More than Bread
Scriptures: John 6:25-35, 41-59
After feeding 5000 people with five loaves of bread, I can
see why the crowd wanted to make Jesus king. Think about it. Here is someone who could help the poor without raising taxes, who could heal the sick without raising medical costs, who could defeat enemies without going to war, and who could raise the minimum wage without fear of inflation or anyone losing their job. He is the perfect candidate for President of the United States.
Only Jesus is not running for President. He is campaigning
to be the Lord of our lives, and that is not what the crowd had in mind. So Jesus says to them in verse 27, Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. By the way, when Jesus uses the term Son of Man, he is referring to himself.
But the crowd is still thinking about the economy, if not
their retirement portfolios. In verses 30-31 they say to Jesus, What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. The crowd wants Jesus to guarantee them daily bread, just as Moses did for the people of Israel in the wilderness. But Jesus wants them to have more than bread. Jesus wants them to have the Bread of Life. The real gift is not the bread. The real gift is Jesus himself.
St. Augustine once told this parable: Supposed a man should
make a ring for his betrothed, and she should love the ring more wholeheartedly than the betrothed who made it for her. Certainly, let her love his gift. But if she should say, The ring is enough. I do not wish to see his face again, what would we say of her? (quoted in Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo.)
That is precisely what happens over and over in Johns gospel. People
get excited about what Jesus does for them: turning water into wine, feeding 5000 people with five loaves, healing a man born blind, but they fail to see that the real gift is Jesus himself. The miracles are only provisional. The wine Jesus produced eventually ran out again. The 5000 people Jesus fed eventually got hungry again. The people Jesus healed eventually got sick again. Even Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead eventually died again.
All the miracles Jesus did are meant to be signs pointing to the
greatest gift of all: the gift of Jesus himself. In verse 35 Jesus says, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. He is not talking about an unlimited gift card to Costco. He is talking about a relationship to the Creator of the universe that can never be taken away from you by anything or anyone. The engagement ring is not the real gift; it is only a sign. The real gift is the person giving it.
But how do we receive this relationship? The fiancée enters a
relationship by putting on a ring. But how do we living 2000 years later enter a relationship with Jesus?
At this point Jesus says something really strange, verse 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.
The crowd is mystified by this. They say, How can this man give us
his flesh to eat?
At this point it would be easy for Jesus to say, Good grief. Cant
you understand a metaphor? Im talking about how I will give my lifemy fleshon the cross. A metaphorical interpretation of Jesus words would be so easy. But that is not what Jesus says. Instead he doubles down on graphic physicality. He says, Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Suddenly Jesus sounds like a character from the Twilight novels. How physically graphic can you get?
Actually, even more graphic. In the next verse Jesus says, Those who
eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, but this time Jesus uses a different word for eat. Its a word that in Greek means to munch, to chew noisily. Basically Jesus says, Those who chomp on my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life. Is Jesus just being gross? No, he is being unmistakably physical and tangible.
Every Bible commentary I have ever read on this passage agrees. Jesus
is talking here about communion. At the last supper Jesus said, This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you. When we eat the bread of communion and drink the cup of wine or grape juice, we are entering into a relationship with Jesus. It is physical and tangible, just like an engagement ring. When we receive communion we are not just thinking about Jesus, we are, in a sense, engaged to Jesus. Thats why Jesus is so graphic, so physical, in describing it. The Christian faith is not just a mental exercise. It is not just a philosophy of life like Buddhism, or a set of guidelines for living like Islam or Judaism or Dr. Phil. The Christian faith is a relationship to a real flesh and blood human being whose death and resurrection transforms our lives forever. It is less like reading a self-help book and more like getting engaged.
Now let me be clear. We do not worship the bread or the grape juice.
We do not believe that the bread or grape juice turns into Jesus any more than the engagement ring becomes the groom. We do believe, however, that when you receive this bread and grape juice in faith, you receive a real relationship to a living Savior. Its like receiving an engagement ring. What you get is not just a symbol but a new relationship to a real person.
In a book called Take This Bread: the Spiritual Memoir of a 21st
century Christian, Sara Miles describes the first time she received communion. She grew up not going to church at all. Her parents who were militantly atheists who raised her to avoid religion like the plague. Sara herself grew up skeptical of religion just like her parents. But one day during a walk on Sunday morning, she decided on impulse to go into a church near her home in San Francisco. She writes,
I had no earthly reason to be there. Id never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lords Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christianor, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut. But on other long walks, Id passed the beautiful wooden building, with its shingled steeples and plain windows, and this time I went in, on an impulse, with no more than a reporters habitual curiosity.
I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyones eye. We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. Jesus invites everyone to his table, the woman [leader] announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the [communion] table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.
And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying the body of Christ, and handing me a goblet of sweet wine, saying the blood of Christ, and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
I still cant explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happeningI was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happeningthe piece of bread was the body of Christ, a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happeningGod, named Christ or Jesus was real, and in my mouthutterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.
All the way home, shocked, I scrambled for explanations. Maybe I was hypersuggestible, and being surrounded by believers had been enough to push me, momentarily, into accepting their superstitions.
Yet that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant; I didnt know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion. It was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if Id swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh (pp. 57-59).
Thats what Jesus means when he says, Those who eat my
flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. At this table you are invited not just to think about Jesus but to be engaged to him as the Lord of your life. Thats the real gift, because when everything else in your life is gone, he will still be there.