reflect in our personality, making us dull in our sensitivity to what we could do where we actually are, with our family, our friends, our neighbors, our work fellows?

Get eyes for the most healthy diet

Change to a more healthy diet! Get eyes for the things in life which empower you to renew yourself. Study the life of people who have reached something of what you want your life to be like, who radiate love and compassion, wisdom and courage, patience and strength! Put yourself into their shoes to find out how it feels to be like them, what you can make your own. Nourish your desire to grow!

Digest Christ so that He becomes a part of you

Do you admire Jesus and his ability to love and care, to do the right thing at the right time, to be so close to God that even the impossible becomes possible for him? Eat the bread of life, chew it to extract the nourishing value! Absorb His word, his life, feel yourself into it, think about how to translate His words and His life into yours, digest Him completely, until Christ has become a part of you, naturally integrated into your personality, so that other people notice and give witness to God.

The example of Abraham

Thousands of years ago, King Abimelech said to Abraham: 'The Lord is with you wherever you go' (Gen. 21:22). Isn't this what we dream of, what sweetens our day when we notice it is true? Abraham had eaten and made Christ his own. He made Him part of his life, made Him his life. So the Lord was in him, and others could see it.

Make it your goal in life to achieve the same! Be not just a Sunday Christian, but become someone who has absorbed enough Christ-like substance to be a light for others.

Life open to us all

Jesus asserts that real life, intimate closeness to God, is in reach for all of us: 'Whoever comes to me will never again be hungry, and whoever trusts me will never again be thirsty' (v.35). When we don't experience this, let us search for it. At communion, let us take care that we not only eat the symbols of his body and blood, but that in fact we eat Him, with a desire to make Him part of our life, so that His life grows in us and we can bear real fruit...


Let us pray:
Lord, you know our desire to be close to you, and yet we too often care more about being successful than about being with you, more about complaining than about finding ways to show your love. We like going with the crowd and avoid risking something for you. We prefer to be involved with things we can show off with rather than to find satisfaction in the unspectacular life faithful to you. Renew each day our hearts and give us a spirit of love, courage, and clarity that allows us to meet the demands of the day and to be a mirror of your peace. Amen.


Gedanken zum Leben als Christ
Science and Faith
On Christianity
my home page (http://www.mat.univie.ac.at/~neum)

Arnold Neumaier (Arnold.Neumaier@univie.ac.at)