Texts: Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
Thinking of Jesus’ “bread of life discourse” in this way helps us make sense of this otherwise strange and unsettling passage of scripture. Through that lens, we see how Jesus gives us life in the Eucharist. Just as the bread and wine literally nourishes us like any other food we eat, we understand how Jesus’ life, given for us, nourishes us spiritually, sustaining us through our journey on earth and connecting us to God, the source of all life.
Nevertheless, if we simplify the whole discourse into this singular interpretation of the Eucharist, we miss something of what Jesus is talking about. The crowds make the same mistake, but in a different direction. Because they interpret his word only literally they are unable to understand the good news Jesus is trying to bring. If we interpret his words only metaphorically in light of the Eucharist, we are not getting the whole picture, either.
There is a pun hidden underneath the English text of John’s gospel. In verse 60, the disciples grumble, saying: “this Word is difficult, who can accept it?” John uses the same word here as he does in the prologue to the gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1.1, 14a) Although the disciples are talking about the Jesus’ teaching, John is talking about Jesus himself: ‘This Word is difficult, who can listen to him?’
It is tempting to read this story and Peter’s confession as a kind of an ultimatum, not unlike the ultimatum offered in the first lesson from Joshua: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” We may come away from this text with the impression that being saved is all about making a one-time decision to believe Jesus. However, this is not what either Jesus or John have in mind.
Remember that this story begins with a feeding. 5000 people feasted on 5 loaves and two fish along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and twelve baskets full of crumbs were left. The formerly hungry crowd was so impressed by this that they sought to find Jesus again, hoping to make him their king so that they would never be hungry again. They walked around the sea to find Jesus in Capernaum because they believed that there could rely on him to feed them forever.
When they find him, Jesus offers them something more. “Do not work for the food that perishes,” he tells them, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Well, that sounds pretty good! “Sir, give us this bread always!” they ask, enthusiastically. When Jesus tells them that he is himself the bread of life, sent by God to give eternal life to the world, and that they need only eat and drink him, all of a sudden, they are not so trusting that Jesus can deliver what he has promised. “What sign will you give us, that we can believe you?” “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? How can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
The word “belief” mostly causes us to think of some tenet or idea that must be accepted, but in this story, to “believe” in Jesus means to trust him, to rely upon him. The crowds and even the disciples were quick enough to rely on him for food, to trust that he could multiply bread into infinite mountains of food, but they are unable to trust that he his life can give them life that has no end.
In the end, I think it is because they do not see Jesus as a person, but as a vending machine. He is a food source, a steady supply of calories to keep them alive until old age finally catches up with them. They want to make him a king because then they can be assured that his miracle-bread will always be available to them. But Jesus doesn’t want to be a vending machine; the Word of God made flesh didn’t come down from heaven to keep us alive, but to give us life. What Jesus understands—and what we sometimes don’t—is that those two things are not the same.
John’s gospel tells the story of how Jesus, the Word of God, came to his own, and his own did not know him. The Light of the World arrived in a world shrouded in darkness. John’s gospel describes how that Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Jesus says that he came so that people may have life, and have it abundantly. He is obviously not talking about the life that people already had, a life shrouded in darkness, ignorant of its own source. That kind of life is always lived in fear of death. It is tentative and defensive; it lashes out against perceived threats, using death as a weapon to defend against death.
The life Jesus offers is not fearful, not defensive. It is abundant and peaceful; it is generous because it knows that no matter how much it gives of itself, there is always more to be shared. This is the kind of life Jesus lived; a life that gave of itself even to the point of death, knowing that even the darkness of death cannot overcome the life that is the light of all people. The life Jesus offers is eternal because it is lived in connection to its source, like the branches which draw sustenance directly from the vine to which they are attached. Eternal life is eternal because it abides in God.
Jesus tells the disciples, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” The crowds wanted to Jesus to give them bread to sustain the lives they had, but Jesus instead wanted to give them himself so that they could abide in him and he in them, and so that through him, they might receive eternal life from God. The people come looking for a commodity, but instead Jesus offers them a relationship, an existence of mutual abiding.
The point Jesus wants to make here is simple: God’s eternal life is given to Jesus, and he shares it with us. But that simple point is also infinitely complex—so complex that it cannot be explained in a single chapter or book or library or even perhaps all the words ever written throughout history. It can only be explained in a person, and we can only be know it in relationship with that person. This is why the Word of God is not a book that fell from the sky or was whispered into the ear of a prophet, but a man born of a woman; a person who suffered and bled and wept like all of the rest of us, a human being of flesh and blood who had friends and enemies, who knew joy and laughter and sorrow and pain. God’s truth is too complex to be explained simply as the Bread of Life or the True Vine or the Living Water or the Good Shepherd or the Light of the World or the Lamb of God or the Armor or God or anything else; it can only be known in the Son of God.
It is that truth that gathers us in this community. It is that truth that changes us in baptism, and it is that truth that we eat at this table. It is that truth that strangely warms our hearts, that blows where it wills, that allows us to rejoice in these strange and disturbing words of John’s gospel. We do not fully understand this truth because we can’t understand it, but we do abide in it and it abides in us; and because it abides, the living truth of God—the Word of God—gives us eternal life.