Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/6wG9IZeTIxQ.
Jesus’ WORD creates crisis
Jesus offends everyone. Jesus is an offensive person. He would offend you and me.
Let me remind you of what Jesus has said:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will eat forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (51)
The Jews object to Jesus, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat” (52).
And then his disciples complain, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (60)
The context of this passage is the celebration over 7 days of the Passover and also the eating of manna in the wilderness. Passover is in the first month of the year as winter begins to turn to spring. And of course it celebrates the liberating action of God. The manna celebrates God’s life giving care. The Exodus is the background and gives the language in this passage its meaning.
What was the real trouble between Jesus, his opponents and his disciples? Well it is about Jesus himself. He claims that he…
Jesus is the icon through which we see God’s light and life
Jesus uses imagery and metaphors that offend. They are tough metaphors. Munching on someone is not a delicate idea. The idea it seeks to illustrate is more offensive. Without Jesus there is no good news. Without our personal trusting response to Jesus there is no life.
Two millennia have blunted the edge of this language about eating flesh and drinking blood but it is powerful imagery (52-58). Separating flesh and blood is a metaphor for violent death as that is when such separation occurs. Such a violent death will be true food and drink for the world; it will bring life not death.
This language of violent death passes over into Eucharistic language that we use about the Holy Communion. John’s primary purpose has been to expound on the idea of ‘eat’ in the context of Passover and the manna Israel’s ancestors ate in the wilderness. But a central outcome is to expound the true meaning of sacramental language as sharing in in Jesus’ death and thus in his life.
The language says that Jesus is the way we find God’s life. He is the one whom God sends. He is God’s missionary. Jesus says he comes down from heaven. He says he brings the life of God to the world. What he offers in his life as the word made flesh and the crucified word is the life for the world. His origins lie with the Father and nowhere else. He places himself at the centre of the revealing, redeeming, reconciling actions of God.
Jesus declares himself to be the true bread from heaven and only those who feed on him will abide in him, he in them and they will find the life of the Father. He is the gift of bread that surpasses the gift of manna in the wilderness. He brings life and liberation for which the Passover was but a shadow.
This is a claim about origins; he comes from the Father, brings the Father’s life to them and offers it. This is the nub of the problem for his opponents.
This is the harsh word that offends not only the Jews but also the disciples. How dare a man whose mother and father are known suggest that God works through him far more than he did in Moses or Abraham. Or worse, that the light and life he brings is greater than that of the Torah.
Jesus is placing himself at the centre of God’s work for the world. This is the distinctive mark of the Christian faith. Judaism placed the Torah as the centrepiece of God’s redemptive work. Later, in deliberate repudiation of Christianity, Islam would place the Qur’an as centrepiece of God’s redemptive work. Although Christianity has a book it has never placed that book or a code as the centrepiece of its way of redemption. Jesus has always taken that place. The scriptures are a means of grace but they are not the source of life and freedom itself. They point to life, they are the cradle that nurse Christ. They are the spectacles through which we see the Bread of Life clearly. This is the crucial difference between Christianity and the other two great monotheistic religions. The comparison is not between Moses/Abraham, Muhammad and Jesus, but between Torah, Qur’an and Jesus.
Thus Jesus speaks in personal terms. Abiding rather than obeying is the kind of language used. It’s the language of presence, the language of personal encounter. Believing, in the sense of trusting him, loving rather than submission to codes are the keynotes of the faith.
Jesus now challenges them not only to see him as the bread come down from heaven but as the one who will ascend to where he was but by way of a cross. That the Holy One should not accept the kingship they offered him earlier in the chapter is offensive. Why can’t you come to us on our terms? We will believe you if you accept our terms as king. Do violence to our enemies, and feed us forever. We will strike a bargain with you. We will be yours if you will provide us with what we want.
The way of the cross, of humility and servanthood was not an acceptable offer. They turned it down. It offended them because they wanted something other.
Thus Jesus scandalises the disciples
And so they follow a well-worn spiritual path; they grumble then, they withdraw trust and they turn back.
Believer’s grumbling goes all the way back to the grumbling of the wandering Israelites in the desert. What are they grumbling about? Jesus’ word is harsh. And they are right. They are being asked to make a choice and it was a choice they did not want to make.
We can understand them. Where would this man lead them? What if he led them away from the truth of the tradition, the Torah? He says he has the words of life but we have to take that on trust.
Today we may find Jesus’ words offensive for different reasons. We live in a world in which there is a strong shift to individualism. That shift sees people as individuals who create their identity by the choices they make. In this outlook, the exercise of will comes first and reasons follow afterwards. Reason has long been replaced by will. Individuals choose the moral philosophies and views of the world that suit them. There is no overarching moral universe within which people give shape to their lives.
Jesus’ claims confront the elevation of the individual will to supreme place in human life. So confronting is it that many disciples today grumble about Jesus’ claims and advocate the selection of whatever suits the new consumers and clients of religion.
Grumbling is a step on the way in spiritual experience. I am talking about grumbling over the claims Jesus make on our lives, not whether the church kitchen is suitable or adequate. This is the business of serious grumbles. The next step after grumbling is the move away from life itself. In the end they reject his claim to be the bearer of God’s life and God’s love to them. They refuse to trust.
Grumbling, rejection of trust, and then turn back. They return to old sets of beliefs and worldviews. What Jesus has on offer may be attractive but too hard. Jesus must be absorbed into my universe of ideas rather than challenge mine. In time they will betray Jesus when the time is ripe (64, 71). They turn away and eventually seek his demise.
This pattern is common throughout Christian history. The claim Christ makes on us is to trust him to bring the life of God to us. He claims us so that he may abide with us. He claims us so that we might know the Spirit transfiguring our lives into the pattern of God’s redemptive love.
But some trust
The only ones left standing are the twelve. “Do you also wish to go away?” (67) Peter’s confession is clear. “To whom shall we go?” Nowhere else had they heard the words of eternal life. No one else has offered them life. They accept Jesus at his word, acknowledge who he is, trust that and enter into the offer of life.
The twelve must choose to accept or reject the offer God makes in Jesus. Nothing comes by default. God engages us humans because the engagement of the offer of life is a personal one.
Thus opens up a whole new adventure for them. In him Israel’s God is at last bringing into being the new Exodus that will set the world free from sin and death. Now they are called against all odds to follow wherever that new Exodus leads.
When we come to the Eucharist this morning we need to reflect on what this word offers us.
Jesus’ presence and life is all. We are a community because Jesus feeds us with his life. Fellowship springs from our living trust in Jesus and Jesus’ mutual indwelling.
It is not the person who presides who is important. Jesus offers his life to us without mediation because it is Jesus’ living gift to us.
At the heart of the word and sacrament is the revelation of God’s life and liberation in Jesus. It is that we trust and nothing else.