Have you seen the t-shirt or Facebook poster that says, “Grammar saves lives?” It then shows this example: “Let’s eat Grandma!” (which means that grandma is the entrée). Then it shows the correction: “Let’s eat, (comma) Grandma!” (which means grandma provides the entrée). A comma saves grandma’s life!
For English majors and grammar buffs, you will be excited to know that grammar also saves the Gospel in today’s John text, not just one, but two times. Grammar saves our lives—or at least helps us better understand how Jesus does!
Our Gospel text about Jesus gives us first “predicate nominative” or “predicate noun” in the book of John! Don’t worry if you’re like me, a mere mortal regarding English grammar and wondering, “what the heck is a predicate nominative?” The Daily Grammar website came to my aid. A predicate nominative completes a linking verb and renames the subject. Linking verbs include helping verbs like is, am, are, was, and being; sensing verbs like look, taste, and smell; and also verbs like become, seem, and grow.
In the sentence, “Grandma is a great cook,” “is” constitutes a linking verb that needs a noun to complete it, making “great cook” the predicate nominative—or the noun in the second half of the sentence that re-names the subject. The most intriguing part of our “grammar saves the Gospel” lesson is that in these types of sentences, the verb can be replaced by the word “equals.” Grandma = a great cook. Now we can really go to town on predicate nominative sentences: Dale = a talented musician; St. Luke’s = a welcoming community; Texas = blistering heat.
So where is the predicate nominative in our passage from John? At the very end where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”—“am” is the linking verb that needs a noun to complete its meaning; “bread of life” is the predicate nominative that renames the subject of “I” or “Jesus.” Predicate nominatives are an important structure John uses to describe Jesus’ identity. “I am the bread of life” is the first of eight predicate nominatives in John which is followed by:
• “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” later in John 6;
• “I am the light of the world” in John 8 and 9;
• “I am the door of the sheep” in John 10;
• “I am the good shepherd” also in John 10;
• “I am the resurrection and the life” in John 11;
• “I am the way, the truth and the life” in John 14;
• And “I am the true vine” in John 15.
In all these statements, Jesus renames himself, conferring and confirming his identity—that is, who he is in God, and who is for us. Now we need the Bible, theology and spirituality to add depth to our grammar. In these “I am” statements, "I am" is not just the sentence structure but the very name of God first used in Exodus, several chapters before our first reading. When God appears to Moses in a burning bush and calls him to go to Egypt to free the Hebrews from slavery at the hands of Pharaoh in Egypt, Moses asks God, “who shall I say is sending me?” God responds from the burning bush, YAHWEH, which translates as, “I am who I am” or “I am that I am!”
God is beingness itself! Jewish rabbis have taught that we have been breathing the beingness of God in and out unconsciously ever since we were born! This gives us a breath prayer. The breath prayer is simply to breathe deeply in on the first syllable of God’s name and out on the second syllable: YAH-WEH, JES-US, SPIR-IT. God is life and breath itself. This is confirmed in other parts of Scripture because in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for Spirit is “breath.”
Fast forward to Exodus 16, our first reading today. The Israelites have freedom, life and breath, but they complain because they have no bread. God is their source of life, but now they need sustenance as well. What good is breath without bread? What good is the Source of life without sustenance to maintain it? God heard their complaining and rained down bread during the night, so that the ground was covered in bread, “manna” once the dew dried! God is not only the Source of life—breath, but also of Sustenance of life—bread. (The Hebrew translation of manna is “what’s that?” They saw the bread on the ground, asking what it was and they were told to eat the “what’s that!”).
Fast forward to the first part of John 6 which we heard last week—Jesus feeds 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus explains that miracle with the phrase, “I am the bread of life!” First, Jesus is God—Jesus is “I am who I am”—God in human form—manna becomes the first incarnation of Jesus, the bread of life. This same bread of life feeds 5,000 hungry people in another miracle of bread, foreshadowing our own table here—Holy Communion. “I am who I am is the bread of life.”
Let’s bring back the grammar of the predicate nominative: I am = God, God = Jesus, Jesus = bread of life, Jesus = sustenance, Jesus = provision. This is why we have the smell of bread baking today (in the bread machine started an hour before worship); when we breathe in very source of our life and the presence of God, we also breathe in bread—the Sustainer of our life: Let’s do the breath prayer: YAH (breathe in) WEH (breathe out). Breath and Bread, Source and Sustenance.
