Jesus the Bread of Life - John 6:56
The Reverend Canon Charles Royden
There is a wonderful picture in Partnership News this week of Moses and the Israelites in the desert with the miraculous feeding of the manna. I saw it in the Cathedral in Murcia. We know that Moses had a thankless task. No matter what he did for the people, freeing them from slavery, leading them out of captivity to freedom, nevertheless the people grumbled and moaned. Even though God had slain the Egyptians who tried to recapture them they said ‘take us back to Egypt’.
- They were thirsty in the desert and God gave water from the rock.
They were hungry in the desert and God gave them miraculous food.
Still the miraculous provision of God was met with moaning and unfaithfulness. These were a people who wanted a miracle a minute to keep them loyal and true to God.
It is against this background that we have the episodes from John that we have been reading over the summer about Jesus and bread.
Like Moses, Jesus has fed the crowds and he has been followed by enormous numbers who want him as their leader. There were lots of other contenders around but Jesus had what many people wanted. When Jesus spoke he said things about the way people should live, spoke about a godly bias to the poor, the oppressed. He gave a spiritual message for personal living but also said many powerful things about the ruling elite, he criticised the authorities, spoke truth to power. Crowds flocked to hear him because he expressed views which they saw as characteristic of a new political, military leader.
If you have been looking at the news over the past weeks you cannot have helped seeing the events surrounding the election of the new leader of the labour party.
Jeremy Corbin has been speaking to packed audiences around the country. Venues selling out to people who want to hear him speak. Saying things which many people are attracted to and wanting to hear. Apparently he needed to get on a fire engine because there were so many people wanting to hear. It was like that with Jesus.
He was popular, so popular that he would have needed a fire engine. In fact he used s fishing boat instead and spoke to people from it as they were on the shore.
But today we come to a turning point between Jesus and the crowds and we see him losing his popular appeal. The crowds want more miracles, more bread.
Just like Moses and the Israelites the people have short memories of God’s goodness.
They want a miracle every five minutes too. They like the fact that Jesus can make bread and they want full stomachs.
Jesus wanted his miracles to be signposts to spiritual truths, physical bread pointed to told of Jesus the Bread of Life. They couldn’t get past the physical to see the real message.
So it is in that context that we have the teaching of Jesus today.
The words which Jesus uses are make no mistake brutal. I think of them as being a bit like the defibrillator that we have at the back of church. When somebody has a heart attack and they have stopped breathing, then we can use that box of tricks to give them an electric shock which can cause the heart to start again. That is not a strict medical explanation, but you get the idea.
Jesus has gathered a huge crowd of disciples, followers, but they have not appreciated what he is saying. Jesus needs to use language which will literally shock them. He is quite deliberately taking religious ideas which would be considered repugnant and forcing people to be offended. It is hard for is to imagine quite how offensive these words actually were. Jesus as the bread of life is a comforting thought for us. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood are now comforting words within the context of the Lord’s Supper.
As a Jew who has never heard of the Lord’s Supper, and who had been brought up in the Jewish Law, the God given scriptures of Moses, eating Jesus flesh was monstrous and drinking his blood was downright disgusting and forbidden by God. They see the words of Jesus in a very literal sense.
When the Gospel writer uses the words
'This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world'
We see them instantly with a spiritual meaning, in fact we probably are tempted to jump straight to thinking about communion. But wait ! The writer uses the Greek word sarx for flesh, not soma, which is used everywhere else when talking about the Lords Supper.
The word sarx flesh is used somewhere else - it is used at the beginning of John’s Gospel - the phrase is
The word became flesh
Jesus is God incarnate and it is as God that he will give his flesh, for the life of the world, most obviously of course in the cross. Jesus gives his life for the life of the world.
We can hear these words of Jesus in a spiritual sense to refer to his giving of his life on the cross, that is how we gain from his death, and share in his death.
Jesus never sought popularity, he taught truth. He was to give people signs in order to maintain their short spans of interest. He called for total commitment and trust. His disciples were to take up their cross to follow him, in other words to sacrifice their lives, as he would give of his own flesh and blood. There was no room within his followers for those with half hearted commitment, they must be prepared to give up everything.
There are important truths for us today. I was going to say ’in an age when our leaders are led by focus groups and they have to tell us what we want to hear.’ But of course this has always been the case. Perhaps nowadays we have perfected focus groups but there has always been the temptation for leaders to be popular rather than do the right thing,
The crowd are in it for what they can get, but they fail to see that the greatest thing Jesus has to offer is not physical feeding but eternal life. Jesus says makes the promise that those who believe in him will have his life. He will raise them up on the last day.
We need to be mindful of this as followers of Jesus.
We take to heart the social teaching of Jesus,
we live by his example,
we seek to bring about changes in society based on the standards of justice which Jesus set out.
However we must never lose sight of the fact that what we are about is telling the story of the crucified Jesus, the word made flesh, who gave his flesh for the life of the World. God incarnate,
who by his death brings life
As Christians we are taken into the life of Christ and we are called to abide in him.
Abiding is important in John’s Gospel,, it defines the relationship between God as Father, Son and holy Spirit, but also between believers and Christ.
The believer is identified with Christ, continues in the saving faith and transformation of life.
This abiding is by prayer, by worship by sharing in the Christian fellowship, by living his commandments of love for God and one another.
Having noted that those early disciples did not have any knowledge of the communion, the readers of John’s Gospel of course did.
And we, unlike the twelve who followed Jesus when others had left we do not have the physical presence of Jesus, but we do have the bread and wine of the last supper to share his presence with us.
Just as those disciples heard the words of Jesus in the context of Leviticus 17 and it was a stumbling block, we cannot help but read the words of Jesus today in the context of the sacrament of the Last Supper and it is a great help to our understanding
Augustine once defined sacrament as "visible words"—actions that speak of the love and forgiveness of God. In communion we have the chance to recommit our journey to Jesus' journey and to experience the nourishment of the Bread from Heaven. In this sacrament, Christ unites his presence with the bread and wine and unites his life with our own, that he may live in us and lead us to his purposes.