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?