By the Rev. Darren Miner
The Gospel lesson begins with one of the most amazing claims 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 just isn’t true. For one thing, Jesus is not literally made of bread. And for another, history shows that Jesus’ followers have, in fact, suffered physical hunger and thirst.
Of course, Jesus is not speaking literally, but metaphorically. And it is our task today to interpret that metaphor, to unpack it. 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 just 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, toys, 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 figuratively. So rather that attack his claim 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. 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, just as he claims.
Jesus responds to the invincible ignorance of his audience with these words: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” In other words, either God did not call them, or they refused God’s call. Now, when I returned to the Church some twenty-seven years ago, I thought at the time that the decision was wholly mine. I felt a spiritual need. I decided to visit an Episcopal church. I decided to stay and live as a Christian. But what Jesus is telling us is that something more is going on behind the scenes whenever someone “decides” to be a Christian. Our seemingly autonomous decision is really no more than a response to God’s gentle, yet persuasive, call. And for those who do respond to God’s call and who come to believe, there is the promise of eternal life.
Now, when we hear the word “believe,” we think of a statement of fact that we are being asked to accept. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about in this Gospel reading. It might be more accurate to say that we are being asked to “trust.” Admittedly, that’s not always easy for us to do. When we are sick, it’s hard to trust God. When a loved one dies, it’s hard to trust God. When we don’t know where our next meal is coming from, it’s hard to trust God. But Jesus never said it would be easy! He just said that the reward for such trust would be exceedingly great.
Jesus goes on to say to his Jewish audience, “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.” This statement must have sounded like a put-down of Moses. But the point 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 Jesus speaks. He is trying to tell them that something even more life-giving than holy manna stands right before them, someone even closer to God than Moses is addressing them at that very moment.
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.” This declaration is intended to jar. It is meant to disturb. Its very purpose is to shake up his audience. But we are so used to hearing about eating the Body of Christ in the context of the Eucharist that we fail to notice that Jesus is using cannibalism as a metaphor for receiving God’s grace! 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.
The fact that you all are here in church today instead of home watching TV tells me that you have heard God’s call and have responded in faith and trust. You know in your heart that Jesus is the source of life, and so you come week by week to partake of his Body and Blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion. You come week by week to hear Jesus’ life-giving message. Brothers and sisters, you are good to go! You are already heirs of eternal life in Christ Jesus.
But what about your family, your friends, your neighbors? How many of them are not good to go? How many of them are spiritually malnourished, starving for the bread that gives life to the world? I bet the answer is quite a few! And that, my friends, leads me to my final question: Are you brave enough to invite them here to partake of “the living bread that came down from heaven,” to eat of the very bread of life, to “taste and see that the Lord is good”? I certainly hope so—for their sake!
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.