Flesh | Proper 14

John 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 The Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

42 They asked, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

43 Jesus responded, “Don’t grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God. He has seen the Father. 47 I assure you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (CEB)

Flesh

One great difficulty with grasping the Gospel of John, at least for us post-modern, linear thinkers, is that John’s thought process—and therefore his writing—doesn’t match ours. We expect a somewhat linear format, but John presents his story in a format that seems to spiral and dance around the center-point. It’s almost a kind of poetry in the disguise of narrative prose. Another difficulty is that the Gospel seems to be written on two levels: physical and spiritual. Some interpreters tend to spiritualize the Gospel while discarding the physical as mere allegory for that deeper, spiritual meaning. Other interpreters tend to emphasize the physical aspects while holding the spiritual inuendo in a kind of uncomfortable tension. I’m of the mind that we need to pay attention to both sides of the debate.

John chapter 6 is especially difficult. Aside from immediate thoughts of cannibalism and wondering if we’re allowed to eat Jesus’ flesh grilled or fried with a little ketchup, how are we to understand Jesus’ words in verses 41-51? Specifically, how do we eat Jesus’ flesh? That’s one of the questions we’ll explore.

But, before we get there, we need to look at how this conversation even got started. After all, it’s weird, and starting in the middle of the conversation doesn’t help. Have you ever had a conversation that got kind of weird and stopped to say, How did we get to talking about this, anyway? Sometimes, to understand what we’re talking about, we have to go back and figure out how we started the conversation to begin with.

This conversation develops out of the events in verse 24 and following. That’s when the crowds began looking for Jesus after his disciples got into trouble during a storm on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus came to them, walking on the water. When the crowd found Jesus, they asked him how he got to Capernaum because they knew he hadn’t travelled in the boat with his disciples (c.f. 6:22). Jesus didn’t answer their question. Instead, he told the people why they were and were not looking for him. They weren’t looking for him because he had done a miraculous sign, but because they ate their fill of bread when he fed the 5,000. Then, he said, “Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. God the Father has confirmed him as his agent to give life” (John 6:27 CEB).

The people asked what they had to do to accomplish the work of God, and Jesus said they had to believe in the one whom God sent. Then, they asked what miraculous sign he would do so they could see and believe. After all, their ancestors ate bread from heaven. All Jesus gave them was a stomach-full of barley bread.

Note that this question kind of proves Jesus’ point that they hadn’t searched for him because he’d done a sign in the feeding of the 5,000. They’d just seen a sign. We were told earlier that a large crowd followed him because they’d seen the miraculous signs he’d done among the sick (6:2). It seems the people of this crowd had short-term memory loss. Or, somehow, they didn’t recognize the signs they had seen for what they were.

This is really the place where the conversation about bread begins. Jesus tells his questioners that it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven, but his father who gives the true bread from heaven. “The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33 CEB). The people’s response was, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” (John 6:34 CEB). That’s where our text picks up with verse 35, where Jesus said, “I am the bread of life…” (CEB).

The Jewish opposition, which is a different group from the crowds though they were likely mixed in among them, grumbled about Jesus because he said he is the bread of life. After all, some among their number were locals from Capernaum. They knew Jesus. They knew his father and his mother. They knew his identity and his origin. How could he say that he’s the bread that came down from heaven?

Jesus responds by telling them not to grumble. No one can come to him unless they’re drawn by the Father who sent him, and Jesus will raise them up on the last day. It’s curious that the word Jesus uses for drawn is found later in John 12, where Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me” (12:32 CEB). In John 6, Jesus says the Father draws people to him. In John 12, he says that he will draw people to himself. It might seem contradictory, except that we need to remember John 1, where we’re told, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1 CEB). Jesus the Word and God the Father are one God together (with the Holy Spirit).