That’s the importance of all the predicate nominative statements in John—that we would hear in them, not that God feeds his people occasionally with miraculous bread, or once a week with tidbit at Communion—but that Jesus is the Source and Sustainer of all that we need every day!
Jesus = the living bread
Jesus = the light of the world
Jesus = door of the sheep
Jesus = the good shepherd
Jesus = the resurrection and the life
Jesus = the way, the truth and the life
Jesus = the true vine
But that’s not all! God doesn’t just provide food, God IS food—God is life, bread, light, true vine, shepherd, forgiveness, the door, the way, the truth and the life. Everything we eat is Christ, everything we breathe is Christ, every experience of light, love, hope, nourishment, community, forgiveness, nature, and joy is Christ. Christ is the “what’s that,” the manna of all we have.
Which brings us to the second time grammar saves the Gospel in our passage. Verse 31, the crowds in John say that Moses GAVE them (past tense) the bread from heaven to eat. But Jesus says, it was God—"I am who I am”—who provided the manna, and then he changes the verb from past tense to present tense in verse 32, “It is my Father who GIVES you the true bread from heaven,” not "gave" you in the past, the true bread from heaven.
God in Jesus Christ is breath and bread, not once or twice in the past for the Israelites and the crowd of 5,000, but today, now, in the present tense for us. The Israelites in Exodus and the crowds in John want another sign, another miracle, but Jesus says, “you’re missing the point! Your breakfast was the bread of life, your rest was me, your yesterday was me, your dinner tonight is me, your kiss goodnight is me. “I am the bread, I am your sustenance.”
The challenge for us is the same as it was for the Israelites in the wilderness, and the crowds around Jesus—to trust that God will continually take care of our needs and provide for us in the present tense. For us, Jesus has already come to earth, died on the cross and rose again, and given us the gift of salvation and still we wonder, “can I trust God to take of me today?” Does God love me today? Will God listen to my prayers and needs right now?”
Jesus answer is, “Yes, of course! I am the bread of life.Take in breath and bread, life and sustenance." God’s provision may not come in the way we want or when we want it, but Jesus IS the bread, the door, the truth, the vine, the shepherd, and calls us to trust with every breath, that he will provide for us. I would like to close with a story that gives an example of what this kind of daily, present tense trust looks like for us.
Many years ago, I heard a speech from a successful Mary Kay National Sales Director, “Amy,” about when she was a nervous, new consultant. She traveled from her home in Illinois to Dallas for the annual summer convention. Amy hadn’t spent much time away from home, she missed her children and her husband, she was a bit of an introvert, and it was just too much. So she decided to leave the convention and go home early.
Amy changed her flight and got on a plane late that evening. She arrived in St. Louis and got on the shuttle to take her to her car in a remote parking spot. It was late at night, she was exhausted and counting the minutes to get home.
Amy noticed the driver of the shuttle was so cheerful and joyful. The driver was so happy to see her, carried her bag, humming a Gospel song while she worked, and just seemed to be on top of the world. Amy thought, “well I wish I felt that happy.” And as she sat there, she felt this inner urging, this voice of the Spirit of God within, to tip the shuttle bus driver with the $50 bill in her wallet that she hadn’t spent because she came home early.
“That’s crazy, why would I do that?” she thought. But the voice of the Spirit inside became stronger and stronger. “Give this woman the $50 in your wallet.” Tip her with the $50 bill!”
Well, Amy was a woman of faith, and even though she did not understand it, she thought she better obey what felt like the voice of God. She took the $50 bill out of her wallet, and after they arrived at her car and the driver carried out her suitcase, Amy looked at the driver and said, “I’m not sure why, but I feel like God is telling me to give you this” and she handed her the $50 bill.
The woman said, “Praise God, thank you, thank you,” and gave her a big hug. “My electricity was going to be shut-off tomorrow and I had no way to pay the bill, but I knew that God would provide it somehow. Thank you so much” and she hugged her again. Amy was dumbfounded—not only because God used her to help this woman, but because the driver lived with such a joyful confidence in the midst of desperate need. Now, I don’t think that shuttle bus driver would say that she had a “predicate nominative faith in the present tense,” but that’s exactly what she had! She trusted Jesus as her Source and Sustenance, and we can too, because Jesus = both breath and bread.
So, as we come to the Lord’s table today, both sentences about "grandma" in the beginning of the sermon work when we replace “grandma” with “Jesus” who is our breath and bread: “Let’s eat Jesus!” (who is the meal!), and, “Let’s eat, (comma) Jesus!” (who provides the meal!). Let’s eat, St. Luke’s!