Sermon given August 15, 2021
I’m going to give you a moment to close your eyes and to imagine one change that could make your life better right now.
Just one change that could make a difference.
What would it be?
You could take this little exercise in a few different directions. You could think of something long term and sweeping that impacts many people. Or you could think of something short term and limited to yourself.
If my kids imagined this, they may at first think of a Lego set with nearly 5,000 pieces or unlimited chicken nuggets. Or maybe their own private ocean out back with a sea turtle swimming around in it.
But given a little time for reflection, I’ll bet that most of us imagine things that satisfy our material needs, reduce our stress, or bring wider benefit to our world. We all have high stakes needs and desires that weigh on our minds.
When I did this exercise, the one change I thought of was a product of the tense weeks we’ve had planning for our kids to return to school during the Delta surge, ideally with masks on for their safety. My one change would be for everyone to start listening to credible scientists, researchers, and doctors about the pandemic. That one change could eliminate a lot of stress and suffering in our world.
It’s nothing new to live in a time of high stakes challenges and situations, although at the time of Jesus the challenges they faced appear more immediate and localized compared to our more global and existential threats today. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people lived under Roman occupation, paid hefty taxes to their occupiers, and often lacked enough to eat.
Bread was highly prized, and that only drove home the significance of God’s care and provision for Israel at the time of Moses. If these often hungry people could appreciate one thing, it was the security of God providing daily bread as the manna flatbreads fell from the sky each morning in generations past.
As the prophet who promised the daily bread of manna (among many other miracles), Moses occupied an unrivaled place in the history of the Jewish people. Prophets who couldn’t deliver bread on demand each morning weren’t going to reach higher esteem than Moses.
So although Jesus multiplied bread to feed the delighted multitudes, they still didn’t see him on the same level as Moses. Hadn’t Moses done this miracle on repeat? Even the quality of the bread from Moses seemed better—it was “heaven-direct bread.” Jesus merely multiplied bread made by human hands.
In the discussion leading up to today’s reading, we see how the people challenged Jesus to prove that he is better than Moses, that his bread is superior, and that they should keep following him. If he can’t keep delivering bread tomorrow and the next day, why should they stick around for a guy who doesn’t even measure up to Moses?
Jesus recognized their challenge, and he promptly took this conversation to another level. He didn’t leave the bread of life on the bottom shelf for them. Much like his obscure parables that challenged people to diligently seek their meaning, Jesus bewildered and offended them with a spiritual teaching that remains difficult for us to, well, digest, today.
What The Crowds Missed About Jesus
We can see some parallels between these crowds and the woman at the well from earlier in John’s Gospel. The woman was fixated on water and her daily chore to draw water from the well. The crowd was fixated on bread, the legacy of Moses, and miraculous signs.
Both initially missed the miraculous sign and the gift of God right in front of them. The living water and living bread of God was among them.
While both tried to debate about the past and to cling to their most immediate needs, Jesus challenged them to look harder at the significance of God’s salvation. Something or someone else had come down from heaven that was better than a bucket of water or a loaf of bread.
Just as Jesus offered the woman “living water” and just as Jesus spoke of bread in John 4 that satisfied his hunger and that his disciples didn’t know about, he also offered the life-giving and spiritually sustaining bread of himself to his Jewish listeners.
They were fixated on their practical concerns, and while Jesus didn’t condemn them for such needs, he did try to widen their gaze. It would be tragic to only work for temporary food or to only seek God in order to gain something that perishes so quickly like a loaf of bread.
Jesus said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life” (v. 27). The “work” he described is “to believe in the one sent by God” (v. 29).
Recognizing that Jesus came from heaven and had been sent by God the Father means you have eternal life both now and into eternity. You will also be raised up on the last day.
This is a big leap of faith for Jesus’ audience. They were told that this guy they’ve known all of their lives actually came down from heaven, offers something better than Moses, and is truly united with God. As they struggled to accept his message, Jesus only cranked up the heat.
