John 6:56–69 (NRSV)
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
The Words of Eternal Life
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
There is much talk about these words that Jesus spoke. It has been debated for nearly 2000 years. Yet still we seem to fall far short of them. This past year was probably the most difficult of the six years I have served on the elders’ board, because in a large, we wrestled with these very words. What is proper worship, what is true faith, what does it mean to be a Christian, and what does it mean to be a Friend? All these questions were raging in my mind, and more. On both sides of the debate there were people arguing from a traditional point of view, both from the universal church’s point of view and that of Friends.
For many the debate gets lost in the symbolism just as it did in the early years of the Friends movement. There are those that will defend the use of symbols saying they are a necessary for worship, yet they will then turn around and say that it is by faith that we are saved not by works. If we were to break this down they are saying in one statement that the elements of a sacrament are required means of grace, if not participated in our faith is invalid. And in the other statement they are saying that it is our faith that grants the grace, and participation in works of any sort are invalid without first having faith. It boggles the mind if you listen to the debates for too long.
So, what is the correct answer? This, I am afraid, will be debated for years if not centuries to come. But while we debate these issues there is something that can be done. We can listen to Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus said in conclusion to this teaching, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
Imagine if you will that you were sitting or standing in that great synagogue in Capernaum, you had listened to all these words by Jesus. You heard him telling you about the manna from heaven and that the bread that he will give is even greater than this because those that eat of it will never hunger. He even added that those that eat of this bread will never die. You like everyone else have some idea surrounding the Messiah, and you are in an internal debate with yourself wondering if Jesus just might be the one. The reason this is popping into your mind is because of the various ideas of what the messiah will do. One is that he will reestablish the kingdom of David and you are currently living under the rule of Rome. For the kingdom to become independent there would have to be some sort of battle, either politically or physical. The idea of a messiah that can provide everlasting bread to an army sounds amazing. The Idea that those that eat this bread would live forever is even greater. You remember the history of your people, you know that the greatest forces of Persia were call the Immortals, yet they did eventually die at least physically. But if Jesus was the messiah and he truly could provide everlasting life through bread at his disposal, then the armies of Israel would truly be immortal. No army could stand against them.
Think about this. Imagine what you might be thinking of when you hear those words. Then imagine the shock and horror that you might have felt when Jesus continued to speak and said that the bread he must give is his flesh. He says that he will give his very flesh for us to eat to give us this eternal life. Could you do that? Could you for the sake of Israel join with this Rabbi, becoming a flesh eater? The very though turns the stomach, it turns my stomach even today. Because they did not have the gospels like we do, they could not look back at the first chapter of John like we did last week and connect the flesh to the incarnation. They did not have the letters of Paul who explained that the fruit of the spirit are certain things, and that the wisdom of God provided by the spirit is providing that fruit through the very incarnation of Jesus. All you have on that day in Capernaum are words spoken by a traveling teacher, words that are extremely hard to understand, and boarder on heresy according to the traditions of the past. What would you do?
They grumbled, they complained, just as their ancestors did in the desert. They did not understand why God was leading them through the desert for forty years, it was miserable, it was pointless, why drag it on so long? Why, if they were not able to go into the land, why not just open the earth and let everyone fall in? Why did God allow even their leader Moses get so annoyed with the long drawn out process to the point that even he would sin against God and miss the promise?
There are mysteries in life that we will never fully grasp. When Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, imagine how many farmers spend nights laying awake trying to figure out that riddle. It’s just a seed what deeper meaning does it hold? If the answers to the kingdom of God are found in a seed, what else could be held in something like bread, or even more in the flesh?
We do not know what the meaning of an event or moment in life holds, during the moment. For us at that moment the trials we face are torture and pointless. A few weeks ago, I spoke with my brother at length and we discussed the trials we both felt while dealing with the emotions and grief of losing our sister. The discussion was profound to me. I learned things that he experienced that were far different from the things that I experienced. I for a moment hated myself for not being a better big brother for him, I did not see. In fact, I could not see, because it was not for me to see. It was a mystery that could only be revealed by the holder. Over the course of this discussion we realized that while we would never wish the pain and grief we experienced on anyone, that event, that ending of one life, provided the catalysis for our futures.
