Pentecost 11B John 6:35, 41-51
Actually, there is a whole lot in a name.
Names are powerful things. They are a part of our identity—a piece of who we are. We are given our names by our families, nicknames by our friends. Sometimes our names have specific or symbolic meanings. In our baptismal service, a big deal is made about our name. Our name is spoken over us, reminding all who hear that God knows us and calls us by name to be his own children. We are not just anonymous human masses. We are particular people to God. He knows us each by name.
Sometimes our names are important because of who they belonged to previously. Like my name for example: I’m named for my grandmothers Rose and Mary.
In today’s Gospel, there is something about a name.
There is a great crowd gathered all around this one Rabbi and his disciples. He keeps talking about bread. It was just the other day that this Rabbi had done a pretty amazing thing. He’d taken a handful of bread and fish—a child’s lunch—and blessed it, making it into enough food to fed five thousand people. Well, of course, everyone went looking for him the next day looking for more. Wouldn’t you? When everyone found him, he said that everyone just wanted him for more free bread. But he had something better than that bread to give them. That is when he started talking about some kind of special bread. Bread from heaven. Bread of life.
This Rabbi says to the crowd: I Am the Bread of Life. What? This all sounds pretty absurd. Who does this guy think he is? People are saying to one another: don’t we know this guy? Isn’t he Joseph’s Son?
They probably call him by the name Yeshuah bar Yosif. Joshua, son of Joseph. In other towns, he might have been called Joshua of Nazareth. People, in those times, were not known solely by their personal name but also by something that identified where or who they came from. People were called son or daughter of their father so as to identify which family they were from. In addition, the meaning of names was taken very seriously as well. Yeshuah or Joshua means God is Salvation. It was not only this Rabbi’s name, but also the name of the leader of the Israelites many generations before who led the people out of the wilderness, to victory over the Canaanites and into the Promised Land.
So, this Rabbi Yeshuah bar Yosif, or as we would call him, Jesus, is making some big claims. Isn’t he Joe’s boy? They all ask. What is he doing saying these things? Saying ‘I Am the bread come down from heaven’?? We know him and his whole family! Why is he making these claims?
There is something even a little bit more amazing that Jesus is saying here, too. Jesus uses what looks like a phrase but is actually a name. And it is a phrase he uses over and over in the Gospel of John.
Let’s turn back the clock—turn it back a long, long way. All the way back to Moses, tending sheep in the wilderness. While he is out tending the sheep, he finds a burning bush, a bush through which God speaks to him, calling him to the important task of going to Egypt to talk to Pharaoh. God tells him to lead the people of God out of Egypt, to tell Pharaoh that God has said Let my people go so that they may worship me. Moses says, ‘whom shall I say has sent me?’ When they ask me who is this God that demands freedom for the people, what do I tell them is your name? God’s answer to Moses is, ‘tell them I Am has sent you.’
I Am. God’s name as it was given to Moses so long ago. Until that time, people had only known to say God, but now they had a name. A name so holy that they could not speak it, but they knew it all the same. I Am.
So when Jesus says I Am the bread of life, he is both speaking about his being the very sustenance of life and he is giving an important bit of information about who he is. I Am.
Tell them I Am has sent you. I Am the bread of life.
There are other places that Jesus intentionally uses this name. I Am the living bread which came down from heaven. I Am the light of the world. I Am the gateway. I Am the Good Shepherd. I Am the resurrection and the life. I Am the way, the truth and the life. I Am the true vine. I Am the Son of God. Perhaps most profoundly, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Most assuredly I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.’
Jesus is doing something a little more than saying: these are good examples of my character or my actions. He is saying that the light of the world comes through him, the gateway to all that is good goes through him. He is saying the trust a flock of sheep have for a good shepherd is the kind of trust you may put in him. He is saying life and resurrection come through him, that this eternal life comes through him in the way that life flows from vines to branches. He is saying all of these things to help us to understand his character, his personality and the way our relationship with him works, but there is something else he is telling us as well.
Over and over Jesus tells us who he is by his name. I Am God, who is the way, the truth and the life. I Am God, who is your Good Shepherd, the God in whom you may trust to care for you as a shepherd cares for his flock. I Am God, who is your resurrection and life, the God who has given you a new life, who gives you eternal life. I Am God, who is the light of the whole world, the God who created light and who is made up of light.
And today, Jesus tells us I am God, the bread of life; the bread of your life, given to you. I Am God who gives you this very body for bread. For the salvation of the world.
So what is in a name? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Does it matter that Jesus used God’s name as his name? Does it matter that he used THAT God’s name? Yes, it does. Jesus wasn’t just Joshua, son of Joseph. He wasn’t just a wise man, a holy Rabbi, a good example. He wasn’t offering bread of life simply as food for thought for a good way to live. He was the Messiah. The Messiah of the God who said his name was I Am. He was and is the son of God; the I Am who spoke to Moses. He IS the I Am. That God, who goes by That name is the one who freed the people from slavery in Egypt, the one who saved Noah and his family in the flood, the one who created the universe. Jesus is the I AM who did all these things and more.
Jesus is the I Am who was born of the Virgin Mary. The I Am who suffered under Pontius Pilate. The I Am whose very real body was nailed to the cross and bled every painful drop of his own blood for us. The I Am who gives US this bread of eternal life. The I Am who could not be kept bound by death in a tomb and who rose to eternal life, taking us with him. The I Am who gives us not mere earthly food but his very body as living bread from heaven.