When the Father draws people to Jesus, the Father is drawing them to God. When the death of Jesus on the cross draws people to himself, he’s drawing people to God. When held together with John 12:32, verse 6:44 does not suggest there are people the Father doesn’t draw. Rather, it emphasizes that everyone who comes to Jesus does so by the grace and prodding of God.

From that grace-filled prodding comes our action of listening and learning. When we listen and learn from God, we come to Jesus who was sent by God to raise us up at the last day. Jesus assures us that whoever believes has eternal life, and he is the bread of life. He’s a different kind of bread than the manna of the wilderness that their ancestors ate. That bread filled a physical need. They ate it, and they still died. Manna in the wilderness was a gift, but it wasn’t something that had eternal consequences. In fact, it only lasted for the day on which it was gathered (c.f. Exodus 16:20).

This bread, the bread of life which is Jesus, fills a whole lot more than a physical need. Whoever eats of the bread of life will never die. When Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51 CEB), what does he mean?

To Christians, there’s an obvious connection to the Sacrament of the Eucharist: the mystery in which we eat the bread and drink the grape juice (or wine), which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We can be sure that Jesus is referring to a physical act of eating because, in verse 54, Jesus changes the word he’s been using for eat from φάγῃ to τρώγων, which means chew, bite, chomp, gnaw, munch and includes an element of sound. It’s loud and abrasive like crunching your way through a bag of potato chips. My wife can’t stand the sound of other people chewing, but that’s exactly what Jesus says beginning in verse 54. Because of that word change, there’s no way to spiritualize our way out of the physicality of this.

At the same time, eating is used in Ezekiel and Revelation as a way of internalizing something. In Ezekiel, the prophet said: “Then I looked, and there in a hand stretched out to me was a scroll. He spread it open in front of me, and it was filled with writing on both sides, songs of mourning, lamentation, and doom. Then he said to me: Human one, eat this thing that you’ve found. Eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. He said to me: Human one, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you. So I ate it, and in my mouth it became as sweet as honey. Then he said to me: Human one, go! Go to the house of Israel and speak my words to them” (Ezekiel 2:9-3:4 CEB).

In Revelation, John the Seer recounts, “‘So I went to the angel and told him to give me the scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will make you sick to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. And it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it made my stomach churn. I was told, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings’” (Revelation 10:9-11 CEB).

In both of these texts, the prophets had to eat the scroll as a way of internalizing God’s word so they could speak it properly. Eating was a way of knowing. Psalm 34:8 tells us to “Taste and see how good the Lord is!” (CEB) as though God’s goodness is something we can sample and recognize.

In the Old Testament, salvation is often described in terms of eating. Isaiah 55 says, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live” (v.1-3b CEB). In Proverbs 9:5, Lady Wisdom invites us to “Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed” (CEB).

Life comes from eating and drinking, so it’s not surprising that such simple, life-giving acts would be used to describe the life-giving goodness of God and eternal life through belief in Jesus Christ. The bread Jesus gave for the life of the world was his flesh, nailed to a cross and killed. How do we eat the bread of Jesus, which is his flesh?

In one sense, we chew it in the Eucharist. We eat the flesh of Christ and take the grace of God into ourselves in a physical way. In another sense, eating is equated with believing in Jesus. We believe and, therefore, take God into ourselves—into our heart, mind, and soul—in a spiritual way. When we eat the living bread as Christ tells us we must do, then we will live forever. Jesus will raise us up on the last day.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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The Prophet | Proper 12

John 6:1-21

1 After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. 3 Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. 4 It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

5 Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” 6 Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.

7 Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”

8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, 9 “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. 12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.

14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

16 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. 17 They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. 18 The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. 20 He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading. (CEB)

The Prophet

As a kid, I remember watching Dr. J’s retirement season from basketball. I remember my mom telling me he was one of the greatest players ever, and that’s why he was being honored everywhere he played for the last time. I also watched Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas square off against each other in some of the greatest basketball games ever played. During the ‘80s decade, the NBA championship was won by either the Lakers, the Celtics, the 76ers, or the Pistons. I usually rooted for the Celtics because of Larry Bird. But I also pulled for the Pistons because my mom’s family is from Detroit, and Isaiah Thomas played for Indiana.

