John 6:35, 41-51
35 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.” 42 They 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’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 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. 45 It 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. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (NRSV)
I Am the Bread
I’m an author. I’m not a published author, but I’m confident I’ll get there someday. I’ve written a confirmation book, a children’s book, two Young Adult High Fantasies, and a New Adult High Fantasy. I have ideas for other novels, too. They’re percolating in the back of my mind. I’ve got a contemporary fiction idea, a Young Adult Historical-Magical fantasy idea, a New Adult Contemporary fantasy idea, a New Adult Science-Fiction idea, and a Middle Grade fantasy idea. And I’ll get to them, eventually.
I love to write. I love that I get to design these worlds, these characters, and these stories. I get to build these things from the ground up. And it feels awesome when people read them and say, “Wow, that’s really good!”
It might not seem like it, but writing is hard work. I didn’t know how hard it could be until I experienced writers block. I had churned out two rough drafts of a series totaling about 170,000 words in six and a half months. I thought I was doing pretty well. So on to book three. It started off well enough. I got several thousand words written. But, quite suddenly, it all came to a crashing stop. Writers block had set in. I didn’t know where to go next. I didn’t know how to proceed. I poured over my scene notes, but I was stuck.
At first, I was frustrated. I kept sitting down to write, but nothing would come. I started to wonder why that was. I got curious and started asking questions. I examined my manuscript. I looked at the threads of plot and character, tension and conflict. And I realized something wasn’t right. There wasn’t enough tension to carry the story forward. My main character, as she was written at that time, was almost too perfect.
She’s a warrior. She’s talented. So she always won, except for the one place I conveniently needed her to lose. There was very little flaw in her character or vulnerability in her personality. She beat everybody up. She was awesome! But awesome is boring. The story needed tension, and the way to do that is to add conflict. I needed to give her some internal and external struggles that she would have to face.
So I went back to the beginning of the story and started adding those elements of tension throughout the first two books. It added depth and beauty to the story. When I had done this, my writers block was gone. I picked up where I had stopped writing in book three and knew where to go. I finally finished the rough draft on May 24, seven months after I started the book. It took a long time.
What I learned from this experience is that my writers block was not result of a lack of ability to write. Rather, it was from the assumption that I had the story all figured out. The writers block made me stop to reconsider the whole thing.
This is a lot like our faith… And our doubts.
You may have heard the saying that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Instead, doubt is faith that is looking for a deeper understanding. I actually like the way Anne Lamott put it better. She wrote, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”
That’s counter to what we’ve always thought, though, isn’t it? We’ve always thought, perhaps even been taught, that certainty was faith in its most perfect form. But I don’t think that’s true for the majority of Christians. Sure, it may be true for some, but certainly not for all. I would assume that most of us struggle with faith. Some of us might prefer to be somewhere other than here on a Sunday morning. Some of us might think Christianity is too implausible to believe.
It isn’t always easy to believe this stuff. Especially when we read this text and find a Jesus who won’t answer our questions, but instead answers a question we didn’t ask.
Look at how Jesus teaches here in John 6. The people are murmuring about something they don’t understand. Jesus had said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” But that statement didn’t match the reality they had seen with their own eyes. They knew Jesus’ parents. Some of them probably knew Jesus as a little kid. How could he say that he came down from heaven? It didn’t make sense.
And so they grumbled. They complained.
Instead of clarifying things by answering the people’s concerns, Jesus muddies the waters even further. He chooses not to answer the question about how he could be both human and divine. Instead, he addresses the relationship between God’s grace and human free will.
Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” The thing is, that word in Greek which our Bible translators often render as “drawn” is actually a much more forceful, if not violent, word. This “drawing” of God is no gentle taking of the hand in order to woo us to Christ. In the truest sense, the word means “dragged.” This is a hog-tying. This is Mom, on a Monday morning, throwing back your covers and dragging you out of bed by your ear because you’re going to school whether you like it or not. This is compulsory. This is Captain Hook telling Wendy to walk the plank with a sword at her back. God the Father is going to drag our rear ends to Jesus. In some cases, God has already done so. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.
In saying, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me,” Jesus discredits any notion that we have come to him because of something we’ve done: our religious or philosophical insights, our economic or social status, nor—most of all, God help us, our choice. According to Jesus, this is how it works: God the Father dragged us to the feet of Jesus, bound and gagged, kicking and fighting, then threw us down and said, “I caught another one for you, Son. Teach it and give it a home.” The only choice we make is after God has dragged us where we didn’t want to go. We’re left blinking half-blind and confused by God’s overwhelming grace. We are saved by grace alone.