In speaking of eating his body and drinking his blood, Jesus was possibly referencing the sacredness of a sacrificial life offered for the sake of others. David spoke of this when he refused to benefit from the risks his men took for him by drinking water they drew from an enemy occupied well. NT Wright, who has written a good bit more about this than I’m referencing, suggests that they needed to benefit from his sacrifice by receiving it like they would a meal.
Whatever we make of the finer points here, the general meaning isn’t necessarily too obscure. A few verses earlier Jesus said:
“all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” (v. 40)
And then in today’s passage he swaps out “see and believe” with “eat and drink.” The rewards are exactly the same:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (v. 54)
Jesus wants them to know that he is doing something more significant than Moses. He is going to offer himself for their benefit so that they can be united with God. By taking on our full humanity, as the Word of God becoming human and dwelling among us, Jesus sought to unite us with God—that is why he was sent in the first place.
Even if we can sort out some of Jesus’ reasoning, his words still perplex us.
Why Did Jesus Tell Them to Eat His Body?
By saying that his body is actual bread that we need to chew on and swallow and that his blood is a real drink that we need to consume in order to receive eternal life in the present and the future, Jesus is trying to jar us awake. He’s saying that whatever we think we need right now, we also badly need his life—we don’t even realize how badly we need it.
Yes, his listeners needed bread. He gave it to them too. He also told them to pray to God for their daily bread and that God is a good parent who will give his children bread when they ask for it. He knew their physical needs, he promised provision, and then he desperately tried to draw their attention to their spiritual needs.
As we look with anxiousness about whether we’ll ever be done with this pandemic while people resist the guidance of doctors and scientists, we can imagine Jesus saying that we also need the medicine he gives. He may even try to jar us today by saying he’s the shot that gives us life and freedom.
It was all too easy for his listeners to get wrapped up in their own daily priorities or to get fixated on their religious leaders or even the great religious leaders of the past. They were so impressed by Moses that they couldn’t clearly see the one who was greater than Moses.
While bread or a vaccine can solve a lot of life’s problems, our pursuit of them can remind us of our need for Jesus. Just as we can’t imagine going through a day without something to eat or our lives without modern medicine, Jesus asks us to bring an even greater energy to our pursuit of him.
He says that our work is simply to believe in him and to accept him. That belief each day will look a little different for each of us. It could be waiting in silent prayer for a set amount of time, a break in the afternoon to reset with a prayer book or a passage of scripture, or an evening spent in reflection or in a journal giving thanks for the day and entrusting tomorrow to God.
Jesus is asking us to do something that he calls “work” but in essence, it’s quite simple and restorative. It’s almost tongue in cheek for him to call “having faith in him” work.
It appears he’s saying that we work so hard for bread that’s only good for today, so why wouldn’t we work even harder to unite ourselves with him, the eternal bread that came down from heaven? Oh, and the catch is that the work we have to do for eternal bread is simply believing because this eternal bread is a pure gift of God’s grace.
Like the manna in the wilderness, we only have to look for what has already been freely given to us because of God’s gracious favor.
As we eat the bread and drink the wine this morning, we can also remember the real presence of Jesus among us and in this sacrament. The center of our worship, the point around which everything revolves isn’t anything I can preach or anything that we can pray. The center is Jesus, the living bread that gives us everlasting life that begins today and extends into eternity.
People have debated for centuries about the ways this passage applies to communion and the bread and wine we are about to receive. The Episcopal church believes that there is a real presence of Jesus among the bread and wine without getting into details beyond that.
I’m grateful for that simplicity because no matter what happens with the bread and the wine as they’re prayed over, the transformation that Jesus desires is in our lives. The point of his startling statements is to invite his listeners into a deeper dependence on him and a daily faith that borders on desperation for his sustaining presence.
We need bread and we need medicine, but we also need the loving restorative presence of Jesus in our lives. That presence of Jesus is right here for us if we simply trust in him. Our prayers don’t need to begin with words any more complicated than sharing with Jesus our love, our needs, and our gratitude.
Jesus is so close to us and so present with us, that inviting him into your life today is actually just as simple as picking up a piece of bread, dipping it in a cup of wine, and then eating it. Amen.