Pentecost +12: Bread from heaven and other hang-ups

Wisdom calls out,"You that are simple, turn in here!" To those without sense she says, "Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight." (Proverbs 9:4-6)

Jesus said, "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 Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "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. 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 drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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." (John 6:51-58)

I’ll answer the question that nobody has asked but everybody is thinking right now: Yes, Jesus is still talking about bread. Yes, we've been talking about bread in worship for a few weeks now, with a few weeks left to go.

In case you haven't been around, let me get you caught up on the story:

A few weeks ago – feels like ages ago! – Jesus borrowed a boy’s lunch and turned it into an overflowing feast for thousands of people. This attracted a little bit of attention, and despite Jesus’ best attempts to go off by himself after cooking up one delicious miracle, the crowds are, understandably, shocked and amazed, and there are a group of people who follow Jesus, seek him out, and want to know more about what they just saw.

The problem is that they interpreted the sign of the loaves and fishes as being about food, when Jesus wants them to understand that the miracle of the loaves and fishes was really supposed to be a sign pointing to him and illuminating who he is – that is, the living, breathing, in-the-flesh Son of God. The loaves and fishes, he says, are a sign to show them that he is the very bread of God that is given for the life of the world, for everlasting life.

The crowds keep pulling the conversation back to manna in the wilderness and the bread that they just ate with 5000 of their closest friends, trying to compare their experience with miracle bread to the miracle bread their ancestors ate. In response, Jesus keeps insisting, “I am the bread. Look at me, touch me, it’s about my body and my blood. It’s not about the physical bread that you ate, it’s about the physical Son of God who is standing right here in front of you, don’t you see?”

On the surface, these crowds seem to be the epitome of sort of people mentioned in our reading from Proverbs: simple, without sense, immature. They aren’t quick to understand Jesus’ teaching, and so he has to go on…and on…and on…about bread. But when we think about Jesus and his audience in their context, there’s something a little deeper to it all.

For starters, the crowds around Jesus were Jewish people and leaders who knew the ins and outs of the law. And so language of consuming flesh and blood would have sent them right back to all of the food laws in Leviticus that tell them what they are allowed to eat…and what they are not. And human beings, according to the law, aren’t supposed to consume the blood of any animals and aren’t supposed to eat certain kinds of flesh. So Jesus talking about them eating his flesh and drinking his blood would have set off some alarms in their heads.

Then there’s the matter of sacrifice. The law also talked at length about sacrifices, and what foods and animals were to be sacrificed to God in different circumstances. Culturally, the crowds would have known sacrifice as the way that humans relate to God. So it’s a huge reversal for Jesus to imply that instead of humans offering flesh and blood to God, God is offering Jesus’ flesh and blood to humans.

And finally, remember that the crowds aren’t reading this passage through a Eucharistic lens. So if you were them and trying to take Jesus’ words at face value, and he tells you that to have eternal life you have to eat his flesh and drink his blood…well…yuck, right?

No wonder these crowds disputed and murmured among themselves and no wonder they questioned Jesus, and how he could even think to say such crazy things. The crowds aren’t simple, or without sense, or immature. They are merely doing the best they can to try to make sense out of something that sounds ridiculous.

They are trying to process the absolutely radical notion that they should depart from their religious and cultural ancestry to commune with God through a man named Jesus. And I don’t think they would have stuck around for Jesus’ long speech about bread if they weren’t genuinely interested in the idea, even if it was troubling and difficult for them and required some serious soul-searching.

I mean, if those crowds are “simple” or “without sense” or “immature,” then we are, too. Because we all have our hang-ups. We all have things that make us, at best, reluctant believers in the grace and mercy of God shown in Jesus.

Maybe you get tripped up by the pieces of the Jesus story that make no sense in the rational world: the virgin birth, or miracles like the loaves and fishes, or even the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Maybe you can’t quite wrap your head around the idea that God-as-trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or you can’t quite put all the logical pieces together as to how exactly Jesus dying on the cross accomplishes forgiveness and salvation and victory over death or you have unanswered questions about heaven or new creation or what the heck Revelation is all about.

Or maybe it’s bigger than that. Maybe you can’t always make sense of the idea that there’s a God in the first place, or maybe you struggle with how to believe in a good God when there is so much violence and evil in the world, or maybe you struggle to believe that God could and would actually love you and forgive you and show you mercy.

We all have our hang-ups. We all have reasons not to believe, and we all have reasons not to make a sharp turn off of our own life paths to follow Jesus’ path instead.

And Jesus knows that it is sometimes hard for us to understand or believe. But he keeps inviting you to follow him nonetheless.

Jesus will talk about bread until you can’t bear it any longer. Jesus will invite you to become a disciple by saying to you “come and see,” and NOT “you have to believe everything about me before you are fit to follow.” Jesus will wash your feet even if you will go on to betray him or deny him. Jesus will not leave you spiritually orphaned or comfortless or without an advocate, even if you need to run away from your Father’s house for a time.

In John’s gospel, seeing is believing. And sometimes people have to see a LOT before they can even begin to believe. The crowds had to see the miracle of the loaves and fishes before they could question and argue and try to understand Jesus as the bread of life. Thomas had to see the resurrected Jesus in person and touch his wounds before he could declare, “My Lord and my God!”

So maybe we, too, need to see Jesus in order to believe. Maybe we need to see Jesus over and over again before we understand…or before we make peace with what we will never understand.

I think that there are plenty of places in our world where we see Jesus. We see Jesus in acts of service and compassion. We see Jesus wherever we are feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned. We see Jesus in acts of selflessness and humility. We see Jesus whenever the broken are lifted up.

But if we need something more immediate, more tangible, we see Jesus whenever we come to this place and eat the bread of life and drink the cup of forgiveness. And in true “seeing is believing” fashion, Jesus makes it clear that his body and blood are given for you and for all people. So it’s not just a meal for people who have it all figured out. Actually, it’s mostly a meal for all of us who don’t have it all figured out. It’s a meal where we hear, every time, over and over again, the promise that this gift is given “for you.” And Jesus will keep saying it to you, each and every week, and Jesus will trust that some days, you might actually find the strength to believe it.

But until any one of us believes it without question – which, let’s be honest, won’t every happen perfectly until God comes down to make our prayer of “thy kingdom come” an eternal reality – until that time, we return to the meal, and we return to the crowds gathered here and throughout sanctuaries across the world and across time, with our fellow saints who are just as “simple” and “without sense” and “immature” as we are.

And we keep coming so that we can keep seeing so that we might keep believing all because Jesus keeps inviting us.

So you that are simple, turn in here! To those without sense, Come, eat of the bread of life and drink of the wine of salvation. Lay aside immaturity, and live. For Jesus is the bread of life, the living bread sent down from heaven, the life of the world. Come, taste, and see.

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