The Weeks of Bread, #4
Aug 15, 2021
12th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: John 6:51-58
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Let the weeks of bread continue! It is only one more week after today, you’ll be glad to know, since Jesus’ words in John 6 are becoming more and more difficult to swallow.
Let me ask, have you ever eaten bread that tasted awful to you? That you could not swallow? I can’t really say that I have, unless it was a fruit-cake type loaf soaked in brandy. That would fill the bill, so to speak. But, many of us, like, or at least would taste, most bread. It is one of those foods that is a basic provision throughout the world, which may be why Jesus referred to himself as bread.
As I’m sure you could tell me by now, it all began with Jesus feeding thousands of people with only 2 fish and 5 loaves that miraculously multiplied. Some of those fed that day liked the idea of free food and pursued Jesus for more, only to hear that Jesus was offering spiritual food to satisfy their spiritual hunger. Not on-going breakfast, lunch, and supper. And so, the grumbling in the crowd and among the religious leaders began, and their agitation increases in this week’s text.
Can you really blame them? Jesus has claimed to be sent from God, referring to himself as the bread that came down from heaven. Then he spoke of the necessity of consuming the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood. Of course, his listeners are repulsed by this statement, especially since in verse 53, he switched the word used for “eat.” He had been using a very common word, the one which is basically, “eat your dinner.” But then changed to a less common one that has a connotation closer to “munch” or “gnaw.” Quoting commentator Brian Peterson, “It is a graphic word for noisy eating, the sort of eating an animal does. The noisiness of the eating, however, is not the point; this is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It is eating as though life depends on it, because it does.” (1) But, that is not understood by Jesus’ listeners; they are offended by what they hear.
Even Christians who have 2000 years of communion services in our collective memory, and are inclined to think of the bread and wine of Holy Communion when we hear this passage, may find Jesus’ words too blunt. They make me squirm, I’ll admit. Given that, just think what it was like for those who first heard them spoken, especially since Jews were forbidden to consume an animal’s blood. They must have been absolutely appalled, including even Jesus’ own disciples. No wonder they were venting their confusion and questions with each other.
Let’s take a moment to take a side trip and consider this passage in light of the Sacrament. There’s a lot of debate in the Biblical scholarly world concerning whether or not this passage is a reference to Holy Communion; the answer often is “yes” and “no.” Many, including Martin Luther, see the theme of eating and drinking throughout this text as a metaphor for belief, or faith, in Jesus. Dr. Peterson writes that, read within the context of John 6, the “eating” and the “drinking” of verses 51-58 are a reference to faith in Jesus, an expansion on what Jesus said in vs. 35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (2)
In other words, when Jesus first spoke these words, he did not have what we call Holy Communion in mind. Later, though, they were viewed as pointing to Holy Communion, the touchable and taste-able conveyor of grace.
Now, getting back to the passage: Jesus’ closing words that whoever eats this bread (believes in him) will live forever is Good News. But, many who heard what he said questioned that was the case. Why? Well, besides the fact that his talk of eating flesh and drinking blood was disturbing, many were still hoping for endless physical food. We might describe this as wanting physical comfort and control, for me, today, rather than spiritual satisfaction, for everyone, both now and eternally.
It is a mindset that continues in our world – our country – today and is represented by this attitude: My immediate needs, wants, opinions, habits are paramount and override what might be for the greater good. Why does that attitude so often prevail? To make a complicated topic simple, it’s because the Greater Good requires sacrifice, which is not easy. Although it is possible as we abide in Jesus.
Look again at verse 56: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood (or, those who believe in me) abide in me, and I in them.” To abide has a deeper meaning than to believe or to follow. Jesus is raising the bar on his incarnation in this passage, writes William H. Willimon. In other words, Jesus is not only a teacher, a healer, a worker of signs and wonders.
He is also our bread, the bread that has come down from heaven. He is flesh that is to be eaten and blood to be drunk. “We are thus encouraged not simply to follow Jesus, which is difficult enough in itself, nor simply to be with Jesus, but we are to consume him” (3) As the Apostle Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)
Dr. Willimon tells a story about a friend of his who teaches at Oxford and says that one of his toughest tasks is to ask and answer the question, “What is theology about?” His students tend to respond that theology is about spiritual matters, or about religion, or deeper meaning in life. But he instructs them that theology (at least Christian incarnational theology, as we find in John 6) is about everything. Jesus has come down from heaven with the intention of taking it all back. He wants all of us, and he wants us to have all of him. (3)
And that bread may be difficult for us to shallow.
Let the weeks of bread continue … for one more Sunday! AMEN.
(1) “Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Commentary on John 6:51-58” by Brian Peterson, www.workingpreacher.org
(2) Same as #1
(3) Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, Year B, Volume 3, pgs.357-361