Pentecost 11/Lectionary 19B, John 6:35, 41-51
John reports that Jesus said this to the crowd – listen to these words again: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And then Jesus concludes that whoever eats the bread that he provides will not die.
Taken literally and at face value according to a plain reading of the words, what Jesus says, what Jesus promises in John, is simply not true. Even believers in Jesus experience hunger and thirst. Some hunger and thirst periodically and in modest ways. Others in chronic and catastrophic ways. And then everyone without exception, even believers in Jesus, die. That’s the plain, literal reality.
Plain, literal interpretations of Jesus’ provocative sayings have a tendency to short-circuit our minds, to defy our sense of reality. How can Jesus make such outlandish claims which are clearly not in keeping with ordinary human experience of realith? It’s beyond our common comprehension.
Thus, if we want something other than an experience of mind-blowing, radical cognitive dissonance, it’s clear that we need to engage what Jesus says in John in ways beyond the plain and literal readings.
Recall that the sixth chapter of John begins with Jesus providing dinner enough for five thousand people with leftovers to spare. Stomachs were filled to satisfaction. But as the narrative in John progresses, as we are encountering in this series of Sundays focused on this one chapter in John, we see a shift from the bread we eat for routine meals to a different kind of bread.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.” If Jesus himself is the bread, and Jesus comes from the eternal abundance of God, then indeed those who come to him for this particular bread will never be hungry and those who believe in Jesus, the heavenly bread, who also gives himself as the fruit of the vine, will never be thirsty.
Jesus does not run out. Jesus does not become moldy or stale. Jesus does not run dry. Jesus is forever. Always. Everywhere. Jesus is made known by the Spirit that proceeds from the Father, and from Jesus’ own lips when he breathed on the disciples after the resurrection in the closed room imparting the gift of that same Spirit.
This same Spirit of Jesus is everywhere, all the time, reliably active in what we call the means of grace – the proclamation of the word, the bath which is baptism, and the sacred meal at the sacramental table, along with confession and forgiveness in our holy encounters and interactions with each other.
Thus, Jesus provides something akin to, but also transcending, what we heard in today’s first reading where Elijah went forty days and forty nights on the food given him by God. That’s remarkable. But Jesus offers more and for eternity, not just supplies for forty days and nights.
So, indeed, if Jesus is the bread that comes down from heaven, then those who eat the bread and drink the fruit of the vine do not hunger and thirst, at least in the ways of our ordinary hunger and thirst at meal times.
But what about our ordinary hunger and thirst – especially those who suffer such hunger and thirst catastrophically in famine? What good is the bread of eternity if we don’t have bread enough for right now each day to satisfy our bodily needs?
With focus only on heavenly bread, we run the risk of reductionistically spiritualizing the words of Jesus reported by John, speaking of hunger and thirst only metaphorically. But remember that Jesus in the feeding of the five thousand provided an abundant spread of ordinary food. Remember, too, that the bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is his flesh. That is, Jesus does not denigrate or ignore bodily needs. Furthermore, remember that in John, Jesus is the word of God made flesh, full of grace and truth, which honors human embodiment and ordinary needs for daily bread, heavenly and otherwise.
So, we are called to have in mind not just sacramental eating and drinking but also our usual meal tables and how the grace given in the sacrament inspires Christian people to be about the literal feeding of the hungry, even as Jesus fed people in ordinarily satisfying ways. There is an intimate link between the table here in church and the food preparation tables at the Arlington Food Assistance Center in South Arlington where Nathan and I have been volunteering this summer. One table’s abundance leads to the other tables’ plenty.
Thus far, I’ve addressed Jesus’ promise that in him we neither hunger nor thirst. But what about death and the promise of Jesus reported by John that those who eat the bread that is Jesus will not die, but live forever?
Yet, we do die. That’s true. But Christian death, enveloped as it is sacramentally by baptism and the Eucharist, means that even in death we share in the life of the Trinity. Even in death we enjoy the eternal embrace of the living God in Christ in the power of the Spirit as we await the day of resurrection. That Jesus, we confess, descended to the place of the dead means that there is no place, even in death, where Jesus has not already gone before.
The eternal life we enjoy even now, according to Jesus in John, persists as gift of grace even in death. We are not forsaken. We are not left alone or orphaned. Even in death.
But you know what? This is all still quite mind blowing. Outlandish still according to human logic and standards and typical experience.
Then there’s also common experience of the failings of the church and of Christian people who persist in disappointing imperfection. Just look at the letters to the churches in the Christian scriptures, for example, the passage for today from Ephesians. That the author has to exhort the hearers to good behavior reveals between the lines that there was a lot of bad behavior in the early church. In today’s reading it’s clear that the church in Ephesus struggled with liars, those who had issues with anger, thieves, people who were bitter, slanderers, those who were unkind, unforgiving, who in short did not live up to the ideals of Christian love.
All of this diminishes our capacities to receive the truth of Jesus that in him we will neither hunger, nor thirst, nor succumb to the multiple ways of death. Thus, we might languish in cognitive dissonance. Or many simply leave the church and Christianity altogether.
However, the effect of having our minds divinely blown is for some not a turning from God, but a turning to God in faith.
And here, I cannot help myself but to turn to the end of John chapter six to what is the appointed gospel passage for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost on August 22. Just a heads up: I am not preaching that day. We’ll have as our guest in the pulpit, The Rev. Lowell Almen, a dear friend who will be visiting me here and who was for twenty years the Secretary of the ELCA. I have it on good authority that he is likely to focus on that day’s second reading from Ephesians.
So, I feel free to go where we will end up in John 6. In this chapter, John reports that Jesus goes on and on about his flesh being the living bread that comes down from heaven and that when we eat his flesh and drink his blood we don’t hunger, we don’t thirst, and we live forever.
Religious authorities understandably disputed Jesus’ claims. Even the disciples exclaimed, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Some of Jesus’ followers departed, never to return to following him. Jesus then asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
That’s when Simon Peter gives the punchline, which also forms the basis of one of our sung gospel verse acclamations in the liturgy: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And Simon Peter adds, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (cf. John 6:56-69)
There is something about difficult teaching that can drive us into the arms of our merciful God in Christ.
Perhaps this is what Jesus refers to in today’s gospel as being drawn by the Father. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” (John 6:44a) It may be that the confounding logic of God draws us in.
Thus drawn, we feebly struggle with the law, the rule, of the logical confines of the human mind, even as we are drawn in grace and in faith to confess with Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
And in that confession of faith we endeavor with thanksgiving for grace given to feed the world with the same bread that comes down from heaven, who is Jesus himself – even as we also seek to provide a good lunch to the world’s hungry people. Thanks be to God. Amen.