Eaten by life
Week of Sunday August 9 - Pentecost 11
Bible: John 6:35, 41-51
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty….
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ 43Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; 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?’ 53So 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.
In John's sixth chapter he develops a complex symbol from the story of Jesus feeding of 5000 men. Bill Loader says
John has developed the symbol of bread... to the point where Jesus himself becomes the bread… As the healing of the blind man in John 9 points to Jesus as the light of the world (‘I am the light of the world’) and the raising of Lazarus in John 11 points to Jesus as the resurrection and the life (‘I am the resurrection and the life’), so here: Jesus declares, ‘I am the bread of life’ (6:35)… [It all builds to the message that in] effect, to relate to Jesus is to relate to God.
By the time we reach the reading of this week it is clear that the bread of the 5000 which is Jesus, is the same bread we call "the body of Christ" in the Communion service.
It is high poetry: 35bWhoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty….
It is full of promise: 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever [trusts I am the bread of life] has eternal life… 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.
There is warning which the church sometimes weaponises: 53Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you... And neither do you have this life in you if you use these verses to exclude people from the love of God.
It is contaminated with anger: The anti-Semitism of the church begins in John with his constant identification of the naysayers as "the Jews."
There is so much in John chapter six that the lectionary divides it up into 5 sections. It is always a challenge to those of us who preach the lectionary. And this year, I simply don't care.
I've returned home after 11 days away helping my Mum in the transition to aged care. Days of grief and fear, laughing so we wouldn't cry, and then crying anyway. My two sisters and wonderful wife and children took days off work, commuted down from the city, flew across the world and like me, sat up all hours working remotely over Mum's agonisingly slow internet connection. This week it continues up to the day of the shift, and then we face the sale of the house.
I came home last night with a van load of family history— some folders labelled with family names I've never heard—and ninety years of photos. There are little school certificates which are over eighty years old, sixty years of cards and newspaper clippings about her children and grandchildren, postcards to her mother from the first world war in France; a sumptuous gift bought for my daughter's PhD conferral, and then forgotten in the back of a wardrobe, theological works published only last year, and a desperate little collection of books about memory improvement.
And I am undone. From pastoral experience I know we have achieved a rare harmony as a family. I know we have done exceptionally well in difficult times. I know we will see this through. But I am undone. The arbitrary indignity of old age and dying dismisses the high mysticism of John with a guffaw of contempt.
Or does it?
When age and grief strip us of our dignity and our hard won humanity so that we do not know whether we are coming or going, so that we do not even know who we are—and the ravages of age are only one form of this agony—what remains? Not God. If our answer is, "God remains," our God is too small, too tame, and too much of our own imagining; we are not yet undone. To be undone is to lose our fragile connections to God. It is to have our theological pretentions crumble.
All that remains is people. There is nothing else. This is why naked capitalism and war are such a violence against God. They say other people do not matter but exist merely to be exploited. Yet people are all we have.
When we are undone, and can no longer be ourselves, God's only hands for us are the hands of others. The only real bread of life is people, people who are prepared in a small way—or much more— to be consumed by our need for care. People who exhaust themselves sorting out the finances we can no longer manage. Chaplains and nurses who learn self-defence so they can give of themselves. Folk who let their horizons be fenced in by years of caring.
If we do not eat this bread, if we do not consume this way of being and "become what we eat," unless we "eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, [we] have no life in [us]."
The self-preserving life which will not be consumed, which will not be bread for others, will still grow old and die.
49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. [But] 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.
This is not about Hebrews of an old dispensation versus the new Christians. This is about Homo sapiens learning to be human. We can all eat. There is almost always manna in the wilderness, unless we hoard and steal and kill. But life that is eternal, that has a quality beyond mere biological persistence, that is more than selfish genes… that life comes only when we allow ourselves to be consumed.
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!