Those tough trial we experience, are life giving, even when they feel as if they are taking the life right out of us. They give life if, and only if, we face the trials in the spirit of Christ. They give life because the spirit of God is life. Everything that I experienced and will experience in this flesh can and will provide the strength and hope to encourage another to embrace the spirit of Christ in their own lives. I may not see how it works. I may not even be aware that the Spirit is working because I am currently experiencing another mystery in my own life that has yet to be revealed to me. But like a mustard seed that goes into the ground, the seed dies and is transformed into a sprout, a plant, it matures and produces fruit, and once that fruit is mature the plant dies, and we are left with another seed. Yet another mystery. Yet another trial that baffles us, that tortures us. Yet another era of our life’s journey that causes us to question the very point and purpose of our existence and we like the psalmist curse the day we were born because we feel as if the world just might be better without us.
Those people in that synagogue so long ago, listened to the teaching of Jesus they thought about them and said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” They grumble because, the words of the teacher sound terrible, they sound as if he is telling them to turn their back on their ancient traditions and to begin a new life and lifestyle. It sounds as if they would be turning their backs on everything they had ever known and follow him into something they though God would never lead them to. Who can accept it? If we understand God that looks and acts one way and suddenly something else is revealed, how can we accept it?
Jesus looks at his disciples and asks them, “Do you also wish to go away?” Think about that question. Think about it deeply. Think about the many trials you have faced. Think about the times you struggled in faith and even with this meeting. Jesus is asking us the same question. Do you also wish to go away? Would you rather go somewhere else, somewhere that does not challenge us quite so much? Somewhere that might allow us to stay where we are instead of working through a trial that we did not really want to face anyway. There is a reason that many of us have stayed here in this Meeting. And each of us have come to a point where we had to ask ourselves why we even stay, yet we did. Why?
Peter answered, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” There are very few that came to this Meeting, who were born into the Society of Friends. Most of us for some reason chose to attend and to stay. There are numerous other expressions of faith why did we stay here?
Peter and the others stayed with Jesus, even in their lack of understanding, because they believed that his teaching held within them eternal life. Stop there for a moment. Peter said that Jesus’s words held eternal life, after Jesus just gave a teaching of his flesh being the bread of life. Peter acknowledges that even though that teaching was weird and a bit gross, knew that over all Jesus’s teaching, held within them everything they needed to know. It was the wisdom wrapped in flesh that gave the life, it is the wisdom not the flesh that provided the power. It was the spirit, not the flesh that gave life. And the spirit of Jesus is the essence of life. But it is more than just the teaching. He also says to whom can we go? There is a correlation between the relationship and the teaching, as well as belief and faith. Where would they go?
They did not meet the requirements to follow one of the other rabbis of their day. They were passed over for that honor. Instead, when they became of age they were sent out of school to learn the trade of their fathers. They became fishermen, tax collectors, and some joined gangs. They had each left that life to follow Jesus. There was something that drew them to Him. There was something about that relationship with Jesus along with the teaching that caused them to desire something different from the life they previously knew. There was something about the lifestyle that Jesus showed them that caused them to desire it, even when it was challenging. Even when their friends in their hometown center of worship looked at Jesus and said this teaching is hard. The desire to be with Jesus was greater than being with the rest of the world.
This tells us something about worship, and life. Elton Trueblood, a Quaker Theologian once said, “If you have the reality then nothing else is required, if you do not have the reality nothing else will suffice.” What this means is that the reality of faith and life is found in Jesus. Just as Peter said, “To whom can we go?” The reality is that they found more in the life and lifestyle of Christ, in that relationship with Christ than they had found anywhere else. Why would they leave? When Jesus would later say, “Abide in me,” they would begin to understand what the meaning of even these hard teachings would be.
It was not that they needed to eat the flesh or eat the sacred bread that represented the manna of ancient days. It was that they needed to take on the life and lifestyle of Jesus. The needed to reflect that life and lifestyle in all they would do. They needed to die to themselves and let the life of Jesus reflect through them. As Paul would say, “I no longer live but Christ lives through me.” This is eating the flesh of Christ. It is becoming what we eat or consume. If they consume the life and lifestyle of Christ, they begin to reflect him. When they eat of his holy wisdom, the essential ingredients of that wisdom seep out of their bodies, it is in their sweat, in their blood, it provides sheen to their hair. Just like the things we eat in our flesh. When we eat garlic, everyone knows we have eaten garlic. Do people know you have been partaking of the lifestyle of Christ?
