Sermon Given August 22, 2021
After five weeks, we have finally reached the end of the chapter referred to as the Bread of Life discourse. Chapter 6 of John is one of the few Gospel chapters which we hear almost in its entirety and what we hear might sound rather repetitive but each of these readings is only a piece of the whole. Ideally, we would read the entire chapter at one time, but the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary chose to divide the chapter into these five passages. So let’s look back on what we have heard during these past weeks. Chapter 6 follows a specific pattern: a miracle—first, Jesus feeding the five thousand in full view of that crowd and later, walking on the stormy sea, seen only by the disciples.
Next is the dialogue with the crowd—the people looking for Jesus because he had fed them. As we might expect, they were being very practical—it was so much easier to be provided for than to meet their own physical needs, but Jesus let them know that he had more for them than mere loaves and fish; he could give them the bread of life, but they weren’t interested—they wanted to see something concrete—proof that they would be fed in the only way that they understood what it means to be fed. Like the exiled Israelites who did not trust God to take care of them and grumbled against God over and over again, demanding water, food and physical safety, those in the crowd demand reassurance that Jesus would continue to feed them. Lest we get smug about their inability to understand what Jesus was offering them, remember that our understanding of the enormity of Jesus’ offering of himself, is shaped by 2000+ years of what it means to be a part of a Christian community. And we still don’t “get it” at times.
Finally, there was discourse with the crowd and the disciples. Jesus’ first discourse opens with” I am the bread of life,” What the people need for life is available in the person of Jesus. They hear the words but refuse to believe the meaning. It is too strange and he is too common to make such an offer. They can accept the fact that bread gives life, until Jesus identifies himself as that bread. It is just too much for them to comprehend. And when Jesus says: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them” he has lost them. These are among the words that the crowds found offensive. We are so used to hearing them and even singing them as we will in today’s recessional hymn, I am the Bread of Life, that we probably don’t spend much time thinking about them, but what about someone who hears them for the first time? Words can paint vivid and sometimes scary pictures.
When our daughter was around four years old, her pediatrician wanted her to have a blood test. Elizabeth was not pleased and for the next year, the word “blood” could not be spoken in our house. Blood became the “b” word. Bill and I became good at remembering to avoid the “b” word, but church presented a problem. Any mention of the “Blood of Christ” was grounds for a negative reaction. Her solution was to memorize the Eucharistic Prayer. At the appropriate point in the service, she would clap her hands over her ears—crisis averted—until the Sunday that the priest switched Eucharistic Prayers and the words were out of his mouth before she was able to cover her ears. Unfortunately, that was the very day that the then president of Murray State University—our boss—was seated behind us in church. To my horror, Elizabeth turned around and made the ugliest face. Bill and I had some explaining to do and an apology to make. Fortunately, she got over the “b” word crisis and life became a bit calmer. When she was able to understand (as best as any of us is able to understand) what was taking place during the Consecration and what those words meant, we no longer had to worry about making apologies. In a way, however, she was like that crowd that wanted no part of what Jesus was saying. But she was only four years old.
How about the disciples? They are adults. Surely, they will “get” what Jesus is saying. Afterall, they have followed him for several years. In the first line of today’s reading we hear: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” John uses the word abide throughout his Gospel. It is also translated as “remain”: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood remain in me and I in them.” To partake in Jesus as manna, as the bread of life, means remaining or abiding with Jesus. It is through this proximity that Jesus brings life to those who eat. But “abiding” with Jesus is difficult. Staying with Jesus and learning from him is a long process. Learning that Jesus was not offering an easy victory but rather, a long road to discipleship, must have been disappointing.
And all they can muster is a rather vague: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” This is probably a better response than saying: “Jesus is hallucinating” but not by much. John says that they “grumble”—the same word that is used to describe the response of the crowd. They have been with Jesus longer, but for many of them, their response is no better than the crowd. They haven’t learned much about Jesus. Instead of explaining what he was saying in more basic words, Jesus challenges them: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” Jesus’ question points to the entirety of his life from incarnation to death, to resurrection and ascension, Jesus doesn’t wait for an answer, but belief in the ascent of the Son of Man becomes the proving ground for the disciples’ faith. If they were going to follow him all the way, then they would have to give up their need to understand, agree or approve of everything that he did or said. They were going to have to believe him even when what he said offended them. This expectation transcends anything that the disciples have experienced and they walk away—they have failed the discipleship test.
So, who is left to follow Jesus? Jesus looks at the twelve, already knowing that one of them will betray him, and asks: “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter is probably confused by much of what Jesus says, but he has seen something in Jesus from which he cannot turn away. He has had a glimpse of God and if that means that he must struggle with a lot of things that he can’t understand, then he will continue to struggle. Peter responds to this difficult question: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have become to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The Twelve for whom Peter is the spokesperson are not smarter or more religious than those who turn aside. They are merely those “granted by the Father.” Faith in Jesus is impossible without God’s initiating will for the world but God’s will for human salvation is inclusive, not exclusive in intent. It is up to the disciples to choose whether to accept or reject the offer God has made to them in Jesus. They are free either to follow Jesus or to abandon him. Peter didn’t always get it right, but this time, his faith in Jesus has redeemed him.
So, what does all of this mean for us as we come together today to celebrate Eucharist? What image comes to mind? Do we see the disciples together at table with Jesus? Do we automatically think of the Last Supper—the image presented in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke as a part of the Passion? John’s Gospel includes eucharistic theology, but the way in which it is presented looks quite different than it does in the synoptic gospels. This is what we have heard in Chapter 6 over the past five weeks. For John, the eucharist does not belong exclusively to Jesus’ death, but rather, to all of Jesus’ life. When we partake of Jesus’ body and blood, we participate in all his life and gifts—we receive life through Jesus’ abiding presence. The Eucharist is not just a commemoration of Jesus’ death or a meal of community fellowship. It is feeding on and being fed by Jesus. The fellowship comes first from the mutual indwelling of Jesus and all who believe. Community is formed from those who share in Jesus’ presence.
But that is not the end of the story. We cannot partake in the Eucharist and then go back to living our lives in the same old way, either as individuals or as a community. Following Jesus has implications. It means that we stake our very lives on the bet that the promises of Jesus are real. It means that we extend to others the forgiveness that we ask for ourselves. It means that we are called to sign on to some values that push deeply against certain aspects of our self-serving societal culture. It means that we are willing to stand with people who can do nothing for us. It means that we live our lives centered around love and justice and not self-aggrandizement. It means that when we say “God loves you, no exceptions” we don’t write in an exclusion clause. It means that we seek fulfillment in community and mutuality with others rather than on our own. It means that we open ourselves to the grace of this sacrament.
Jesus is the bread of life. Some people think that they don’t need him. Others know that they can’t live without him. When Jesus asked the Twelve “Do you also wish to go away?’ may Peter’s response: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” also be our response. Amen.