Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 2:10–12, 3:3–14 | Psalm 111 | Ephesians 5:15–20 | John 6:51–58
“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.” (John 6:51)
In our Gospel passage today, Jesus takes the conversation in a very odd direction: he tells His listeners to eat Him. Imagine that this was the very first passage of the Bible you came across; you flip open the pages, and read these words… how do you react? I wonder how many of us would even bother to keep reading? In fact, it’s this kind of visceral imagery that led to the early Christians being accused of cannibalism by their Greek and Roman neighbours. For those of us who have been in Christian circles for a while, we know that Jesus is talking about something beautiful, and blessed here… but even so, this passage still has the power to shake us up a bit. Inviting us to wrestle with some strange sounding questions. Like:
How exactly are we supposed to “eat and drink” Jesus?
For us Anglicans and many other Christians, this might seem pretty simple: that’s what we do in Holy Communion… in sharing the Lord’s Supper, where we remember and receive Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross for the sake of the world… which we will be celebrating together in just a few moments.
But hold on a second. Is it all that simple? Is He just talking about the sacrament of Holy Communion? Do we really think that simply taking Communion will give us eternal life? Is this what Jesus had in mind when He was speaking to the crowds?
Now there is definitely a clear connection between our Gospel reading today, and the Christian practice of Holy Communion. But perhaps we need to take a step back and take a closer look to see if there’s something we’re missing. To see it there’s something more that our Lord might want us to hear… and do.
Our passage today takes place in the middle of much longer conversation between Jesus and the crowd that had gathered around Him in Galilee. This crowd had personally tasted the miraculous power of Jesus the day before, when He took one boy’s meager lunch, five loaves of bread and two fish, and made it enough to satisfy over five thousand people. We’re told that they eagerly tracked Him down, when Jesus had moved on with His mission, but instead of repeating the miracle and feeding them all again, Jesus tells them to stop working for “food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:27) When they ask Jesus what kind of work God has in mind, He “answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)
A bit taken aback, the crowd responds to Christ’s invitation to believe in Him by demanding that He give them a sign for them to see and believe in Him… pointing to the manna, the mysterious bread from heaven, that Moses provided to Israel during their wilderness wanderings after the Exodus. Christ quickly responds by pointing out that it wasn’t Moses, their greatest hero, who gave them the manna, it was Christ’s heavenly Father who’s the source of true bread from heaven.
The crowd then turns to Jesus and says, “Ok then, you give us this heavenly bread… not just once, but always.” “If you are greater than Moses, give us our fill of bread.” In their words we might hear the echoes of Christ’s first temptation in the wilderness: dared by the devil to prove that He was God’s Son by turning stones into bread… this time though, the miracle was not to satisfy His own hunger, but the hunger of His people. They wanted something from Jesus that would fulfill their ongoing desires. But Jesus responds by again offering Himself.
“I am the bread of life.” He says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe… 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:35-36, 40)”
The crowd begins to balk now: ‘who does this Jesus think that He is?’ ‘This is just the son of Joseph…’ ‘we know His family…’ ‘how can He claim to be God’s gift sent from heaven?’ But rather than smooth things over, Jesus takes this heated conversation to the next level: “Very truly, I tell you,” He says, “whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.” (John 6:46-51).
The conversation between Christ and the confused crowd keeps going, and next week we’ll be spending some time reflecting on how it wraps up. For today, I just want us to consider two words that keep popping up throughout this chapter. Interestingly enough, they both begin with the letter “b”. The first one of course is ‘bread’… but the second is ‘believe’.
Believe. Believe in the one that God has sent. Whoever comes to Him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in Him will never be thirsty. The crowds had seen Him, /and yet did not believe. All who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life.
What is this passage, this whole conversation really about? The crowds can’t stop thinking about how to get something from Jesus: first ordinary, then heavenly bread… signs, straightforward answers. But the central concern of Jesus is that the crowds not simply seek things from Him, but that they believe in Him. That they put their faith in Him as the One sent from the Father, not just to fill their bellies with food, but to fill them with God’s blessed life, for all eternity. The miracle they had tasted when he multiplied the fish and bread, was truly a great gift displaying the generous, powerful love of God. But even more crucial was God’s gift of His only Son… sent to offer His life to be broken and poured out to bring forgiveness of sins, and New Life to God’s people… and to the world.
Jesus Christ is Himself the ultimate source of all we truly need. In Him, God shares His life with us, and will forevermore. In this context, to “eat and drink” Jesus means to believe in Him. To say ‘yes’ to His invitation, His call to place our trust in Him. Not once, but over and over again… as our true daily bread.
It’s faith in Jesus Christ that enables us to rightly receive Holy Communion as a sacrament… an outward sign of God’s grace working inside of us. Without faith in Jesus, this precious gift just becomes a ritual… something we do, which might be beautiful, but lacks God’s life-giving power. But we are invited to come to Christ’s table trusting in His love for us… placing our faith, not in our own goodness, but in His saving sacrifice… called to receive this bread as His broken body, and this wine as His blood, shed for us… to believe the Good News of all He has done, to fill us with His New Life.
Holy Communion is one of the most precious gifts Christ gives us to strengthen our faith… to draw us closer to Him so we can receive anew His grace and love. But it is meant to inspire and empower us to live our entire lives by faith. To be guided each day, not by our own wisdom, but by the hand of our Saviour… setting His will above our own desires and plans.
In everything we do, gathered together here for worship, or out in the wide world, we are called to “eat and drink Jesus” …to continually trust in Him, and walk in His life-giving ways. So may the Holy Spirit fill us all with a living faith in Jesus, drawing us ever deeper into the blessed New Life of God. Amen.