By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let me begin with an admission: I like bread. I really like bread! Maybe that’s why today’s Gospel reading appeals to me so much. For the subject matter of Jesus’ teaching today is bread. The Gospel lesson begins with one of the most amazing statements in the Bible: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The statement is full of hope and promise, but on a literal level it is clearly untrue. Jesus is not literally made of bread, and Jesus’ followers may very well suffer physical hunger and thirst.
So, if Jesus is not speaking literally, how is he speaking? In a metaphor…in a metaphor that needs some unpacking. What Jesus is claiming is that he is the true source of spiritual nourishment, and that those who are fed by him will be spiritually filled. And folks, we humans, by our very nature, hunger and thirst for such spiritual nourishment, whether we realize it or not. When we are spiritually empty, we look to fill that emptiness with all kinds of things: money, property, food, drugs, alcohol, sex…the list goes on and on. But if we would fill the spiritual emptiness, we need only look to Jesus Christ. Through his teaching, we can be filled. Through his mediation with the Father on our behalf, we can be filled. Through the sacrament of his Body and Blood, we can be filled.
Now, Jesus’ original audience may not have fully understood what he was trying to say, but they knew that he was speaking in some kind of metaphor. So rather that criticize his statement that he is the bread of life, they focus on an earlier statement that he is the bread that came down from heaven. Here they feel they are on firm ground, for they know where Jesus came from. (Or at least they think they do!) They know his father and his mother, and his brothers and his sisters. But they don’t know what we know: Jesus is the Divine Word made flesh; he is God incarnate. So even though he was born of a woman and raised by an earthly father and had brothers and sisters, he is indeed from Heaven.
Jesus counters the complaining and grumbling of his audience with an explanation of their seemingly invincible spiritual ignorance. He says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” Now, when I returned to the Church twenty-five years ago, I thought at the time that the decision was wholly mine. I felt a spiritual need. I researched various religions and faith traditions. I decided to visit an Episcopal church. But what Jesus is telling us is that something more is going on behind the scenes when someone “decides” to be a Christian. Our so-called decision is really a response to God’s call. Note that Jesus says that the Father draws us to Jesus Christ. He does not compel us to go against our will. God lovingly whispers in our ear that there is so much more to life if only we would respond. And many do respond, but not all. For those who do respond to God’s call, there is the promise of eternal life, of a life lived in the Spirit that begins here and now and continues into Eternity.
Jesus goes on to claim, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” Well, looking at the spiritual state of the world, all I can say is that many have not yet heard from the Father. And many of those who have, have not learned from him. And that’s where we come in. It is our duty to continue to share the message of God’s love, so that more and more people can hear and learn from the Father and can draw near to his Son and be filled with the bread of life.
Again, we hear today that “whoever believes has eternal life.” When we hear the word “believe,” we think of a statement of fact that we are being asked to accept. And when we read the Nicene Creed each Sunday, we do indeed recite a laundry list of classical Christian beliefs. But that is not what Jesus is talking about here. It might be more accurate to translate this scripture as “whoever trusts has eternal life.” It is not that we are being asked to accept certain statements as true, so much as we are being asked to trust Jesus and to trust God. And you know what, that’s a harder thing to do sometimes than it is to believe the Creed. When we are sick, it is hard to trust God. When a loved one dies, it is hard to trust God. When we don’t know where our next meal is coming from, it is hard to trust God. Jesus didn’t say it was easy. He just said that the reward for such trust would be exceedingly great—life eternal.
In one respect and one respect alone, Jesus is like Donald Trump: he doesn’t care what people think about his words. We see this in Jesus’ next statement. He says, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” (One assumes that he is pointing to himself when he says, “This is the bread.”) To many in his audience, this statement must have sounded like a put-down of Moses. But the point of the contentious statement is not to disparage Moses and the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness, but to point to a new and greater experience of God that is being offered to them even as he speaks. Jesus is trying to tell them that something more life-giving than holy manna stands before them, someone even closer to God than Moses is addressing them at that very moment. If they would only eat of this new and improved bread of life, which is Jesus himself, they would be filled. And fortunately for us, this offer has not expired!
Jesus ends this part of his dialogue with his fellow Jews with this statement: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Wow—talk about mixed metaphors! We might be tempted to mark Jesus down a grade or two for using such an egregious mixed metaphor, but that would be to miss the whole point. This declaration is intended to jar. It is meant to disturb. Its very purpose is to perplex. We are so used to hearing about eating the Body of Christ in the context of the Eucharist that we fail to hear how shocking his statement truly is. Jesus is using cannibalism as a metaphor for accepting God’s offer of saving grace! (We will hear more about the cannibalism metaphor next week.) The point being made here is that Jesus’ whole purpose here on earth—beginning with his Incarnation and ending with his death and Resurrection—was dedicated to one single purpose: to give life to the world. And recall that in John’s Gospel, the word “world” refers specifically to those who are actively opposed to God. So, Jesus is saying that his mission was, and is, to give life eternal to those who previously had not been God’s friends. How’s that for divine generosity!
The fact that you are here today says to me that you have heard from the Father, you have been drawn to Jesus Christ, and you are willing to be taught by God. I have no doubt that you already know just how much grace God offers us in his holy Word and in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. So perhaps you don’t need to be reminded. But how many of your friends and neighbors haven’t heard about the spiritual nourishment that is Jesus Christ? How many don’t really trust in their heavenly Father? How many aren’t experiencing the fruits of eternal life in the here and now? I bet the answer is quite a few, which leads me to my final question: what are you going to do about it?
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.