Texts: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2; John 6:34, 41-51
Jesus saves. You can only see the message from one place – between the golf course and the south end of the Friday Harbor airport as you come in to land. It’s stenciled in fading white letters on the flat rooftop of a vintage single-wide trailer. It makes you wonder. Was the trailer’s owner hoping to recruit a few lost souls from the coming and going planes? Was it an urgent commentary on the spiritual condition of the flying community?
Jesus saves is a meme. That is, it’s so embedded in our culture that it doesn’t have to be explained. This doesn’t mean we all agree on what it means though. It’s that as soon as we hear Jesus saves we associate it with our own belief (or non-belief) and experience (good or bad).
We might hear it as someone’s heavy judgment – if you don’t know Jesus, there’ll be no heaven for you! It might also come across in a comforting way. As in, whatever kind of heck or pain you’re in right now, Jesus can save you. Regardless of how we hear it, Jesus saves is generally used in an exclusive sense. Only Jesus saves.
Chapter six of John’s gospel about Jesus as the bread of life coming down from heaven is an extended conversation about the meaning of Jesus saves. Before we can begin to understand the gospel, we should revisit what the name Jesus means. Jesus, you will remember, is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Yeshua. It means God saves.
So, think about it. Whenever we say Jesus saves, what we’re actually saying is that God saves.
Which is what Jesus was trying to get across one day to a crowd of hungry Galileans. They had followed him back across the sea, looking for more bread. Jesus offered himself instead.
The essence of Jesus’s teaching is this: once God gave bread to the Israelites when they cried out in hunger. God provided manna, which was bread, though not the kind of bread anyone had experienced before. So they asked, “What is it?” and the answer was that it was bread from heaven.
The emphasis was not on the bread itself. It was upon the source of the bread. From heaven.
Since the bread was from heaven, that tells us that it was intended as something other than a carbohydrate based energy source. Manna was God-food. Food for courage, for hope, for peace.
Generations upon generations ago God saved people through manna from heaven in the desert. Paired with the story of Elijah from 1 Kings, we are shown the power of God’s heavenly bread. On the surface it seems that Elijah was quickly dying of hunger in a scorching desert. Perhaps another perception is to say that he was dying the slow death of a scorched soul.
The larger context has to do with Elijah’s participation in the deaths of scores of prophets of Baal. Their crime was serving the pagan god and Queen Jezebel who had killed some of Israel’s prophets. God did not direct Elijah to take revenge. He seems to have taken matters into his own hands, presiding over the prophets’ deaths in a wadi – a water ditch. It’s all a little troubling.
Escaping from Jezebel’s fury into the desert, Elijah asked God to give him the peace and freedom of death, saying “…for I am no better than my ancestors”. It might have been a confession of his lack of faith that God would save him from Jezebel. Or just an admission that he was as mortal and broken as anyone else.
Either way, Elijah embodies Israel’s struggle to be faithful. And reminds us that faith sometimes goes off the rails in tragic ways.
God responded with angel whose message was, your journey is not over yet. Food and drink appeared and on the strength of it Elijah continued on all the way to God’s mountain, Horeb. And presumably to the end of his days, though according to Israel’s books of faith, Elijah ascended to God without going through death.
After the manna, Israel was sustained forty years in the desert. Elijah was sustained forty days and nights. Seems like forty is just another way of saying, as long as God wills. Or maybe, as far as the love of God can take you.
When Jesus offered himself as bread from heaven instead of leftover bread from the miraculous feeding of five thousand, it offended some people. They complained, which should tickle our memories, because that’s exactly what the Israelites did before they got manna. And they complained again when, after a little while, the manna got boring.
But that’s usually how it goes with faith. We think that it’s bread in our stomachs we need. But God knows it’s not. No more than we need most of the things that we believe are indispensable and offer diversion from boredom. Things energetically commended to us by advertising.
What we need is to be connected to a source that can continually restore in us sustaining things like hope, courage, and peace. Israel called the source Yahweh, God. Every time Israel lost sight of God, they cried out and God saved them.
Christians know the source as Jesus. Same God, just another generation of belief. When we lose sight of God and our souls begin to feel faint from hunger we cry out. And in Jesus, God saves.
We look for good news in the gospel. And it’s there all right. The people wanted bread and Jesus offered himself as the source of life. He said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” That is an exclusive statement. But Jesus was not done. He continued: “And they shall all be taught by God. Everyone who has learned and heard from the Father comes to me.” Thereby turning an exclusive teaching inclusive. God teaches all.
Faithfulness is not just believing that Jesus saves. It’s believing that God is the energy behind all the saving we know. God’s saving is not for the purpose of filling the vaults of heaven. Being saved is being stitched back into the whole fabric of the universe when we are torn away from it.
Which means even better news: Jesus saves because God saves. And God saves because God who created all things, is the most brilliant restoration artist we could ever know. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.