Readings for the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, Year B: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33, Psalm 34:1-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, John 6:35, 41-51
I once had a parishioner who took me aside just before the Communion Service started and asked me if, when I came to him at the altar rail, I could change the words of administration. (Anglican footnote: “Words of administration” are said by the priest or Eucharistic assistant when the wafer of bread is put into the recipient’s hand, and when the chalice is offered.) For the bread, the words are typically “The Body of Christ, given for you” or some variant thereon. My parishioner, however, asked me if, for the bread and wine, I could say “Food for the journey” instead.
I was curious about this, and asked why this person wanted the words changed. The answer was, “I don’t like the words you usually say, they make me uncomfortable, and I find ‘food for the journey’ more meaningful”. This was quite a pastoral challenge to receive just before the service! Did I say yes, or no, and if no, why not? I’ll come back to what I said later.
In John 6, Jesus makes the first of the big claims about himself that are typical of the Fourth Gospel. Biblical scholars call these the “I am” claims. These are claims having to do with his unique identity as the Son of God, and as the only source of salvation. These claims use different word pictures – elsewhere in John Jesus describes himself as a good shepherd, or as the only gate or way that leads to the kingdom of heaven. Here, in John 6, in the first of these claims, Jesus describes himself as living bread. Jesus says that he is different from other food, even the manna which fed the Jews in the Exodus, because that just staves off hunger for a time. Jesus says that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:51).
How we respond to this claim is going to be very individual. For some, the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood is too much like a horror movie to be a comfortable thought. For the parishioner who asked me to say “food for the journey”, I think that discomfort was behind the request. For those of us who may be uncomfortable with those words, I think it’s worth trying to hang in for a moment and think them through. Whatever Jesus was thinking when he said these words, I think he had in mind the self-sacrifice on the cross that waited at the end of his journey, when his body would be broken and his blood shed for the sins of the world.
My own thinking is Jesus was saying, “Look, I am giving everything, my very body, for you, and only in this way can I bring to the Father. If I am giving all for you, you need to accept all of me.” One way that Christians accept Jesus’ self-giving is through our shared meal, when we take bread and wine (or grape juice), consume them in his memory, and ask Jesus to enter into us, like food and drink, strengthen us, and make his one with him, as we are one with another at his table. Christians have historically differed as to what exactly we consume, whether it is a literal or symbolic presence, but I think we all agree that our shared meal is important, and that it is only meaningful because of Jesus giving his all for and to us.
Another response to Jesus “I am the bread of life” claim may be not repugnance but over familiarity. Just as, in the reading, those listening to Jesus think they know him too well to accept his claim ("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'?" (Jn 6:42), so we in parts of the church which celebrate communion frequently or as a norm of worship be too familiar with it to be really impressed by it. Instead of saying this is “Jesus, we know him”, we may say instead “this is communion, we know it, it’s what we do” and thus miss its significance.
If I have any one thing to leave you with today, it’s to ask you to be impressed by what happens. Remind yourself that what we do and what we receive at this altar only has significance because of Jesus. When Jesus says he is the bread of life, he is saying that he is the sole good in the world. He is life and light and love and forgiveness and joy and hope, all wrapped up in one. Without him, our world would be a dark place, where spiritual hunger is never far from us. If you want a vision of that world, just think back to our first lesson this morning, from 2 Samuel, where David realizes the bitter consequence of his sin, which spreads like blood throughout his story, in the loss of his son. I heard a preacher ask the question, “where is the good news in the first lesson?” because there isn’t any good news in it. I would say the good news about the first lesson is that it reminds us why we need a world with Jesus and all he stands for in it.
As we go back into the world after this service, we go fortified by the presence of Christ, knowing that we have tasted the bread of life and have been strengthened by it for the work that awaits us. So really, what we do receive is indeed “food for our journey”. On reflection, I think my parishioner may have said more than he knew when he asked me to say those words.