Dry Bread, or Fresh?
Week of Sunday 23 August
Gospel: John 6:56-69
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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.' 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?' 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.'
66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?' 68Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. No one comes to the Father except by me...
I think this is the central thing of John 6. We've spent so much time talking about bread these last weeks, that things can begin to crumble for the full time preacher- what else can we say about this topic? The bread, in the end, all points to Jesus. Jesus feeds us with the 5,000. Jesus is the bread. Slowly the dough is firming up for that great statement in Chapter 14, No one comes to the father but by me.
Jesus is clearly putting himself above Moses. He calls himself the bread of heaven, "not like that which your ancestors ate and died." In contrast he was sent by the "living father," who gives him life. That statement was guaranteed to offend any Jewish listener!
The offence of flesh and blood also continues in the excerpt for this week; Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. It's a terrible pun, at least in the English, which heightens the insult and offence of the challenge to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
The pun may continue. Some see that skleros the word for the hard teaching has an overtone of dry in the Greek. Jerome H. Neyrey suggests the translation ‘this teaching is "stale" and therefore hard to chew or eat.' (The Gospel of John CUP 2007 pp 131)
In shows like The Chaser, serious commentary on human affairs is being made. It is laced with offence and ridicule, perhaps as a kind of shock tactic to wake people up. Is John "doing a Chaser" here? In the context of the story, even some of Jesus own followers have had enough!
John's fellow Christians are Jesus followers. John is hardly writing a dry historical dissertation about what Jesus did. The offence is meant to shock John's fellow Christians, as well. After all, how tempting it would be to think that there is a special knowledge of God. We are the ones who know. We understand. "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is useless."
The symbol of Christ, the eucharist, is made into a tame symbol when we become over-confident about our spiritual knowledge. When we become overconfident that we are living "in the eon," in eternal life that is now, we risk being like the Jewish traditionalists who were complacent in their status as children of Abraham, fed by manna.
Into any nice spiritualized huddle of his fellow Christians, or of our own, John lobs a raw symbol of flesh and blood, fresh bread claiming to be much more than manna. Access to the spiritual can only be maintained by rude, constant connection with the physical.
We baked the bread in church last Sunday, as I intended. We were all struck by the power and immediacy of the fresh loaf, still steaming as I broke it open during the communion, and then hot in our hands. "I kept thinking, Fresh, fresh, fresh..." one of the lay preachers said to me, afterward.
After church, one of the blokes mentioned how the smell of the bread reminded him of the bakery he smells as he rides to work. I cross his work route. Neither of us knows exactly where the bakery is. However, if conditions are right, I ride past the wetlands, through a whiffs of cool fish tank. Further up the hill this fades under the warm, stable aroma of the horse paddocks; although now the manure is hidden under the flat pungency of marshmallow. Near the brow of the hill, the smell of bakery rolls across to the park, through the traffic of Grand Junction road, heavenly and delicious, mingling with the smells of earth.
I said at the beginning, that despite all the emphasis on bread, Jesus is the point of the chapter. Jesus is the one. If we are to be Christian, we follow Jesus. If we are to "live into the eternal," it is through Jesus our pioneer, through following him. But he is not some heavenly, ethereal Jesus. He is Jesus who is bread, earthy and raw, feeding the poor.
We only live into the eternal through, and by staying connected with, that raw flesh and blood.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!