August 15, 2021 Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost The text is John 6: 51-58.
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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the days before the DVR and Hulu, before binge-watching, we were forced to view our favorite TV shows one weekly episode at a time. And just before the new episode began, a narrator reviewed what happened for us the prior week. If this happened today it would be something like; “previously on ‘Game of Thrones’” … or “last week on ‘Downton Abbey’” … This was done so the viewer is brought up to date with what has transpired before, so we can make sense out of what is to come next. This isn’t a bad approach to take when analyzing scripture, since many biblical stories tend to be part of a larger narrtive. So, before we delve into this morning’s gospel lesson, let’s take a look at what’s happened “previously in the gospel of John”.
Earlier, a crowd of 5,000 people followed Jesus and his disciples to the mountain, eager to hear what he was to teach. Jesus saw that the people were hungry and asked Phillip, “how are we to buy food for all these?” We read about the young boy in the crowd who had five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus blessed the bread, miraculously fed the 5,000 people, and even had 12 basketfuls left over. We’ve already examined the ramifications of these “leftovers” of God’s grace that we all benefit from. Then, later that evening the disciples left the shore of the Sea of Galilee in a small boat, rowing toward Capernaum. Jesus “missed the boat” so to speak, so naturally, he just walked on the water for three or four miles in order to meet up with them. John tells us that the disciples were “terrified” at this vison of Jesus walking on the water. I think seeing this we would all be scared witless. I mean, even after witnessing 5,000 people eating their fill from only five loaves of Wonder bread, the sight of our rabbi, our teacher, strolling across the lake would be slightly alarming at the least; we would be “terrified”, indeed. Not wishing to be overly dramatic at his announcement of this obviously impossible-to-believe miracle, Jesus matter-of-factly reassures them, “It is I”; as if walking on water was the most natural thing in the world. This is the first of the several “I am” statements that Jesus makes in John’s gospel, thus validating his divinity.
Then the crowd follows Jesus and his disciples across the sea to Capernaum, where Jesus teaches them about the manna that God provided when Moses led the people through the wilderness. And he tells them about the true bread from heaven, which is provided by God; after which the people ask Jesus if they may have it always. Then, he drops the big one, “I am the bread of life”, and unlike the ancient manna, those who partake of this bread of heaven will never die.
While at Capernaum Jesus is asked by the crowd “what sign are you going to give us so that we believe in you?” Now, John tells us that this crowd is more or less the same group of 5,000 that were fed a few hours earlier. Jesus had already performed two rather impressive miracles. Most of the assembled crowd has witnessed these, and yet they ask “what sign will you give?”
“What?” I’m sure Jesus wants to say something to them like, “I’ve fed 5,000 of you with a couple of barley loaves, with leftovers! Then I walked on water; hello! Did I mention I walked on water, and still you ask me for a sign?” But Jesus knows that the teaching he gives this day is a matter of eternal life and death, so he decides to first try the subtle approach. He remains patient with the people because it’s absolutely imperative that they understand precisely what it is that Jesus is bringing to them.
Every verse in John’s gospel so far leads up to this point, and culminates in the next few lines Jesus speaks. In the first fifty or so verses in this chapter in John’s gospel, the words “bread” or “loaves” appear nineteen times…nineteen! As a metaphor for his message of salvation, Jesus uses the most basic food in the peoples’ diet; common, ordinary bread. Throughout these portions of John’s gospel, Jesus tells the people they must come to him and they will never be hungry. Next, they need to believe in him, and then finally, eat of the bread of heaven. Jesus has been employing the bread allegory throughout the first 58 verses of John’s gospel. Yet, the multitude is struggling with this imagery; so, he abandons all pretense of subtlety and tells them they must eat of his flesh and drink his blood if they are to have eternal life. This is pretty intense stuff for first century Jews, who have spent their lives attempting to live under the Law of Moses. And one of the strongest decrees, found several times in the Hebrew Bible is the commandment against the eating of blood. In fact, they were prohibited from eating animal meat that had any blood remaining in it after cooking. No “medium-rare” steaks for faithful Jews in Jesus’ time.
The Greek word for “eat,” as used by John in the earlier verses is “esthio”, and simply refers to the act of consuming, or eating a meal. This morning’s reading uses the Greek word “trogo”. This verb is usually used to describe the way an animal feeds, and means to “munch” or “gnaw at”. It conveys a sense of raw hunger, urgency, and necessity. It’s a matter of eat to live, or die of starvation. Jesus is telling the people that it’s crucial that they partake of this “heavenly bread”, his very body. He wants them to know that eating this “bread of heaven”, that believing Jesus is the way to eternal life, is eating, munching, gnawing as though their lives depend on it…because they do!