I don’t remember there being much of a question about what was next for professional basketball when Dr. J., Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas retired because Michael Jordan was already playing for the Bulls. And, he seemed to surpass everyone who came before him. I recall some speculation that Kobe Bryant might be the next Michael Jordan after Jordan’s second retirement in 1999. These days, people argue about who was the best player of all time, and Michael Jordan is always in that conversation. I think it’s because he was the greatest. He’s the standard against which every other player is measured. When a new great player comes along—and new great players are expected to come along—they’re always compared to the accomplishments of Michael Jordan.

The Jewish people had expectations, too. They expected that leaders would be raised up from among their people, and their measuring stick was Moses. During particularly difficult times, such as the years of Roman occupation, the expectation for such God-raised leadership grew to the point of desperation. We know from a few passages of Scripture that several hopefuls had risen, and that was also expected to continue happening (c.f. Acts 5:34-39; Matthew 24:11; Mark 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1-2).

You see, for the average Jewish peasant, Jesus was the hope of the day. More than that, he’d been doing these signs of healing the sick and diseased. The people saw these signs, and they dared to hope that Jesus was the next great-one. But for many among the Jewish leadership, Jesus was yet another probably-false prophet coming to make a splash before getting crushed by the Romans, and taking a whole lot of poor, hopeful innocents with him. To them, Jesus was someone they were skeptical of from day one because false prophets seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.

When Jesus returned to Galilee from Jerusalem, he crossed the Sea and a large crowd followed him because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. We’re told that it was close to the time for the Jewish festival of Passover, and that might be a clue to who this crowd of people were. Passover was a pilgrimage festival: a time when the people were expected to travel to Jerusalem to sacrifice their family’s Passover Lamb at the Temple. Because these people who followed Jesus hadn’t gone to Jerusalem, this crowd might well have been made up of those who were too poor to travel and pay for lodging and a lamb during such festivals. If that’s the case, then they couldn’t fulfill their religious obligations because they were too poor to do so. Their poverty kept them from participating fully in their Jewish faith.

The mention of Passover also points us to Moses. It’s a subtle reminder of Israel’s past, and the promise that God would raise up leaders for the people. The story that follows is meant to show us that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.

Jesus went up a mountain and sat with his disciples, probably teaching them. When he looked up, he saw a large crowd coming toward him. Jesus asked the question, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” The Gospel writer gives us an insiders-view of the question by telling us that it’s a test and that Jesus already knew what he was going to do.

Philip, the project feasibility disciple, gave the crowd a once-over, did some quick math, and determined that more than half a year’s salary wouldn’t be enough to give so many people even a small bite. Andrew, the resource management disciple, had already taken inventory and reported that a youth had five barley loaves and two fish, but that obviously wouldn’t feed this many people.

With neither of those answers sufficing, Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down. There were about five-thousand of them. Then, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks to God, and distributed it to the people. Then, he did the same with the fish. In this story, Jesus, himself, is the one who served the people. Every person got as much as they wanted. When everyone was sighing with satisfied bellies, Jesus had the disciples gather up the leftovers, “so that nothing will be wasted.”

Now, we don’t know what became of the leftovers. Maybe each of the Twelve Disciples got a carry-out basket. Maybe the saying that “nothing will be wasted” is meant to show that the leftovers of the world, whether they’re food or people like those in the crowd, are important enough to be gathered in rather than abandoned. Jesus showed over and again that he loves and cares for the people that the rest of society had abandoned. This action begs certain questions.

How will we care for the “leftovers” of Mount Vernon and beyond? How will we care for the people who’ve been abandoned and even wounded by our social structures? Rugged Individualism might be an American ideal, but it is absolutely NOT a Christian one. Jesus took care of people, especially the poor and outcast. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we must do the same. Of course, that begs another question: Do we really want to be disciples of Jesus? And, while I assume most of us would say, Yes, we should consider whether we’re willing to examine the fullness of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and, maybe—probably—change our hearts and lives so we better reflect the meaning of discipleship. Repentance is something everyone needs to do, all the time.

When the people saw what Jesus had done, that he had accomplished something miraculous and beyond explanation, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world” (John 6:14 CEB). The people were so excited that that they were about to come and make Jesus their king by force. So, Jesus took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

Earlier, I said that the Jews expected leadership, and I said that the reference to Passover—in one sense—points to Moses. When the people responded by saying, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world,” what did they mean? John chapter 1 gives us part of the answer. When John was baptizing, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask John who he was.

And we’re told, “John confessed (he didn’t deny but confessed), ‘I’m not the Christ.’

They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’

John said, ‘I’m not.’

‘Are you the prophet?’

John answered, ‘No.’

They asked, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

John replied, ‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight, just as the prophet Isaiah said.’

Those sent by the Pharisees asked, ‘Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’

John answered, ‘I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps’” (John. 1:20-27 CEB).

The reason people expected the Christ, which comes from the Greek word for Messiah, is because the prophets spoke of one who would come from the line of King David. (c.f. Isaiah 9, 11, 53; Jeremiah 23, 33; Zechariah 3, 6). After all, God had promised David that someone from David’s line would be king forever (c.f. 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89:34-37; Daniel 2:44).

The reason the people expected Elijah to come is because the prophet Malachi said that Elijah would be sent before The Day of the Lord arrives (c.f. Malachi 4:5). The prophets spoke of The Day of the Lord as a time of terror when the Lord would redress the world for its evil (c.f. Isaiah 13, 24; Ezekiel 30; Joel; Amos 5; Obadiah; Zephaniah), and the idea was well-known to the New Testament writers (c.f. Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 5; 1 Thessalonians 5; 2 Thessalonians 2; 2 Peter 3). Sometimes it’s referred to as Judgment Day.

The reason the people expected “The Prophet” is because of what God promised the people of Israel through Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to” (CEB).

So, there was, at least, a three-fold expectation. The Messiah, Elijah, and The Prophet Like Moses were expected to come and start to right the world’s and Israel’s wrongs. When Jesus did this sign, the people identified him as The Prophet Like Moses who was coming into the world, and they were ready to make him king. But, as Jesus told Pilate before he was crucified, the kingdom of Jesus is not of this world (c.f. John 18:36).

The account of Jesus walking on the water pushed the matter of Jesus’ identity even further. Jesus’ disciples tried to cross the lake when a storm swept in and drove them three or four miles out from shore. The disciples saw Jesus coming toward them, and they were afraid. Jesus said, “I Am. Don’t be afraid” (John 6:20b CEB). The disciples wanted to take Jesus into the boat, and suddenly they reached the land where they had been heading. The event is reminiscent of when Moses led the Hebrews safely through the sea. This phrase used by Jesus, “I Am” is significant because it’s what the Lord told Moses to say to the Hebrews while they were still slaves in Egypt: “Tell them I Am has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14 CEB).

One thing this text tells us is that Jesus fulfills the expectation of Messiah and The Prophet. And it pushes our faith further by identifying Jesus as I Am. It ties together what John told us in the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:1, 14 CEB).

We’re also reminded that what is broken should be gathered rather than discarded, because not even that which is broken should go to waste. And, again, part of me wonders if this isn’t, in some way, an analogy for broken and hurting people. Either way, I think those twelve baskets of leftovers remind us that, beyond the 5,000 who were satisfied, there are more hungry bellies that need to be fed. And a basket for each disciple suggests that God has given the disciples of Jesus enough resources to feed and satisfy those who are in need.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay