(John 6: 30-42)
Although I haven’t spent much time in there lately, if I walked you into my office right now, you would see one whole bookcase overflowing with children’s religious picture books. Because my mom is an early-childhood educator, my love for children’s books has always existed but not until seminary did I discover the wisdom of really well-written religious picture books. Years ago while living in Henderson, NC, I came across a small Episcopal bookstore just down the road in Oxford. From the moment I first walked in I knew I would be coming back many times. The bookstore owner heard me express interest in children’s religious literature and led me to a row of 4 to 5 shelves of some of her favorite authors and publishers. From then on out, she would look forward to my visits, because I began spending a majority of my book allowance on these picture books.
One of the main reasons that I am continually drawn to children’s picture books is that illustrators and authors, with wonderful imagination, open our eyes to just how vivid the story of God’s love is in the Bible. With paintbrush and sketch pad, they help us to better imagine what the days of creation might have looked like or just how the crowd reacted when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. They illustrate the burning bush, the fish that swallowed Jonah whole, and the humble crowd that surrounded Mary and Joseph on Christmas. These authors and illustrators help us imagine Jesus’ ministry, his healings and his teachings, and show us the depth of God’s love with the story of the Resurrection. Picture books expand our imagination of God’s story of salvation. They quite literally open our eyes, encouraging us to dive deeper and deeper into the stories of Scripture.
This is why I love the imagery in the Gospel of John, especially today’s story. In May and June, our Sunday afternoon Bible study studied the I AM passages, teachings from Jesus only found in John’s Gospel. Similar to children’s picture books, these I AM teachings are dripping with imagery. In different places in the Gospel of John, Jesus says: I AM the bread of life, I AM the light of the world, I AM the good shepherd and I AM the true vine. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is the great storyteller, helping us expand our understanding of God’s Kingdom through his parables. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus does something unique—he stands before the crowds, and expands his disciples’ understanding about who God is using familiar imagery in these I AM passages.
This I AM phrase has a history, though. Whenever Jesus says “I AM,” he takes his audience back to another miraculous story, the story of Moses at the burning bush when God called Moses to do the unimaginable and save God’s people from Pharaoh. Moses, still in shock, asks God: “Who do I tell them sent me? How will they know it’s you?” In Exodus 3 God says “I am who I am.” … “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” In that moment, Moses is told that God has a name, a divine name, a name with a story. This name, I AM, contains the colorful history of God’s people—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, and all of their numerous descendants. The I AM is more than a name; the I AM is the story of God and God’s people. The I AM is God—the one who hears the voices of God’s people and promises to remain with them. So when Jesus uses these words, I AM, he declares that the God of the Exodus is standing among them now.
The study guide that we used on those Sunday afternoons in May was called The God We Can Know and the author puts forward that these I AM passages are God’s way of being recognized. God wants to be known, he says, God wants to be in relationship with us, God wants to draw close. Therefore, when Jesus says, I AM the good shepherd, the farmers on the Galilean hillside know where the story is going. When Jesus says, I AM the true vine, workers in the vineyard identify with his words. And when Jesus says, I AM the light of the world, those who have known great darkness lean in with curiosity. In our passage for today, when Jesus says I AM the bread of life, those on the hillside, eating their bread and fish, hear that God provides, God offers what sustains, and God gives them—gives all of us—enough. Therefore, in the ears of his listeners, whenever Jesus says I AM, he is saying so much more: that the God of their ancestors wants to be recognized, wants to be known, that God is not hiding from us. And Jesus is the proof.
Go back with me to the story: right before Jesus speaks the words, I AM the Bread of Life—he feeds thousands on the hillside with a few loaves and some fish. If you were there that day, among the crowds that were fed by Jesus’ miracle, that moment may have taken you back to another source of food that fed thousands who were hungry. Back in Exodus, after Moses heard God’s name and began the incredible journey of leading God’s people out of Egypt, they got hungry. Really hungry. Moses was leading the people in the wilderness, and there were times when they couldn’t see the good news of their redemption because of their hunger. And what does God do…God rains down manna from heaven. Manna that feeds, manna that nourishes, manna that fills their bellies when they feared that all hope had been lost.
So, in our story for today, when Jesus says I AM the bread of life he’s telling them he is also the manna from heaven that fell all those years ago. Jesus, the bread of life, is here to feed them now, but was also back in the wilderness feeding them when they needed it most. The I AM was there in the wilderness—was even there in the beginning in Genesis—and the I AM is there with the disciples and the crowds in John 6. In fact, the promise of these I AM sayings is that The Great I AM is among us right now. Friends, if you don’t remember anything else I’ve said when you leave here today, remember this … God is here with us today, God has promised to remain with us always.
Having said that…let me pause here.
Because I don’t know about y’all, but I’m exhausted. I need some good news from God right now. I’m tired of this virus continuing to wreck our lives. I’m tired of people dying and loved ones not able to be with them. I’m tired of violence against people of color. I’m tired of leadership that rejects civility, decency, and the needs of our communities. And I’m tired that it has taken years of protests and lives tragically lost, in order for our nation to realize that we are not a country where all people are treated equally. I’m tired, and if God has promised to remain with us…then I’m ready for God to show up.
But you know what…Jesus’ audience in the Gospel of John was tired too. And I don’t necessarily mean the people that Jesus is speaking to in this story in John 6…although I’m sure they were as well. More to the point, I’m talking about the earliest Christians for whom John wrote his gospel, for whom he recorded these I AM promises. They were tired of being under Roman occupation. They were tired of having no place to worship because their temple was destroyed. They were tired of arguing amongst themselves. They were tired of being persecuted. They too were tired of seeing lives lost, tragically killed by those in power. If you read between the lines of John’s Gospel, it is not hard to see that his original audience might’ve been worried that God had forgotten about them, forgotten about the promises God had made to them. It’s not hard to surmise that they might’ve been despairing of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, only seeing the death and destruction in front of them…not unlike their hungry Hebrew ancestors wandering in the wilderness.
And that’s why John makes a point of having Jesus stand among them and say, I AM. And it’s not because they didn’t know. They knew these words, they knew the I AM that came to Moses. They knew the I AM that had seen their ancestors through exile and dispersion. They knew the I AM that promised a Messiah. So when Jesus tells them he is the I AM these are words of great comfort, reminders that the I AM of all of these other stories of redemption is among them. The I AM will guide them, feed them, and protect them if they abide in Jesus. The I AM is there, and that’s exactly the reminder that they need.
And you know, maybe it’s the reminder that we need too. Friends, just as Jesus fed the crowds, calling himself their manna in the wilderness, Jesus is among us now to nourish us and to provide us with hope. In the I AM passages Jesus opens our imagination so we can experience just how close God is to each of us. I AM reminds us that God provides, God sustains, and God directs. I AM reminds us that Jesus is just as close as the very bread we put in our mouths. Jesus is just as close as the water we drink to quench our thirst. Jesus is mysteriously present, offering us life and renewal when we need it most. Jesus is right here with us, holding our hands even as we find ourselves wandering through these tumultuous times.
This morning I invite you to close your eyes and listen again to Jesus’ promises:
- Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
- Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
- Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
- Jesus says, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower… Abide in me as I abide in you.”
- Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Friends, the I AM is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Exodus 3:14
 Rob Fuquay, The God We Can Know: Exploring the I AM Sayings of Jesus. Nashville: Upper Room, 2014, Page 13.
Featured image at adobestock_106603464.jpeg