Christ Above All
Robert C. Shannon
(c)opyright 1989, Robert C. Shannon.
The Riddle of the Bread of Life
I think when I read that sweet story of old,
When Jesus was here among men,
How He called little children as lambs to His fold.
I should like to have been with Him then.
                                                   (Jemimo Luke)
    That expresses the common longing of us all.  We should like to have been with Him then.  And, above all, we should like to have heard Him preach.  We have only three of His sermons left to us.  That's surprising.  We have many parables and countless conversations, but only three sermons.  One of them is the focus of our attention here.  It's the sermon in John 6; His sermon on the bread of life.

    This is the sermon Jesus preached on the morning after - the morning after the day in which He fed five thousand; the morning after the night in which He walked on the water and calmed the sea.  The crowd found Him on the other side of the lake.  He surprised them and He surprises us.  They wanted more bread and fish.  Today He refused to do what He was so ready to do the day before.  Instead, He preached a sermon.  In that sermon are three riddles that tell us three aspects of His nature.

    The first riddle is in verse 27:  "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."  There is a bread that never grows stale.  The second riddle is in verse 35:  "I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."  There is a bread that ever satisfies.  The third is in verse 51:  "I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  If a man eats of this bread, he will live forever" (NIV).  There is a bread that gives eternal life.

    Let us look at the first riddle: the bread that never grows stale.  All bread grows stale.  Jesus means to get our attention so that we may learn about Him.

    A couple used to come to me after church some Sundays and complain that the Communion bread had gone stale.  I always thought it was something else that had gone stale!  Some of our religious neighbors say that weekly Communion makes the bread go stale.  It is interesting that they never apply this reasoning to anything else: to prayer or Bible reading or giving.  No one says the less often you pray the more meaningful prayer will be; the less you read the Bible the more it will mean to you; the less you give the more significant stewardship will be to you.  The reasoning is applied only to Communion.  And it is not applied to Communion by people who have experienced weekly Communion, but rather by people who have never done so.  We who have had it weekly all our lives give a different testimony.  It means more to us with each Sunday that passes.  It never grows stale.

    But the reason that Communion bread never grows stale is that Christ never grows old.  We sing of the old, old story but it really is always a new, new story.  His sermons sound as if they were preached yesterday.  His parables seem to have been drawn from modern life.  His conversations would fit a modern man.  That's why we never tire of singing about Him, reading about Him, speaking about Him.

    My earliest memory of my mother is of her reading the Bible.  My latest memory of my mother is of her reading the Bible.  Even when her eyes were dim, she'd get out a magnifying glass and peer at the page every night.  She grew old reading the Word of God, but the Word of God never grew old.

    And we never tire of serving Him.  Isn't that a lovely song that says, "The longer I serve him the sweeter he grows"?

    Then there is a bread that ever satisfies.  Fame doesn't satisfy.  Money doesn't satisfy.  Success doesn't satisfy.  Pleasure doesn't satisfy.  But there is a bread that ever satisfies.

    Jesus did not describe himself as the cake of life but as the bread of life.  You can grow tired of cake.  I knew once an executive who traveled a lot.  He stayed in the best hotels and ate at the best restaurants.  He said to me, "Do you know you can get tired of eating steak?"  We grow tired of the exotic foods of life, but we never grow tired of bread.

    Now some don't eat bread anymore.  It's not on their diet.  We forget that bread is still the principal food of most of the world as it has been for most of history.  Bread satisfies.

    He satisfies us intellectually.  We want to know about man.  We learn from Jesus, the perfect man.  We want to know about God.  Jesus said, "He who has seen me has seen the Father."  Stanislaw Lem, a Polish scientist and the author of forty books, an atheist, says, "In my thinking is a terrible hole which I cannot fill with anything."

    G. K. Chesterton said something similar. "I had found this hole in the world," he said.  But Chesterton came to faith in God and Jesus Christ and wrote that, "the dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world."  He satisfies us intellectually.

    He satisfies us emotionally.  What are the hungers of the heart?  Security.  Acceptance.  Love.  Peace.  Contentment.

    When Shah Jehan of India had completed the world's most beautiful building, the Taj Mahal, he dedicated it to his beloved wife and put on the cornerstone, "To the Memory of an Undying Love."  But the love of Christ is more than a memory.  It's a present reality.

    He satisfies us spiritually.  The Batonga, in the Zambezi valley of Africa, had a tradition about God before the missionaries came, but it didn't satisfy.  One version was that a woman threshing grain with mortar and pestle had lifted the long pole too high and struck God in the face.  It made Him angry and He went away.  He never came back.  Another version was that a man wiped his dirty hands on the sky.  It made God angry and he went away.  He never came back.  How vastly different is the God we come to know in Christ, and how infinitely more satisfying.

    He satisfies all of us.  We sing, "Bread of the world in mercy broken."  And it is indeed the bread of the world.  Think of all the different kinds of bread in the world: the flat bread of Scandinavia, the risen scones of Scotland, the light white bread of America, the dark rye of Germany, the black bread of Russia, the gray bread of Yugoslavia, the yellow cornbread of the American south, the hard rolls of Austria and the soft croissants of France.  But here in Communion bread we find the one bread for the whole world.

    I have received it from the hand of a deacon, an usher, an elder, and from the hand of a fellow worshiper, but I always felt that I really received it from the hand of Christ and it was always the same bread.

    I have eaten it leavened and unleavened, broken it from a loaf and broken it from a wafer and had it served pre-broken, but it was always the same bread, the bread of remembrance, the bread of the world.  It has been broken in the islands of the South Seas where each Lord's Day begins.  Our brothers and sisters have eaten it in Australia and New Zealand, "under the Southern Cross."  The table has been spread in India in the shadows of a thousand towering idols, in Africa beneath thatched huts, in Europe behind the Iron Curtain (sometimes secretly, sometimes openly), and in Britain in great cathedrals and in tiny house churches.  It is the bread of the world because He is the universal Christ.

    For Jesus Christ is the man for all seasons; the man for all societies.  He is also the man for all stations in life.  Once the Duke of Wellington, honored as a hero after the battle of Waterloo, worshiped in a small church in England.  It was their custom to kneel at the front for Communion and naturally they brought the Duke of Wellington forward in the first wave.  Just then the back door opened and a drunk staggered in.  He was dirty and his clothes were ragged.  Somewhere long ago he too had knelt like that to receive Communion and the memory of it stirred in his foggy brain.  So he stumbled forward and knelt right beside the Duke of Wellington.  Someone took his arm and whispered, "Move over! That's the Duke of Wellington."

    But the Duke put his gloved hand on the dirty sleeve and said, "Stay where you are. There are no dukes here."

    There is a bread that gives eternal life.  It is not common bread.  That only sustains us for a few hours.  It is not Communion bread.  We place no wafer on the lips of the dying.  It is the Christ, for whom the bread stands.  He gives eternal life.

    Years ago a deacon I knew was asked to be an elder.  He was reluctant to do so.  He didn't consider it a promotion.  He said, "I like being a deacon.  When I pass the bread I feel that I am handing people the bread of life."  It was a beautiful sentiment and it was poetically correct, but theologically it was wrong.  Communion bread is not the bread of life.  Jesus himself is the bread of life.  Because He lives, we too shall live.  We do not simply eat this bread in His memory.  We do not simply eat this bread in His honor.  We eat this bread in His presence!

    On Easter Sunday we broke this bread behind the Iron Curtain.  There were twelve of us. I recalled that there were also twelve in the upper room the very first time this bread was broken.  My wife said, "No, we are not twelve here, but thirteen."  She was right, of course.  There were only twelve you could see; only twelve you could count.  But we were not twelve, we were thirteen.  The promise made so long ago was kept.  The living Christ was in the midst.  He broke the bread with us.

    Florida was first explored by Europeans searching for the fountain of youth.  They never found it.  Romania also had a legend of a realm of "youth without age."  Recently a Romanian doctor, Ana Aslan, has been trying to make the dream come true with her controversial drugs Gerovital and Aslavital. I have traveled widely in Romania and seen no evidence that she has found the fountain of youth.

    I saw a cartoon once that showed a couple in mid-life strolling through a garden.  The husband is saying, "Well, I guess finding the fountain of middle age was better than nothing."  But there is no fountain of youth and there is no fountain of middle age and death stalks us all.

    Beneath the Capuchin Church in Vienna, in the crypt of the Hapsburg emperors, lies the tomb of Carl VI, decorated with a crown, but the crown rests on a skull.  Near Baden in Austria is the Heiligenkreuz monastery.  In one room the walls are covered with pictures of the Babenberger emperors, but behind and above them stands Father Time.

    There is a bread that gives eternal life.  Jesus deliberately startled His hearers by saying, "Except you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you."  He knew what they thought of cannibalism.  He deliberately shocked them to get their attention.  But He did not mean flesh and blood at all.  Communion bread is not magically changed to flesh nor is Communion wine magically changed to blood.

    He spoke of himself.  He gave a new definition to bread and a new definition to life.  As bread is assimilated into the body, Jesus must be assimilated into the mind and heart and life.  We are to think His thoughts.  We are to feel His emotions.  His deeds are to be our deeds.  In this way He becomes to us the bread of everlasting life.

    It is not the miracle bread He'd made the day before.  It is not the memorial bread on the Communion table.  It is Christ himself.  "I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever."

    I should like to have tasted the manna that came down from Heaven.  I should like to have eaten of the loaves from which He fed five thousand.  I should like to have received the broken bread from His own hand in the upper room.  But He has provided something far better for us all.

Bread of heav'n, on Thee we feed,
For Thy flesh is meat indeed; . . .
Day by day, with strength supplied
Thro' the life of Him who died,
Ever let our souls be fed
With this true and living bread.
                                    (J. Conder)

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