Think about what that means. Our doubt and confusion can seem like a mist or thick fog. It can feel foreboding. It can be downright distressing. It’s annoying. It makes us feel weak, even inadequate. Kind of like writers block.
But doubt can also force us to slow down and think about things. It can cause us to examine ourselves and our priorities. We can look at our story and see where we might need to tweak things. Tension is the thing that allows a story to move forward. Maybe our faith requires a little conflict, a little struggle, a little doubt, hesitancy, and tension, in order to grow beyond its current state of self-perceived perfection. (The thing with self-perceived perfection is that it’s usually very far from perfect).
So, in a sense, the very fact that the people were complaining because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” the fact that they’re asking Jesus questions, pressing him for answers to things that make no sense to them, is an odd proof of God’s grace. They wouldn’t be there at all if God had not dragged them to Jesus. The people found Jesus’ words to be incomprehensible, but it’s actually a reminder of how God is actively drawing them—dragging them—closer to Jesus.
There will always be things that we don’t understand. I’ve been reading the Bible since I was in elementary school. I’ve served as an appointed pastor since 2003. I minored in Religion in my undergraduate degree. I earned a Master of Divinity for my graduate degree. There’s still a lot I don’t understand. There will always be stuff I don’t get. But Jesus reminds us of what the Prophet Isaiah says, “And they shall all be taught by God.”
The thing is, we don’t have to see God to receive God’s grace. We don’t have to understand God, or comprehend the mysteries of the universe. In fact, it could be that the things we don’t understand, the complexities we fail to grasp, and the mysteries we question are the very evidence of God at work in us.
Jesus claims to be the living bread that came down from heaven. Then he says, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The teaching of Jesus takes an uncomfortably carnal turn.
Martin Luther once told his congregation, “I wish I could get you to pray the way my dog goes after meat.” It sounds crude, but it’s pretty funny if you think about it. When we read a story like this text, one of the problems we have with understanding it is that we think Christianity is spiritual. We long for spirituality, a spiritual experience. We want to transcend this earthly muck and mire. We want to ascend to some numinous, mystical plane where we can experience spirituality.
And let’s admit it, we like that idea. We want our God to be high and lofty, up there, in heaven. We want our religion to be spiritual.
The problem for Christians is that our faith isn’t about that. Our faith claims odd things like resurrection. We say in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe this piece of meat, this bag of flesh and bones, will be raised from the dead to live again. We eat bread, claiming it’s the body of Jesus. We drink wine saying it’s blood. We should roll in glitter and go to Twilight Saga conventions because we sound more like a bunch of cannibalistic vampires than anything else.
Spirituality? Christianity is a fleshy religion. We don’t need to climb up to the divine because the divine has climbed down to us. Our faith is incarnational. God took on the same flesh of our bodies and became one of us. God came to us through a birth canal. Have you ever heard of a God who would do that? That’s how much God loves us. God condescended to become human, to be with us, to live this human life in all of its carnal, fleshy grossness, all because God loves us.
So we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ our God. We taste, ingest, and digest. And in the process, we become recipients of grace. We exist in God’s presence. We abide in God’s never-failing love. Jesus is the bread we need, even if he’s rarely the bread we seek. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
You see, this is one of the reasons why I, as a pastor and as a person in desperate need of God’s grace, I wish we could celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday. It’s actually more Methodist to do so than to not. We need it, but not for the reasons we think. We think Holy Communion is special. We think it’s supposed to be a deeply spiritual moment. But the thing is, it’s not meant to be special or spiritual. We’re chewing up the flesh of Jesus and swallowing it. We’re chugging his blood. We’re supposed to go after Holy Communion like Martin Luther’s dogs going after meat.
Holy Communion is supposed to be the common, every-day food of Christian people. We need the flesh and blood. We need the bread and wine. We need the carnal, fleshly presence of God With Us. We need to be able to taste and see.
Even in the midst of our doubts, confusion, and questions, we can eat the living bread, and receive Jesus into ourselves. It isn’t very spiritual. It’s not mystical. But I would call it a mystery. God is a mystery. God’s action and activity are mysteries. Mysteries, by nature, can’t be explained. That’s why we end up with doubts and questions. But those doubts and questions don’t mean our faith is failing or faltering. They mean God is dragging us to Jesus, and we’re so overwhelmed by the gift that we can hardly believe.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).