“Bread from Heaven” Colchester Federated Church, August 8, 2021, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (John 6:35, 41-51)

To fully appreciate our Gospel story, we need to recall the story about bread from heaven that appeared to the Israelites in the wilderness in the time of Moses.  Remember how Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt and they went into the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land?  We are told in Exodus that the people survived for forty years by eating manna that God provided.  At first, the Israelites complained to Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”[1]  Instead of feeling gratitude for all that Moses did to lead the people out of slavery and trusting God, the people complain.  We’re going to starve out here, thanks for nothing, Moses.

God hears these complaints and God says to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people will go out and gather enough for that day.  In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.”[2]  The people weren’t able to gather tons of manna and keep it in storage just in case.  They didn’t go on the ancient version of Costco runs or have an extra freezer in the basement to store meat by buying in bulk.  Instead, every day for 40 years (except on the Sabbath) the people had to rely on God to provide bread from heaven. 

That’s the story of the bread from heaven in Exodus.  God didn’t let them down.  We are even told that those who tried to gather a great deal of manna ended up with nothing left over and those who gathered little manna had no shortage.  Somehow everyone ended up gathering as much as each of them needed to survive yet another day for four decades.  The people did not go hungry in the wilderness as they feared when they first journeyed into the unknown.  And the 16th Chapter of Exodus ends with, “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.”[3]

We need to keep this story in mind when we hear Jesus’ words this morning in the Gospel according to John (as Jesus continues to talk to those gathered about him being the bread of life.).  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[4]  What do the people do with this remarkable teaching?  Just like the Israelites out in the wilderness with Moses, those who are gathered begin to complain.  Jesus calls them out, “Don’t grumble among yourselves . . . Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died.  This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”[5]  Jesus is promising new life for all who would follow him.  But those who oppose him and his teachings— because isn’t this just Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s son?—well, they can’t fathom how he can speak to them with this deep wisdom and connection with the divine.  It’s one of those who does this guy think he is moments that happens every now and then in the Gospels.

This story can bring up some issues for us to think about in applying what we hear in Christian scripture to our own lives.  It can make us consider how we respond to adversity and how we respond to complaints.  We can contemplate how we respond to situations that are beyond our control.  And how we respond when we know in our hearts that something is right and we should be going in a certain direction and other people don’t see it that way.  What is the line between being self-assured and arrogant anyway?

Jesus knew who he was and was able to face those complaints from the people (much like Moses before him) reassured that he was going about the work that God intended for him.  “I am the bread of life.”  That is a statement full of meaning and confidence.  Sometimes we may feel just as secure in our own identities and paths as Jesus seemed to in today’s story.  But other times it can be a real struggle when we face criticisms, complaints, and grumbling from those close to us.

If we’ve been watching the Olympics at all or at least scanning the headlines, we’ve probably seen an endless amount of commentary about Simone Biles.  Biles withdrew from the women’s team competition citing mental health concerns.  She withdrew from the vault, the uneven bars, and the floor exercise in the all-around individual competitions.  But she was cleared by team doctors and decided to go on and do the balance beam final and earned a bronze medal for her performance just this week.  After all was said and done, Biles revealed that while she was in Tokyo one of her aunts unexpectedly died.  So she was dealing with the death of a family member on top of her mental health struggles and on top of having a dangerous moment happen when she vaulted to begin the team competition.  Biles told members of the media on Wednesday, “Two days ago my aunt unexpectedly passed, and that was something I wasn’t expecting to happen at the Olympic Games either, so at the end of the day, you have to be a little bit more mindful of what you say online, because you have no idea of what these athletes are going through as well as (in) their sports.”[6]  Meanwhile folks at home who can’t even do a cartwheel are criticizing the greatest gymnast of all time who added a silver medal and bronze medal to her Olympic collection of now seven Olympic medals in her career.  Simone Biles didn’t need to prove anything to anybody.  She hopefully knows that deep in her heart because people can be cruel.  But it seems that she might have gone out to perform on the balance beam for her own sake.  There are always powerful moments in the Olympic games, and that was certainly one of them.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who once said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.”  It’s sad, and it’s true.  Here was Moses after helping to liberate his people from slavery and he’s dealing with complaints out in the wilderness that they were about to starve to death.  Though God provided bread from heaven for 40 years.  Here was Jesus after trying to heal and preach and teach and he’s dealing with grumbling from those who try to make him feel small.  Jesus came that we might have life and have life abundantly. 

Friends, the world is full of critics.  We can turn to these stories from scripture.  We can turn on the Olympics.  We can think about experiences we’ve had in our own lives.  The world has plenty of critics.  The world needs more encouragers.  We need more people who build one another up, not tear one another down.  We need more people who have compassion and realize that we often only know a small part of another person’s story.  We can be the encouragers and those who help build each other up.  May it be so with us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

[1] Exodus 16:3, New Revised Standard Version.
[2] Exodus 16:4.
[3] Exodus 16:35.
[4] John 6:35, Common English Bible.
[5] John 6:43 and 49-51.
[6] Ben Morse and Jill Martin, “Simone Biles reveals her aunt unexpectedly died during the Olympics, CNN, August 4, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/04/sport/simone-biles-aunt-olympics-spt-intl/index.html

Photo by Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash