Preached at St. Mark’s Protestant Chapel, 19 August, 2009
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Psalm 111, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58
“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.” (John 6:51)
This morning I brought two items of food. One item is a loaf of bread, made at Guy and Marie’s French bakery in Kingston. The other item is a bag of Doritos that I bought at the grocery store.
Here’s the first question – if you were hungry and I said you could choose one, which one would you rather eat?
Here’s the second question – from a health and nutrition point of view, which one do you think would be better for you? That’s a loaded question. While the Doritos might be emotionally satisfying if you needed some comfort food, with all their additives and preservatives, and with their caloric content, they would be a poor second to a home-made loaf of wholegrain bread with all natural ingredients. Likewise, as a processed food, the Doritos might not leave you filling full and satisfied for long, whereas your stomach would take longer to digest the wholegrain bread and you would be more satisfied.
Here’s a third question – in what context would you see yourself eating either of these items?
The Doritos would be very convenient – you could eat them right out of the bag while at your desk or while watching TV. But generally, as with fast food, they are made for convenience, for eating on the go. (By the way, I cam across a 2006 figure from the Culinary Institute of North America that says North Americans eat 19% of their meals and snacks inside their cars - (By the way, I cam across a 2006 figure from the Culinary Institute of North America that says North Americans eat 19% of their meals and snacks inside their cars. While they can be shared, it’s not a food that invites sharing (although again, if you’re eating them in your car, chances are you’re alone since 77% of Canadian commuters drive alone – same source).
The bread isn’t that convenient. You need a knife, a cutting board, perhaps some butter, and why not a stove or a microwave, since bread is always best hot? If you’re going to all that trouble, why not have some friends over for a meal? Good idea, and since that’s nice bread, and since it’s a special occasion, why not enhance that meal with some wine, some nice plates and glasses, and a nice clean tablecloth? If you’re going to all that trouble, better allow at least three hours, but the conversation and friendship and special memories will be worth the cost of that time. So the Doritos win hands down for convenience, but they don’t compete with the bread as a key to a special occasion and a memorable meal.
Now a final question – which one of these two foods will keep you alive? While one might be better for you than the other, neither will keep you alive for long. At some point soon, you’ll begin to feel hungry and weak, and you’ll need to eat again, or you’ll start to die.
As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, I’ve been leading up to talking about today’s gospel reading, where Jesus says that he is “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). What does Jesus mean here? Is Jesus speaking as a nutritionist? Is he talking about healthy eating? No. Jesus is using bread as a figure of speech, comparing his body to bread that is being given to the whole world so that all may live. He’s talking about spiritual life, but in another sense, he’s being quite literal, insisting that his body IS bread to be EATEN. Eugene Peterson’s translation in the Message does a good job of capturing the literal quality of this speech.
“I am the Bread – living Bread! - who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live – and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self” (The Message pp. 202-203).
Bishop Tom Wright, who knows more Greek than I do, notes that the verb Jesus uses for the idea of “eat” is a very earthy, physical one, best translated here as “chew” or “munch”. Jesus is talking about physical eating and drinking, and he’s saying that we have to munch his flesh and swallow his blood. For the people of Jesus’ day, this talk was hard to accept. John notes in our gospel passage that the Judeans argued amongst themselves and said “How can this man give us his flesh to eat”? (Jn 6:52). At the end of John 6, when Jesus repeats his message almost word for word, even some disciples have some trouble accepting it, saying “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60).
If we don’t think too much about Jesus or about what he’s asking of us, this message isn’t difficult at all. Maybe the occasional prayer when we need something, the odd communion service to give us a warm glow, nothing too challenging. However, if we really think about this message, what I’ll call the “chewy Jesus message”, it can be difficult. The “chewy Jesus” demands that we sink our teeth into him, really chew on what he means and what he asks of us, really digest his message and take him into our lives. It’s not a quick snack, it’s not spiritual junk food. Like fresh wholegrain bread, it takes time to eat and appreciate.
Here’s what I think the chewy Jesus is offering to those who really want it:
1) A special and intimate union (hence the word communion) with Jesus, as expressed in his words “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” Jn 6:56). The word “abide” is a favourite word of the Fourth Evangelist and the idea of Jesus abiding, or dwelling with us, is a favourite one. Other expressions of this idea in John include the idea of friendship (“I have called you friends” Jn 15:15) and receipt of God’s love (“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (Jn 14:23).
2) Eternal life, expressed in terms of physical resurrection and escape from condemnation of the final judgement: (“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true life.” Jn 6:54-55)
3) Jesus is implying that God is using him to do a new thing in His relationship with His covenant people, going beyond the feeding of the Israelites in the desert with manna described in Exodus (“This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:58), or for that matter, the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand with the five barley loaves and the two fish described at the beginning of John 6. What Jesus is describing here is the next step in God’s plan for the salvation of the world, as Jesus promised at the beginning of his ministry (John 3:16-17 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.)
Remember the loaf of bread I showed you. It has the promise of intimacy in that I can go to the bakery and thank Jean and Marie (en francais even!) for their delicious bread. There’s physical health (the bread is good for our bodies). There’s the promise of a better world (we can deal with real people in real communities, we’re not dependent on multinational factories far away). That’s a lot of good things in one loaf of bread. All of these things, intimacy, health, and a larger renewal of the world are infinitely multiplied in our relationship with Jesus the bread of heaven.
At his last Passover meal with his disciples, the meal we remember now as Communion or the Eucharist or the Mass, all of these things come together in a far bigger, far more important way. Jesus knew that he was going to offer himself on the cross, flesh and blood, for the sins of the world. He promised his disciples that he would rise from the dead, and he promised them that his Holy Spirit would remain with them until his return on the last day. He commanded his disciples to tell all the world about him, and he commanded the church to celebrate his message and his resurrection in bread and wine whenever they gathered.
Today isn’t a communion service, but let’s say I put this bread on the altar or on the Lord’s Table. We listen to scripture, we say prayers, we break the bread and share it together. We may accompany it with wine sipped from a chalice or grape juice served in small glasses. If I’m standing here as an Anglican priest, I may wear certain garments to do honour to the occasion. As a Baptist, my colleague and brother in Christ Padre Poley would dress differently and say different prayers. The differences are minor. The same chewy Jesus awaits us with the same promise of salvation. We all come to the Lord’s table with the same needs, needing to be forgiven, wanting to be released from our fear of death, wanting to be sent forth in hope and joy.
I’ve chosen to preach on this gospel even though we won’t be celebrating Communion until September 6th. Such is the way of our chapel worship. But that gives me ample opportunity to challenge you to reflect on the following, what I call the four challenges of communion.
First, how will you prepare for Communion between now and when you next receive it? The church’s tradition has always called for a period of self-examination and penitence before communion. Are you conscious of a rift between you and another believer that needs to be attended to before then? In my case I am very much aware of a recent conversation between myself and another believer which began to set right some longstanding bad feelings between us, and while we have much work to do, we have made a good start, a step towards that new creation that Christ promised.
Second, do you need to reflect on your relationship with the wider church? Communion is meant for all baptized followers of Christ, its meant to be a meal of God’s family, which is why we don’t receive it individually, like our fast-food in-the-car meals. We eat together, we share in God’s gifts and love together. All are equal around the table. If you have a sense that the communal life of St. Mark’s is not what it should be, as one person told me the other day, if you feel we need to love one better as one congregation, what will you do about it?
Thirdly, is it enough that we are fed when others are not fed? The gift of bread and wine at communion shows God’s wish that all be fed and fed abundantly. As the Song of Songs puts it, “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love … Eat, O friends, and drink, yea, drink abundantly” (Song of Solomon 2:4, 5:1). Can we at St. Mark’s do more for those around us who are physically hungry (our food hamper should be brimming) and spiritually starving on the junk food of our culture like the people mentioned today in Ephesians who get through the days looking for the next drunk, the next diversion?
Finally, what does Jesus Christ mean to you? How much do you want him in your life? Jesus made extravagant claims (“I AM the bread that came down from heaven” and the people around him found it too chewy to swallow. He makes the same claims of us and many churches today are backing away from those claims, wanting to respect the beliefs of others in a pluralistic age by focusing on environmental and social issues rather than on the person of Jesus (see here for a particularly harrowing example). Jesus says in John 6 that “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (Jn 6:28). I say that this is good news. Surrounded as we are by spiritual junk food, in a culture that worships youth and sex and power and violence, we need a chewy Jesus, a Saviour who can truly feed us, and who can truly save us.
At the end of John 6, Peter comes to realize this when he says to Jesus “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:67). My friends, the date for the feast is set. The invitations are out. Make yourselves ready. I’ll see you on Sept. 6, when we gather here to break and share the bread of the one who has the words of eternal life.
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