About 370 years ago, Fox and other seekers began what we now know as the Society of Friends, or the Friends Church. When they began their meetings for worship they sought to only require the essentials of faith, the things necessary. They observed the traditions and practices of the Churches of their day and they saw many things that caused their hearts to grieve. One being that children and adults were baptized and nothing changed. Another was that people participated in communion services and lived their lives however they wanted. They looked at these things and looked at the teachings of Christ, and they realized that there must be more to faith than just eating bread and drinking wine. And if there is more to it than that behind the symbol is more important than the symbol itself. They studied scripture and they realized that if the symbol of the lord’s supper was so important that Paul would say, “for all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” This means that if there is a symbol that means something more, and our lifestyle does not reflect the deeper meaning we have caused harm to ourselves and the meeting. To partake of the symbols of Christ, means we must reflect Christ and if we reflect Christ anyway the symbols are only there to remind us to continue.
Do we need these symbols? The truth is when we gather together to worship, we as a corporate body encourage one another to take on the lifestyle of Christ. It does not matter if it is a Catholic Church, Baptist church, or a Meeting of Friends. It does not matter if there are sacramental elements or if there are cookies and coffee. When we meet, we encourage, and it is that encouragement that keeps us going. It is the coming together as people of faith that keeps us focused on the life and lifestyle of Christ, and together we help one another discern if we are living the life we say we are living. It comes in the forms of discussion, queries, singing of hymns and praise songs. It comes in a prayer, and in a smile. We partake of Christ when we come together to worship and listen to the wisdom of the spirit expressed through people emboldened by the spirit. That is why we are here and why we have stayed. It is the relationships we have with one another that have helped us through or trials and helped us see Christ through the mystery of life. Even though we may have different understandings, or different ideas each of us in our own way show each other Christ.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, I encourage us to consider what we are showing each other and those around us. Are people seeing Christ or are they seeing us? Can people tell that even if we are broken in some way that we have been feasting on the lifestyle of Christ? In our brokenness and in our trials, in our pain and in our pleasures do we say like Peter, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
John 6:51–58 (NRSV)
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So 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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
I have mentioned several times over the past few years that I love to study the bible. There are times that if a friend sends me a text message I will unknowingly write a ten-page term paper on the meaning of a word in Greek that just opened scripture to reveal something I had not fully realized. At times these friends would not expect the enthusiasm and would find themselves trying to figure out how the deeper meaning of bread might possibly coincide with a question of when I am scheduled tomorrow, or if I would be interested in going to an event. If you are wondering how it might possibly tie in, it does not. I just get supper excited about studying at times and it just gushes out.
There is a problem with the study of scripture. Sometimes there are some strange passages. Like Ezekiel’s wheel, or Daniel’s vision of the statue of gold, bronze, silver and stone. Then there is this passage. At first look this passage is almost scary. Imagine if you were an upstanding member of the Jewish religious community, and you had just listened to this statement from a charismatic traveling Rabbi. You hear him speak of the manna of ancient days, and how He is like that bread that came from heaven. You understood that to an extent, because even the prophets spoke of the Messiah as possibly providing miraculous bread like that epic era. You remember that Jesus just days before demonstrated the power over foodstuffs and could multiply a meal fit for one small boy to feed thousands.
You are hanging on his every word, he has you hanging there on every syllable. You hear bread of life and those that eat will not hunger. You begin to salivate for this bread because there are days where you have not eaten a full day’s ration because you may not have earned enough one day to feed fully feed your family. I hear never hunger and you think, “yes this is the guy I want to follow. I will do what ever he needs me too because then I would not have to worry about anything.” But then he gets even better. Not only does he say he is the bread, but he says believe in me and you will never be thirsty! And you remember that one time the disciples told you about, where Jesus turned one hundred and eighty gallons of water into wine. This was not just any water, it was the dirty water used for washing your hands, and he made it into the best wine anyone had tasted. If he could do that what else could he do.
Jesus has the crowd at this point. He has their complete attention and sure there are some people grumbling about the manna reference, and you understand why they are grumbling, because what today resemble such an amazing thing such as daily food for a forty-year stretch. I mean really Moses had a good record, and Jesus has only been teaching for a couple of years. Sure, he has some good statistics but a few thousand people eating bread and fish is nothing like feeding a nation for forty years. So, you guard yourself a bit. What does Jesus have to say?
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…” You are leaning in closer. Just moments ago, he said that you would not go hungry, now he said you will live forever. You are really getting into this presentation, and you are beginning to wonder if he is going to hand out some samples. You might be thinking how much of this bread you must eat to get the full effect, is it just one meal or is it like a week worth? Or is it something you must eat everyday for this everlasting life and if you continually eat it you will not age. What if you eat too much will it make you younger? If that is the case how much would you have to eat return to your prime condition? You are dreaming and licking your lips and getting ready to be the first in line after Jesus begins to bless this bread, when Jesus finishes taking a breath and begins to speak again.
“…and the bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Everyone is silent. Even Jesus paused at this time. Your eyebrows raise, and you look up and ask yourself, “Did he just say flesh.” You look over to your brother who was standing next to you and he turns to you at the same instant. Your sister whips her head around to look at you both, each expression reflecting the same questioning gaze. “DID HE JUST SAY FLESH?”
After a few moments there is a rumble in the crowd, first it begins with those among the religious orders and it spreads. Your own tongue finally loosens a bit, and everyone is asking, “Flesh? How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” How indeed. Even the mention of this is probably the greatest taboo that could possibly be imagined. To the faithful members of Israel, it is criminal to take a life, even if the life was taken in self-defense there are social and civil consequences to contend with. To be in the presence of a dead body would make you ceremonially unclean to the point you could not attend worship for a set amount of time. The thought of consuming the flesh of another human being is unthinkable, to even mention the concept is beyond sickening. But Jesus does not stop.
“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.” And he does not stop there, he continues this same theme four more times. To repeat something once usually means it important, to repeat it a third time means you better not forget this, to repeat it that many times means that this is probably the most important thing Jesus has ever said.
Think about it for a moment, imagine yourself in the sandals of these first century people. It was against the laws of Moses to consume the blood of an animal, because the life of that animal is sacred, and life to them was found in the blood. If it was unlawful for them to consume the blood of even the most sacred of all animals, why would they possibly consider the consumption of the life force of a human being?
And this is where Jesus began to lose his followers. In fact, so many departed that later in this chapter Jesus looks directly at his twelve closest friends and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” Bible study is the most exciting and often the most challenging task to pursue. After 2000 years we still struggle with this passage. Some take the words quite literally; the whole concept of Transubstantiation revolves around this passage. And that concept is that when the Mass is performed the bread and wine offered at the alter literally and miraculously become the body and blood of Jesus. And when you participate in that worship you are literally consume and are given the very life found in Jesus. This is a teaching within the universal church, and it is this teaching that started some of the greatest persecutions of Christians in ancient times.
In the centuries following the assention of Christ there were several points that caused the pagan majority to oppose the teachings of the disciples, the first was there was no idol, so they believed that Christians were atheists, because they did not revere a physical god. The second and probably the most problematic was that many caught a mention of this passage, the practice of the followers of this religion, and they believed that the followers of Christ were eating someone during their worship. It did not help the situation a bit that the practices of many of those ancient churches was to close the doors during this most intimate portion of worship and only allowed confirmed and baptized members in, to participate and observe these rituals. So, it was a seen as a sacred secret, and the imagination would go wild trying to connect the scriptures to the perceived practices. We have the privilege of 2000 years of history to know what went on behind those closed doors, and we have the scripture printed before us in digital and paper format, and in languages we understand so we can see into the mystery.
We can see into the mystery but even still the mystery remains. I am not here to speak on the correct theological understanding of the elements or means of grace. Every denomination within the church has their own understanding of this and quite frankly I find many of their statements both inspiring and lame. I even say this considering our own traditions because if we are focused only on the tradition we can often lose sight of the reality behind and within. We can get so caught up in our traditions that we, like the Jews or dissenters of ancient times, can miss the true life-giving message from Jesus. And if our traditions do not give life or promote a changed life they should be questioned.
What do I think Jesus is saying? I believe Jesus is being sarcastic, humorous, edgy, and shocking. He is giving them each a hard reset to their religious thinking. I mentioned last week that it was at this point that the gospel writer of John began to use the reference of the Jews as an indicator, not of anti-Semitism, but as an indication of division. That division is between those that follow the teachings of Jesus and those that held to the traditions of the established religious orders (the Jews). Jesus is saying in such shocking terminology that you are what you eat. Or more accurately you reflect the things you consume.
Last week we looked at the idea of bread in depth. The bread Jesus was speaking about was not the everyday bread made from cheap grains, but it was the sacred breads made from the costlier grains, the lighter grains like wheat. It was the bread that the head of a family would break and bless to begin their weekly sabbath meal. It was the bread that sat on the table before the alter in the temple. It was the bread that most closely resembled the color of that mysterious bread the ancient Israelites consumed in the wilderness, manna. We spoke about how the name manna has a root in the question What? And when Jesus said that he was the bread, he turned that question of complaining what is it, to the excitement of WHAT IS THIS? It is the difference of a child forced to eat broccoli and the response of the same child opening their Christmas gift. The same word, what, is used. But the punctuation behind the word is different.
The idea around bread is that bread is the staple of life, basically if you do not have bread you will not live and if you have bread you will survive another day. So, bread is the essence of life. Jesus is saying he is life, if you do not have what he freely offers you do not live. If you do not share what Jesus has to offer you do not promote life in any form. Bread is life.
Jesus takes this one step beyond bread, and he brings it to the flesh. Yes, the words he uses here actually mean flesh, the soft meaty parts of your body. There is not another possible translation associated with this, it is as creepy and gross as it looks and sounds. Jesus is saying that his flesh is life. And if you do not take his life and consume it you will not have life. But the question that remains is if this is literal or figurative? And what that means either way? You are what you consume.
His flesh gives life. But this word flesh begins this testimony of John as well.
John 1:1–5, 14 (NRSV)
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The Word was with God in the beginning and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh. Repeating words are important. In the first segment of this gospel, Word is mentioned four times. In the very first sentence it is mentioned three times. Word is an important word, it carries with it knowledge and wisdom. Which means that this wisdom of God was there in the beginning, it was with God, and this essence of divine wisdom was God. This wisdom created everything, and in this wisdom was life. And that life was light to all people. Light is also mentioned several times and it represents revelation, or divine revelation. This revelation shines in the darkness, which represents chaos and sin, and darkness did not overcome it. And that this essence of divine wisdom was not only an abstract concept but a personality. A personality that had form, that became flesh, and lived among humankind.
This flesh that Jesus speaks, is the incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us. It is the wisdom of God that dwells among us, it is the revelation of God, that is made most perfect in the incarnation of the one that is being reveled. You are what you consume, Jesus says. In the desert your ancestors consumed manna, but it did not fully satisfy because they were complaining, and grumbling people filled with darkness and unwilling to see the light. If we were to read the testimony of Moses, we would see that they grumbled nearly every step of the way for those forty years. All we have is bread, couldn’t we have some meat occasionally? The grumbling got so bad that Moses himself got fed up with the people and struck the rock to give them water and complained himself. That complaining became a darkness that consumed them. And the Jews of which John speaks are the people that chose to identify with the grumbling wanderers instead of the people of hope that eventually stepped foot in the land of promise. Of all the people that left Egypt only two entered the land, all the others died in the desert. Those two were the one that stood before Israel and said as for me and my household we believe in God. Joshua and Caleb, the two that looked at the people of Canna and plagued with fear but filled hope. They were people of light and not darkness. And the name Joshua means God saves, which is the Hebrew equivalent of Jesus.
Jesus is the wisdom of God in flesh, he is the light or the revelation of God in flesh, he is life and all that believe in him have life. You are what you eat, you are what you consume, and what you consume will either fill you with light or darkness. It will either give life or death. I ask are we feeding the light? There is an old native American proverb about the two wolves that live inside everyone, one that seeks to do good, and the other evil. You become the wolf that you feed. This proverb is filled with truth because truth is always truth. If we are filling our lives, if we are consuming the thing of this world that promote love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control we are consuming what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. These are also the things that promote life, that give life, and make life worth living. This life is the light of God, that shines in the darkness, which is the light that comes from the Word of God which was made flesh in Jesus. If we are consuming these things we are consuming the flesh of Christ, we are participating in the life of Christ because we are what we eat.
But if we are feeding the other wolf? If we feed on darkness we are consuming the pods of the adversary: hate, sorrow, conflict, annoyance, malice, depravity, disloyalty, callousness, and indulgence. These things may satisfy us for a moment, but they choke life. They sow the seeds of death not only in our individual souls, but in our communities and our world. When we promote faithfulness, we promote companionship and mutual respect those around us, when we promote disloyalty we are always seeking our own interests and often that comes at the expense of others. When we live at the expense of others this breeds conflict, and other seeds of the pod. When we live in companionship and mutual respect we will encourage the growth of fruit. Life gives life, and death breeds death. You are what you eat.
Jesus says these things in many ways at many different times. He once said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. A small and insignificant seed, the smallest of seeds used by the farmers of Israel, yet that small seed grows to something great. The kingdom of God is like a treasure, it is like a pearl, its like a sower sowing seeds in a field. Both fruit and pods have seeds, that will grow and take hold in the soils of life. The meaning of life is found in the seed. It goes into the soil, it grows, it matures, it reproduces, and bears fruit, then it dies, and the fruit it bears begins the cycle again. We are what we eat, we are what we consume, and what we consume promotes life or death. The flesh of Christ is the revelation of God dwelling among us, it is the wisdom and teaching of all the laws and all the oracles of the prophets lived out in complete perfection for us. Jesus God made flesh, came to dwell with us, he lived a complete life for us, he died to take on the wages of our sin, he was buried to overcome our separation from God, and he rose again to give us life through him. Jesus is the seed of life, he is the bread of life, he is the source of life, and he is the essences of life. Without him there is nothing but the pods of the adversary. Fleeting moments that bring momentary pleasure but no joy. Will you consume fruit or pods? Will you bask in the light or shiver in the darkness? Will you promote life or hasten death?
John 6:35 (NRSV)
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
John 6:41–51 (NRSV)
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 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. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Over the course of the past month I personally have been focused almost exclusively on the imagery we find in scripture. This is largely a result of being the Elder for our Area for the past six years. This year we wrestled with the ideas surrounding the use of the sign, symbols, mysteries, or traditions of the Christian faith. The thing about these discussions and the debates is that most fail to dive into the greatest mystery involved. By in large the arguments have only focused on the superficial and surface of the symbols.
This portion of John is the turning point in Jesus’s ministry. Prior to this there was some resistance to the message Jesus was presenting but after this there was an organized effort to silence him. It is from this chapter on that the Gospel writer, John, begins to refer to those that oppose Jesus as “the Jews.” This is not insignificant, and it is not antisemitic as many scholars have attempted to say. John is simply identifying the division of faith. There are those that remain loyal to the traveling teacher known as Jesus, and there are those that hold to the safety of tradition and heritage. The reason for this revolves around one small statement uttered by Jesus, I am the Bread. We might not quite understand why this is such a scandalous statement, but that is because we were not Hebrews from the first century.
Bread is an interesting substance. In human civilizations a form of bread is a staple of life. I say a form because bread, the cooked combination of grain flour and water, is found in nearly every meal around the world. It might come in a loaf sliced in convenient and uniform sizes placed in a bag, it might come in the form of a noodle topped with a sauce. It may have been fermented and allowed to rise or it might be one of several varieties of flat breads like a pita or a tortilla. Bread, even if you adhere to a low carb diet, is a staple of life. Bread is clearly important, so important that even in the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples, he says that we should be unashamed to asked that God our Father in Heaven provide this most basic need of life.
Bread is not only the foundation of life, but it is the symbol of our livelihood. In our American culture there is a clique about bringing home the bacon. This saying is a testimony of wealth and the ability to provide for one’s family. In most cultures bacon would not be used in the statement, but bread. The fact that bacon is used in our society is because we as a collective whole are wealthy enough to have an addition of meat to our diet. Of course, at the time this saying emerged bringing home the bacon was a luxury. Meat was a blessing, a benefit, because the profit of our labors provided enough to buy bread and allowed for the addition of meat even dire economic situations. To have bread means we will survive another day. Our existence is secure because we can obtain the basic substance to sustain life. Give us this day our daily bread, not only means feed us but allow us to provide what is necessary to take care of the needs of our families and our communities.
Bread has an even deeper meaning than just survival and livelihood, it also denotes blessing. And it is this point that Jesus faces opposition. The word used to speak of bread in this sense is not just the bread of survival, which was often made of barley flour, but this was bread of blessing made from wheat. Again, our culture has an inability to understand the significance of this simply because our bread is predominately manufactured with wheat flour and the breads baked using other grains is often seen as a luxury. We pay more for rye bread, when rye in many places is a flour of poverty. But this bread of blessing, was something reserved for special occasions and purposes. This bread was the bread that was placed on the table before the Lord in the temple, it was the bread that was often reserved for the sabbath meal, it was the bread that reminded the people of Israel that God provides. It was placed in this high place because the color of wheat bread more closely resembled the color of manna.
This bread of blessing was important because is there to remind Israel that they were not alone, but they were the children of Abraham. It also reminds them that they are not self-sufficient, that it is from the hand of God that they have their hope and their blessing not solely from their human efforts. This bread of blessing with its fair hue, pointed them back to the wilderness where their ancestors relied on God for absolutely everything. It was the blessing of God that sustained them through the forty years of wandering. It was the blessing of God that gave them the land of promise. It was the blessing of God that provided for their return to this land after exile. It was a blessing from God that they were alive because without God Israel would have ceased to exist and their heritage would be bleached bones under the sands of a desert. Every sabbath day the head of the household would stand before the family and bless the bread and break it. Not just out of thanksgiving but out of deep remembrance of the blessing and promise that God gave to those that had gone before them. They would bless the bread out of the longing and hope for the generations that would go beyond them. They would bless the bread with the focus of Immanuel God with us, where they would be His people and He would be their God not just in name but in a fulfilled reality.
The significance of this bread goes very deep. It is what sustains and gave life to Israel. It is what connected them to God. It is what provided their identity as God’s people. It is what provided their purpose. For forty years the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness and they existed by eating manna. They survived on this substance that came every morning provided them with nourishment and vanished. They would go out and gather just enough for their family each day, and if they tried to gather more it would spoil by the next morning. So, every day they would gather this substance and make bread. Every day again and again they ate manna a heavenly substance provided by the hand of God. And on the 6th day and only on the 6th day they could gather a double portion, so they could honor their God by resting on the 7th. Every day for forty years God provided for Israel, up to the day they crossed over the Jordan and entered the land He had promised to their fathers.
God provided for them. God blessed them, yet Israel was not thankful. They grumbled in the wilderness. They complained that the only thing they had was bread made for manna. In fact, the very name manna has an almost negative name. Manna literally means, what is it. Israel woke up seeing this blessing and the only thing they could say is, “What is it?” They grumbled. This substance that was providing for their every need to survive just appeared every morning and they respond not with thanksgiving but with grumblings.
What is it? That is the mystery of manna, but it is not only the mystery of manna but life. Jesus once said that the kingdom of God is like a seed. By saying that Jesus is saying that the answers to life and the universe are found in the very grains that provide for the sustaining of life. In so many words Jesus was saying that the answers to what is it are found in bread. What is it, that gives life? What is it, that provides success? What is it, that gives us meaning and purpose? What is it, that provides satisfaction? What is life? Life is simple it is wrapped up in a seed. It is wrapped up in a mysterious substance that fell from the heavens. Life is bread.
Jesus stood before his countrymen that day and he said, “I am the Bread of life.” When Jesus made this statement, he was using the form of bread that directed everyone’s attention to this sacred bread, this bread of blessing. Jesus is not simply saying I am the substance that keeps you going, but I am the very meaning and purpose of life. He is saying that he is life. That he is the very one that gives life and without him we are bleached bones covered in the desert sands. He is saying I am the substance you honor when you leave bread on the table in the temple. He is the one that provided for and is the source of their heritage and their future. Jesus is THE BREAD!
Can you see why this was the turning point, the point of division between the disciples of Jesus and the Jews? By Jesus saying that he was the bread, he is saying that all their honor and worship from the time of Moses, was directed to him. He is saying that He is the source of their life, their blessing, their honor, their purpose, and their very existence. Everything they have is because of him. Everything they hope to have is through him. Everything they once had was because of him. And everything they lost was because they rejected him the very What of life.
And the gospel writer says, “the Jews grumbled (or complained).” They said, “WHAT?” They said we know who this guy is, we know his parents, we even know where he came from. We are not followers of him, we follow Moses. They grumbled just as their ancestors did in the wilderness, because they could not understand what was before them. They understood what was behind them, they understood slavery and bondage. They understood torment and suffering. They understood being set apart and persecuted. They understood being strangers in a strange land, being challenged around every corner of history just to survive as a people. They understood that sticking together and keeping their traditions had sustained them through the darkest days and has even to this day. It sustained them through the bondage in Egypt, through the exile in Babylon, it held them together through the furnaces and the chambers of the camps, it has given them hope through the wars and the negotiated peace. They have survived, their survival has come with a cost. They still wander, and they wonder what. They still look for messiah. And some have been looking so long that they have decided that messiah is not a person but a state of mind, and they wander. They bless the bread according to tradition and they ask what.
