1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; John 6:56-69
As we return one more time to the sixth chapter of John, once again the sermon topic is bread. One gospel commentator has said that, “John’s gospel is noted not only for its poetry, its high Christology and its rich metaphorical imagery, but also for its redundancy.”[i] This chapter certainly makes that point.
It is tempting to just say “enough of all of this bread talk”—I read somewhere that many preachers have confessed that, when this gospel comes around every three years, they choose to preach from the Old Testament or the Epistle! In fact, I have heard more than one of my clergy colleagues moan this week about coming up with something new to say about bread.
This year I decided we would make a deep dive into the bread metaphor and really explore the meanings of this most central rite of our faith. We have focused on the Eucharist for the last few weeks, culminating in last week’s Instructed Eucharist.
So this week is about wrapping it up—about asking, “so what?” A good place to start that summation is with the first clear point made in today’s passage: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Taken at face value, this is a shocking statement. Anyone unfamiliar with Christianity who read this passage would be sure that we were cannibals!
And lest we think that our sensibilities are different from those who first heard these words, remember that Levitical law forbids observant Jews from drinking the blood of a slaughtered animal, so the image Jesus presents would be particularly repugnant in that community.[ii]
Our discomfort with this idea makes us quickly jump to a metaphorical understanding—“He didn’t really mean they should eat his flesh and drink his blood; he just wanted to drive his point home.” I have to say that I have been pretty comfortable with that interpretation; it feels much more logical, not to mention more tasteful. (After all, we are Episcopalians!)
But the problem with that interpretation of Christ’s words is that they leave out the divine. If Jesus’ death for us—his giving of his flesh and blood—was just metaphorical, then perhaps there is no reason to believe he was divine. But we say each week that Jesus was God; if we fully embrace Christ’s divinity, then we have to take him at his word—particularly the word that is repeated over and over. And we should expect that he might say and do things that were foreign to us—that made no sense to our rational minds.
As John unfolds here the meaning of the Last Supper, and of Christ’s death and resurrection, we see a pattern. A paradox winds its way through the whole of John: that which gives itself away for others to consume does not perish but persists, even increases.[iii] We see it earlier in this chapter in the bread fragments gathered after the feeding of the 5,000, which amount to more than the loaves first offered. We see it in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus in the third chapter, when Nicodemus questions how one can be born again, and Jesus replies that it is possible through water and the Spirit. And we see it in the promises from Jesus that he can give his flesh to be eaten and yet continue to exist because he is God.[iv]
All of this helps us remember, that ours is an Incarnate God. God came down to earth as one of us—flesh and blood, just like us. This too is an almost unbelievable idea. God chose to meet us in the flesh. Consuming Christ’s body and blood is an incarnational, and visceral reminder of that truth.
And the incarnational presence of God also reminds us that being a follower of Christ is not just an intellectual pursuit. We are called to be active—not to just sit in the pew, but to come forward to Christ’s table, to accept and ingest Christ, and then to go forth from this place to live into that embodiment of Christ.
That is the other big point that comes out of this morning’s gospel. In verse 64 Jesus says, “Among you there are some who do not believe,” and then in verse 66 we read, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Jesus lays down the gauntlet, in a sense. He explains that his death—and the invitation through the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood to become partners with him in that death, in order to also become eternal in Christ—he explains that this is what it is all about.
The Eucharist is about declaring that we want what Jesus offers. It is about embracing the way of love, about declaring that we want to be subject to God and God’s world, and not the powers and principalities of this world. It is about making a choice to follow Christ—to believe this amazing story, to cling to the hope that Jesus offers, to do and embody things that seem counter intuitive and counter cultural.
And the Eucharist is a very tangible way we make that declaration, in not in theoretical, abstract way, but in a conscious, deliberate act. And through our belief and our declarations that we will take the path of love, of respect, of dignity, of truth, the very real bread and wine become in some mysterious way the body and blood of Christ, and therefore a very real incarnation of Christ in us. If we will dare to open ourselves to the grace of God in Christ, we will be transformed by the eating of these elements—sometimes in very big, profound ways, and more often in small almost imperceptible ways. And that transformation is real. It is tangible. And it is forever.
“Our memorial feast of bread and wine joins us with the living Christ, who is forever—and thus joined to him, we are forever.”[v] Thanks be to God, for the gifts of bread and wine, and even more for the gift of Jesus Christ. Amen.
[i] Willimon, William H. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 357.
[ii] Ibid, p. 359.
[iii] Fredrickson, David E. “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John,” Word & World, Volume XVII, Number 1, Winter 1997, p. 41.
[v] Sparks, G. Benjamin. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 358.