John 6:51-59 Pentecost 13, Aug 19, 2018
There’s an old adage that claims, “you are what you eat”. Although this may be a bit of an overstatement (as during my lifetime there has been plenty of debate as to the benefits or harm of certain foods, the one which was most directly connected with my early life, that being cow’s milk), I think (hope?) most would give some credence to this. As the mission team from Guatemala have reported, and will be reporting again, severe malnutrition (both regarding amount and the quality of food), factors heavily in poor health and early mortality in that country. While in Mexico we have seen babies drinking from coke bottles from their earliest days. One doesn’t have to imagine that state of dental health, bone structure, and overall physical health of these youngsters. Nor does one have to go to Mexico or Central America to see the effects of poor eating habits. Sometimes, I don’t even need to leave my house to see this.
Today’s gospel lesson from the 6th chapter of John is a continuation of three previous readings from this gospel and deals directly with the topic of food and eating. Several weeks ago, we read from the first part of John 6, and the feeding of the 5000 men (perhaps up to 20,000 total with women and children). The feeding mentioned here was that of natural food being multiplied by supernatural means. The suggestion that some have made assuming this a natural event of people sharing the food they already had, rather than Jesus supernaturally multiplying the 2 fish and 5 loaves dishonors the texts that are before us. This is the only miracle (other than the resurrection) in the NT recorded by all four gospel writers, and to assume that the eyewitnesses and first century writers all got it wrong, and some skeptical commentators who do not believe in miracles got it right seems rather unlikely to me.
In the weeks that follow we pick up on the crowd pursuing Jesus to see if there is “more where that came from”. In a time when people where spending anywhere from 50% or more of their disposable income/time on food, one doesn’t need to imagine long as to how these folks would appreciate a daily source of free food. As is the case with all Jesus miracles recorded in John’s gospel, these are actually “signs” conveying a deeper truth. What follows in the later part of chapter 6 is an illustration of this particular “sign”. The Jews pursing Jesus were hoping for a present-day Moses who could feed them as in their days in the wilderness centuries ago. Jesus reply would make claims that would push even the faithful to the outermost edges of both reason and faith.
Jesus begins by identifying his very person as being the “bread of life”, and added to that, he is the “bread that comes down from heaven”. The first half of the statement could be understood metaphorically (believing in Jesus is like having a satisfying meal), but the second part about coming down from heaven, is quite another matter. As we have discussed previously, this discourse comes in Capernaum, a town not far from where Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Some of those present appear to know Jesus’ family, and may have known him as a child and young adult. How is it then that this local carpenter turned rabbi (even a miracle working rabbi) could have possibly come down from heaven? Moses didn’t even come down from heaven. Nor did King David, or Solomon, nor Elijah (although Elijah did ascend there on a chariot of fire). One can well imagine the murmuring among the crowd who were only yesterday delighted with Jesus’ teaching and the free meal that followed. Today Jesus is telling them that in some strange and metaphorical way his very person is like bread, and that he himself came not from Nazareth, but from heaven, and that if one wanted to the do the “work of God”, then that work would be to believe in Jesus as the one God has sent. Perhaps here we need expand on the adage,” you are what you eat”, with, “you are what you believe”. Before we take too much credit for
that belief, consider here Jesus’ words to his listeners; 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. Our belief is always accompanied (and preceded) by the Father’s calling, and the Father’s drawing. The Bible makes this point crystal clear.
If this were not problematic enough, what comes next ends the conversation for most in the crowd. I remember one parishioner pulling me aside after the service at an earlier reading of this text (‘m thinking 15 years ago), asking if those words of Jesus really meant what he thought they meant. Listen to them again, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
If the crowd had trouble getting their heads around a local rabbi claiming to be greater than Moses who fed them for the 40 years in the dessert, and who claimed to have descended bodily from heaven, and who in some metaphorical way his very person was somehow food for their souls…what came next was far, far beyond what could be even considered as being sane-now they were to eat his body, and drink his blood, and in so doing they would receive the promise of life in God, both now and for eternity. Enough was enough, and before another word could be said, the crowds departed. A free meal they could “get behind, but this business of eating flesh, and drinking blood was more than they could take.
As you can well imagine, the Church has, and continues to debate this text to this very day. Some deem it relates totally to Jesus’ incarnation, God coming in flesh and blood in the person of Jesus and speaks nothing of the Eucharist. Many however (me included) can’t read this text without the mystery of the sacrament taking center stage. John remembers and records Jesus repeating this phrase over, and over, and over again…”eat my flesh”…”drink my blood”. Do this and live.
With roughly 2000 years passing since these words were first recorded, sadly the church continues to battle over the meaning of these words. Some see them only metaphorically, with communion being nothing more than a memorial meal, as the “finite does not (cannot) comprehend (contain) the infinite”. Others contend that the material elements of bread and wine literally are “transubstantiated” into the physical, anatomical flesh and blood of Jesus. Others (like us Lutherans) claim that Jesus is truly present “in, with, and under” the elements, and exactly how this can be remains completely in the realm of mystery (also known as Consubstantiation)
However, we understand these words of Jesus (or don’t), Christians today at least take the posture of the Peter and the other disciples in not departing from Jesus and these difficult words. As confused as they and we might be, they and we have realized one very important thing, that Jesus did and does in fact have the words of eternal life. And besides, where else would they or we go? Sometimes this is a strong a statement of faith that one can make. Soon they would hear Jesus use these words in the context of their last supper together on the eve prior to his crucifixion. I believe these words recorded here are John’s remembrance of that very evening (and are placed with the bread of life discourse
because of their interconnectedness). In any event, Christians ever since have continued to eat, and continued to drink, and their faith is strengthened, and new life comes to them as Jesus promised.
Perhaps we don’t need to know exactly how certain foods have sustained people and kept them healthy for generations. Perhaps it’s enough simply to know that it has, and then take that food and eat. Likewise, perhaps it’s not necessary that we know exactly how these promises come to us in the eating and the drinking of bread and wine at the Communion table, but it’s enough to obey and trust that they do. In some way that I know I don’t fully understand, taking God’s words and precepts, and taking our Lord’s body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine have sustained me in this Christian faith for these many decades, and has sustained you as well. Perhaps one day we will find that the Catholics actually got it right in that the material elements are in fact “transubstantiated” into actual body and blood of Jesus, or maybe it’s the Baptists and their “memorial meal”. Who knows, maybe, just maybe it’s us Lutherans who come closest. Whatever the case, we eat and drink now with our limited understanding…and trust in the promise all the more. We are what we eat. Praise God for both physical and spiritual food. Amen