Proverbs 9:16; Psalm 34:914; John 6:5158
On the Sundays in August this summer, the Gospel texts are taken from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. This chapter of John is referred to as Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse. Jesus says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.” To the uninitiated these are hard and confusing words.
But, like the rest of John’s Gospel, the Bread of Life Discourse is to be read not so much literally as it is a piece of poetry. Not in the expected sense with rhyming carefully metered verses. But poetry in the sense that, read or spoken, it fires the imagination and touches a deep place in the soul. John is not so interested as the other gospels in giving a detailed account of Jesus’ life, as he is in telling us more deeply who Jesus really is.
So we shouldn’t read John too literally or we’ll miss the point. Its truth is deeper, richer, more life sustaining, and more challenging than could ever be communicated by a literal rendering. Remember Nicodemus who is also in the cast of John’s Gospel. Jesus tells him he must be born again of water and Spirit. And Nicodemus is perplexed to figure out how a fully-grown person is to re-enter the womb and be born once again. In his literalness, he misses the point!
In this narrative where Jesus claims to be the Bread of Life and that the bread he gives for the life of the world is his flesh, the gospel writer is challenging us to go deep and ponder the relationships between who Jesus is in our lives, our deepest hunger and longing, flesh and blood, this world that we share together, and God.
Let’s take a minute to review what has already happened in this chapter of John’s gospel. It opens with the well-known story of Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish that belonged to a young boy in the crowd. You remember the details, the disciples can’t imagine how Jesus is going to pull this off, but low and behold not only is everyone fed; there are twelve full baskets left over. When the people saw what Jesus did, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” And they heard him say, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life. The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
In the gospel text read last Sunday, Jesus promises that anyone who eats of this bread will live forever and then he goes on to say that the bread that he shall give for the life of the world is his flesh. Pressing his point in today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
What are we to make of all this. Those of us who are regular church goers can get so used to hearing this type of talk that we forget how odd and off-putting it all sounds, even if it is supposed to be poetic in the resonating-deep-with-in-us kind of way! Perhaps some of you are visitors to this great Cathedral this morning and thought you were coming to mostly look at statues and stained glass and now find yourselves in the midst of this strange encounter with Jesus. You might be thinking this is more than you bargained for and that you should have gone to Mt. Vernon instead!
Or does this talk about the bread of life that comes from God really speak to the deepest longing of our souls, even if at the same time we can identify with what the disciples will say in next week’s Gospel, “This is a hard teaching, who can listen to it?”
While Jesus’ poetic talk might sound odd, hunger is a reality we know about. Perhaps for most of us that gnawing feeling in the stomach when we go without bread and other food is when we are attempting some new diet. For many more in the world, that gnawing hunger is the reality of daily life without enough to eat. But we also know about the hunger and deep longing of the soul. Maybe that is the real reason we’ve come here this morning. We’re hungry not for bread from the baker’s oven, but for bread that will feed the soul. It’s a hunger that I suspect resonates with most of us because ironically the soul’s hunger is often greatest among those of us whose stomachs are rarely ever hungry. This is the kind of hunger the Gospel writer is talking about here. A hunger for meaning and purpose in life. A hunger for spiritual connection with the human family, with creation, and with the very source of life. This is a hunger that no amount of food or material well-being is able to satiate. This is the hunger that Jesus, as the bread of life, promises to satisfy. This is a promise that is hard to embrace in our consumer-obsessed culture because it says that no food, no job, no wealth, no success, or title will ultimately satisfy the deep hunger of the soul.
However, before we think of Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse only in spiritual terms, it’s important to note that it begins with Jesus meeting the physical needs of the crowd. Peter Gomes, Harvard’s chaplain, writes, “Jesus feeds the hungry not with metaphors but with food, not with resolutions or commissions but with so much bread and fish that there is an abundance left over. He met the physical needs of his hearers in a generous and open hearted way so that their stomachs being full, the hunger of their hearts could be addressed.” As Christians in an affluent culture we’re called to do something definitive about the injustice of global poverty and hunger. Gomes reminds us that, “the hunger and poverty of this world are not signs of insufficient piety; they are signs that we continue to mismanage the resources that God has given us.”
How is it then that we’re nourished by this bread of eternal life that has come down from heaven? For most of us, it doesn’t happen all of a sudden. It’s a gift of grace freely offered. And in our accepting of that gift, a process begins of coming to know and trust Jesus. At this table, where all are welcome in the same way that Jesus welcomed all to his table, he invites us to take him into our lives and let him nourish us. Then he challenges us to go forth from this place as his Body of Christ, heeding his call to follow him. In other words, Jesus calls us to be his flesh and blood alive and active in the world. To follow him, to be his flesh and blood in the world is to become passionate about what he cares about because, as theologian Marcus Borg reminds us, in Jesus we know what God is passionate about.
You won’t find anywhere in the Bible Jesus saying that to be fed by the bread of life you must believe the following ten things. Such litmus tests crept into the life of the church much later. Jesus simply says follow me. “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus is passionate about tearing down the walls that divide the human family, and standing up to the powers and principalities—including those that claim to be religious—whenever they belie God’s just-ness and compassion in the world. To follow Jesus is to embrace a world in need because we see the face of God in every person including the ill, the homeless, the prisoner, the person of different faith and culture from self. That’s the life we were created for because that’s the life God is passionate about. Jesus invites us to feast on his body and blood freely given at the Eucharistic banquet and to allow him nourish us into the life of God’s one family.
Today at the Cathedral we celebrate the ministry of our sisters and brothers from the great state of Alaska. The mission statement from their Episcopal diocese beautifully describes a community of faith that seeks a life reflective of what Jesus cares passionately about. It reads, “We are a diverse body of Christians committed to respecting the customs, values and dignity of our many cultures, we are a voice for those who are powerless or unable to speak for themselves, a people of faith who embrace reason and open-mindedness and respect learning and questioning, we seek spiritual growth and strive to be good stewards of change. We expect justice and work for peace, while seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self.”
If the Spirit moves you, come to the Eucharistic feast, all are invited. Come trusting in Jesus’ poetic words that he is the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven. Come to him and be fed. Come to him to be strengthened. Then let us go forth from this magnificent place to be his body and blood alive in the world. And with our sisters and brothers from Alaska, let’s follow him in breaking down the walls that divide us, respecting the customs, values and dignity of the human family’s many cultures. Come to this banquet seeking strength to be a voice for those who are powerless and to be emboldened to demand justice and work for peace. Come to this banquet for the honesty to embrace reason and open-mindedness. Come to this banquet for the grace to seek and serve Christ is all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. Come to this banquet trusting that the bread of God that came down from heaven and gives life to the world will nourish the deepest longings of your soul.