It’s no coincidence that John quotes Jesus telling the people that they must eat the flesh of the Son of Man. If we go all the way back to the first chapter in John’s gospel, we read that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. Belief that Jesus is the Christ, represented by the eating of the bread of heaven; the “taking in” of Jesus’ very body, his earthly incarnation, is the means necessary for gaining a life which never ends. Those who eat only worldly bread, the stuff of barley or wheat and water and yeast, these will be sustained for the day, but they will ultimately die. But those who partake of the “bread of heaven” that is Christ Jesus, will obtain the spiritual food that leads to everlasting life. Jesus tells the crowd that if they do partake of his flesh (and blood) he will abide in them and they in him. That’s why he was so urgent in his message, so insistent that the people understand what is at stake, and how important it is that they come to believe. Because he knows that once they accept the truth of who he is, and acknowledge what he represents, their very lives will be saved.
Those same television shows which reviewed previous episodes also generally offered a glimpse of what will be shown the following week. If we do the same with this morning’s lesson we might discover that much has changed since Jesus walked among the people; yet much remains the same. It’s been two thousand years since Jesus taught the crowds in person, yet we today are blessed with the ability to read and “gnaw” on those very same lessons. People still need to eat worldly bread of some sort to sustain our earthly lives; although this may take the form of McNuggets, or sushi, or French fries. And we modern folks still need the “bread from heaven”, Christ’s body and blood; we might even say that we need it even more than our ancestors. Our world today is certainly more complex, sophisticated, and often confusing than it was in the Middle East in the first century. But there remains simple truth in ordinary things. Bread may be basic and uncomplicated, yet the constant need for it to satisfy us continues unabated. But how much more are we in need of the “bread of heaven”? To have Jesus abide within us, to engage in a righteous relationship with God the father, through our belief in Christ the Son?
To navigate our demanding and frustrating world, to remain true to ourselves and faithful to our God, we must continually partake of the gifts that God provides. Perhaps when Jesus responded to the disciples’ request to teach them to pray, he had this in mind. When our Lord Jesus tells us to ask God to give us each day “our daily bread”, I’m sure he was referring to both kinds, worldly and heavenly. We should ask our Father to provide for us what we need to physically survive in the world. But we should also humbly ask that God sends to our hearts each moment of each day, our “heavenly bread”. For without Christ Jesus abiding within us, we are lost. We find ourselves lacking, and yearning for, the “bread of heaven”. As hard as we may work, as much as we save, as often as we go to the store to buy a loaf, we are unable to secure the “bread from heaven” for ourselves. That bread which takes the form of Jesus within us, can only be provided from God the Father through his grace.
Back in Capernaum when Jesus first told the crowd that there is bread that comes down from heaven, they asked of him, “sir, give us this bread always”. When we ask today, in the form of prayer to be given this bread always, we can be assured that it will always be provided. God keeps God’s promises. While earthly bread may become unfit to eat because of mold or staleness, the “bread from heaven”, the abiding spirit of Christ within us will never spoil; this “bread” will always be fresh and is always readily available. It will sustain us body and soul, now and throughout eternity. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that in this morning’s gospel Jesus is giving a non-too-subtle preview of what was to become the institution of Holy Communion, the Eucharist. And, thanks be to God, it’s right here right now, waiting for us to come to the Lord’s Table and partake of Christ’s body and blood ourselves.
Jesus told the crowd 2,000 years ago, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. And Martin Luther tells us that in the Eucharist, Jesus is truly present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. We who partake of these earthly elements truly take within us, the body and blood of this Jesus, the true “bread from heaven”.
Jesus assures us that he abides within us always. So, whenever we look inward, we should be watchful for signs of how Christ’s spirit is at work within us. More importantly, when we cast our gaze outward, towards the others we encounter in our lives, we need to remember that the heavenly bread, the spirit of Jesus is within them as well. When the pharisees asked Jesus; “what was the greatest commandment”, he said, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. Then, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. This second instruction might prove to be easier to obey if we stop and consider this; if we acknowledge that Jesus abides within our neighbor as well as in us, then when we love that neighbor, we show our adoration for the Christ that abides within them.
As we go forth into the world this week, let us remind ourselves to look for the “bread of heaven”, the spirit of Christ Jesus abiding in those we meet. Hopefully then, we will act more compassionately toward the others we encounter, with the knowledge that we are interacting with Jesus, the “bread of life” within them.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, you sent your Son, Jesus, to us, to secure for your children eternal life. Help us to always yearn for the salvation his body and blood provide. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the “Bread of Heaven” to whose Holy Table we are now invited. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.