When John speaks of the Jews, yes, he is speaking of those that oppose Jesus, those that oppress the disciples, but he is also speaking of those that miss the answer to the ultimate question. They are not to be hated, they are not to be pitied either. They are that perpetual statement in human existence that God’s promises are true. God has protected the children of Israel, he has sustained them and provided for their livelihoods, he has even blessed them abundantly. He has done this so that they as a group within humanity will be a light to the rest of the world, and a beacon of hope. But it is not because of them, but Him. They wandered through the wilderness eating the blessing of God, knowing that man does not live by bread alone, but on the Word of God. God said he would feed them and he did. And as he fed them they asked what? They wandered and eventually they settled in the land given to them by the very hand of God, promised by the Word that was spoken to their father Abraham, and they continued to ask what? They turned from their provider and God, they chased after other gods, the gods of other nations that knew nothing of the one true God and Israel continued to ask what? They were conquered because of their rejection of God and they ask what. God brought them back to the land and even came and lived among them after the exile and they grumble and ask yet again what? God has kept Israel because they are very human, and through them He could reveal himself. They have always been just enough. The entire world knows Israel, but it has only ever been a nation of just enough. It is a tiny nation yet has just enough. Just enough power to remain, just enough influence to survive. Even when they have been hated and persecuted they maintained just enough. They maintain just enough what, bread. They have maintained just enough bread to survive and remain, and they will always have just enough to remain a testimony that God will not forget even though we might.
But just enough was not the plan that God had for Israel. His plan was that they were to be a light to the nations. That they were to be a blessing to all people. God told Abraham that his descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky, and grains of sand. Is that a promise of just enough? The promise of Israel comes not from the people of the promise but the person who was promised. It was through the one from Israel that the light would come. It was this promised one who would answer the question of what. I am the bead of life, who ever eats of me will never hunger. Jesus stood before his countrymen that day, after feeding a multitude, and said these words. He stood there after they had seen God provide bread through him, and he said I am the Bread. It is through Jesus that we find our hope and our answers. It is not through the following of traditions and rules of the past or the present, but Jesus. It is Jesus that answers the questions. It is Jesus who gives us meaning and purpose. It is Jesus that sustains us and gives us a hope for a future. And when Jesus becomes our life, we no longer ask what in confusion, but exclaim what as a child opening a gift on Christmas.
There is so much packed in such a simple thing. All it is, is bread. That simple substance that sustains life. Yet that little slice of bread also provides so much more. What is life? It is bread. A bologna sandwich when we have too much to do. It contains pumpkin to celebrate. It is flattened and covered with sauce and cheese to celebrate the win. It is the gift to someone in sorrow. It is covered with peanut butter and honey to bring pleasure and grilled with cheese to bring comfort. Life is what? Life is the sharing of bread with others. Bread is more than a ceremony, or a meal, bread is life and hope. Bread is Jesus, who came down from heaven becoming man so that he could take us back to God. Jesus is bread, because he is our source and meaning of true life.
This all brings me back to those many conversations I have had over the years. The conversations I have had with brothers and sister of Christ of different faith traditions that ask why we believe the way we believe. The conversations we have among ourselves as to why we believe what we believe. The debates that I have had with people that say we must practice our faith in a certain manner for it to be true and authentic faith, and those that want to say if we practice it in a certain manner we cease to be who we are. When I study and observe my faith, when I read about the explanations of faith passed down from those that first started and those that have carried on the society we call Friends. I believe that they had and still have it right. All of life is a sacrament. And that is because All that gives life is Jesus. Everything that sustains us is a direct blessing from God and should be used to express our gratitude of him, as well as to extend that hope we find to others. Life is a mystery, an ever-present question of what, but we find those answers when we look to Jesus. He is the bread of life, that cannot be contained in a slice or a wafer but can only be experience in every moment of every day. Our ever-present question became our ever-present answer. And what? Became WHAT!