Sermon: August 12, 2018 – John 6: 35, 41-51
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev. Greg Wooley
Marcus Borg, the very accessible scholar whose works we’ll be studying again this fall, spoke of the distinction between what has been written about the “pre-Easter Jesus” (Jesus in his historical lifetime) and the “post-Easter Jesus” (what Jesus became after his death). Others, before and since, have referred to this as the difference between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith”. However we state it, this line of thought – which has been very influential to me and to many of us here – says that some of the things we read in the gospel sound very much like things that Jesus would have said and done, whereas others sound much more like something from the persecuted days of the early Church, which was then written back in to the Jesus story, putting Jesus in an unusual situation or putting out-of-context words on his lips.
When we hear Jesus making these big pronouncements we heard this morning in the 6th chapter of John, referring to himself as “bread of life” (John 6:35) and “bread of heaven,” (John 6:50-51) what do we make of it? Is this of Jesus, or is this a later formulation?
The answer, from me at least, is a shrug, and these words: “either way, it describes the Jesus I know.” For as much as it is an interesting pursuit to try to get back to an eyewitness account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, my relationship with the living Christ does include not only that, but also all the ways and places that the risen Christ keeps showing up since then.
If we take this gospel account as an actual encounter between Jesus and his followers, we need to know its context. Prior to today’s reading was the feeding of the multitude, in which a substantial crowd of people, already favourably disposed toward Jesus and gathered to be healed by him, had their physical hunger met and exceeded by five loaves and two fishes. The crowd, impressed, finds Jesus again and wants to see him do that loaves and fishes thing once more. Jesus, unwilling to become their entertainment, pushes them to understand life and God in a different way, saying “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
And when Jesus declared this, what happened? Did the questioning crowd have an “aha” moment and move from casual seeker to full-on-disciple? No, they did not. With these words, which seem pretty benign to us, Jesus managed to upset pretty much everyone. For in that group, “Bread of Life” and “Bread of Heaven” would already have had very clear meanings, meanings which Jesus just poked and kicked and sat on.
They already had a “bread of life” – this was a name used for the Torah, the laws given by God for their guidance and identity. It was blasphemous, then, for Jesus to suggest HE was the bread of life. And they already knew what “bread of. Heaven” meant in their lives, too: manna, the original bread from heaven, had come to be interpreted as a heavenly reward for faithfulness, those heavenly bits of favour they received when they did the right things. It was ridiculous for Jesus to suggest HE was the bread of heaven.
By using these metaphors, Jesus is inserting himself into places they have reserved for God. How dare he?!? And at the other end of the spectrum, anyone in the crowd who was starting to make a connection between Jesus and God would have found these words to be a thundering disappointment, because Bread is, well, so common. David Lose, a theology professor who posts a very helpful weekly letter to preachers, writes, “think of the audacious claim that Jesus is making [in referencing himself as “bread.”]. Who ever heard of a God having anything to do with the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the dirty? Gods are made for greatness, not grime; they are supposed to reside up in the clouds, not down here with the commoners. I mean, who ever heard of a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the indecencies and embarrassments of human life? It’s downright laughable. No wonder the crowd grumbles against Jesus’ words, for such words seem to make fun of their understanding of God’s majesty and, even worse, to mock their own deep need for a God who transcends the very life which is causing them so much difficulty.”
Like us, the crowd wanted Jesus to be something other than what he was. Either they wanted Jesus to be more than just bread, or they resented his suggestion that he could replace the Bread of Life/Bread of Heaven that they already relied upon. They liked the miracle-worker Jesus who turned loaves and fishes into a feast. They liked the make-me-feel-better Jesus who soothed their ills. They were uncomfortable with the Jesus who challenged them to really take him into themselves, chew on his words, digest his holy hopes for their lives. Jesus gives them an image that is simultaneously too Godly and too earthy and most of all, too daily. This isn’t a Sunday morning Jesus, this is an everyday Jesus. His wasn’t a philosophy they could apply when they wished, his was a presence that was as frequent and as necessary as their daily bread. His nourishment wasn’t a salsa or a relish or a chutney on the side, he was the main course, nourishment which could fill even the hungriest life. If taken as words from Jesus, these would have confronted folks who wanted a controllable, peripheral God, while feeding the very souls of those who yearned for a comprehensive new way.
But what if these words are taken as words of the early Church, as those brave souls encouraged one another in their marginalization and distress? What does it mean for us, if we imagine people experiencing the risen Christ so strongly that they would feel drawn to insert that experience back into their Jesus narrative?
Well… it means everything that we’ve already heard, and more.
This “bread of heaven” language has been part of our Christian vocabulary forever. But think of what it means, to “feed” on Christ – literally, to gnaw on this holy nourishment as if you were ravenous and food was scarce. What does it mean to rely on the living presence of Christ Jesus for our soul’s survival, to allow God’s love to fill us, rather than allowing our lives to be shaped by the opinions of others or the pushy suggestions of advertisers? What does it mean to walk alongside a Lord who identifies more directly with the common bread of the peasant, than with the lavish tables of the wealthy? Heavenly banquets are promised, but it begins with daily bread.
For centuries, the poorest of the poor have heard the life-giving words of Jesus and witnessed both the anguish of his suffering and the power of his resurrection. His nourishment fits their lives. On a daily basis, in prisons and slums, in detox centres and refugee camps, in LGBTQ-positive Churches and in protests against injustice, the poorest of the poor and the most marginalized of the marginalized have relied upon Jesus Christ, bread of heaven, as their source of holy hope. Jesus invites us, in our challenges, to sink our teeth into that which truly satisfies: a promise of a world made new where none will hunger or thirst, none will be fearful or anxious, none will be considered a stranger.
Whether it was Jesus who said, “I am the bread of life” or it was those who love him who said, “Christ is our bread of life,” the truth of the matter does not change. Christ Jesus, alive in our midst, is present at the most basic levels of our being, and enhances our experience of life: Christ is as delightful as the fragrance of fresh-baked bread, as delicious as your favourite pastry, as necessary as the first food you’ve had all week. We gather in his name and at table, to be refreshed in his mission of inclusion and love; to encourage one another to give ourselves fully to that mission; to reassert that the presence of Christ is no mere “add-on” to life, an optional, non-essential element of “trying to be a good person” – no, this is our bread, our most basic food, which affirms our journey and keeps our souls from starving.
“I am the bread of life” says Jesus. “Christ is the bread of life” say our ancestors in the faith. What do we make of this, and what will we say in our lives? Friends, open yourselves to the nourishment that comes from Christ’s brash, resilient, powerful love, and discover the answer as we live it together. Amen.
Borg, Marcus J and Wright, N.T. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. San Francisco: Harper, 1999.
Lose, David. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/08/pentecost-11-b/
See also: http://www.craiggreenfield.com/subversive-jesus/
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church