Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/AMbyVgb1vYo.
Pentecost 11 B 15
John 6: 35-51
Well last week we were thinking about the Holy meal that we share each week at Communion- this week that holy meal takes on a deeper significance. This week eternal life becomes the consequence of sharing in this meal. In fact this passage is really all about eternal life, isn’t it? And very interestingly Jesus death and resurrection are not mentioned. The concept that Jesus died for our sins therefore we have eternal life isn’t mentioned here once. No, here it is that Jesus descended- that is, was incarnated, and ascended- that is, returned to an eternal existence and that is what gives us eternal life. It is true of course that between the two events of in time there is the death and resurrection and at other places this is given great significance but here the central things are that Jesus came down and went up. The resurrection is implied because we know that Jesus died an earthly death so he must have been resurrected in order that he could go back to the Father. But it is his coming that ensures our eternal existence. It is the fact that he came and lived an earthly life- God Emmanuel, God with skin on, that allows him to feed us and to take us with him into an eternal existence.
And the feeding is important again, isn’t it? “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert and they died,” Jesus says. The food that God sent down from heaven in Moses’ day sustained them for earthly life but it didn’t deal with the problem of their mortality. Jesus, who is himself the bread of life, has come down to be with them, rather than sending food this time, and because they eat and drink him they and us, can share in eternity.
And why is it? How come feeding on Jesus is more significant than eating the bread sent down from heaven? Well, I think that it is in the eternal nature of God. Jesus the Word existed before Abraham, before Adam. The people want to understand Jesus of Nazareth in terms of the man’s earthly parentage. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” This is very understandable- that is how things worked in their culture. You classified people by their parentage- you knew who everyone was and could place them and somehow this knowledge gave them power. We have been taken by a similar urge over these last decades haven’t we? We are, many of us, fascinated by our genealogy. We want to know who our forebears were and where we come from. There are TV shows, and Ancestry sites, there are books written and a whole industry developed around it. I think that is because we have a primal urge to know our antecedents. In the days when this gospel was written people could recite their families back, going back many generations. And there are still cultures who practice that recitation, that oral memory of the past. It is a kind of eternity for earthly folk- I can go back generations and so those ancestors still live in me, and so will I in the memory of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. But Jesus says he is giving us another identity- a way of being with God, quite aside from the temporal sphere. We can eat of his bread and not die, but live forever.
Now does this mean that our existence will go on and on? Surely that is a very boring thought? But I think that this eternal life is not bound in time, it is more about quality than quantity, but we humans, bound as we are into time cannot really understand. It seems, in this passage and in others, that it is more about being with God, in the kind of unity that Jesus tries to explain to his disciples in the upper room discourse that we read just after Easter- you remember, all that part about abiding in you, and you abiding in me.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was the bread of life- in other words it is through God god’s-self in the person of Jesus that we are fed and nourished and sustained. And it is in the relationship that is expressed in the Holy Meal that we are granted this eternal life. As we eat of the flesh and drink of the blood we become part of the life of God. Now, I don’t think that there is something magical about the bread and wine that I bless. It isn’t about the substance but about the relationship. When you hold our your hands to receive what you believe to be the body and blood of Jesus, you are expressing a relationship. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” When you hold out your hands to be fed at communion you are expressing your need of God, and the knowledge that it is God who sustains you both in this earthly life and in the life of eternity of which this is just the beginning. You are saying my eternity is in being fed by you, my God. You are my very being. Jesus tells us that no one can come to him unless they are drawn by God the Father who sent Jesus. We are drawn into relationship with God because God wills it. God is the God that feeds and sustains.
In the OT the great picture or metaphor for eternal life is the banquet or feast! In Isaiah 25, after a description of Israel as a refuge for the poor, and to the needy in their time of distress, comes a picture of the banquet that God will make “for all peoples, a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow of well aged wines strained clear”, and it goes on to describe that on this feast day God will wipe every tear from their eyes and take away the disgrace of all the peoples on earth. What a fantastic picture! And now we know that it is God, God’s-self that provides the feast, it is on God that we feed. This sounds kind of cannibalistic, doesn’t it? And indeed one of the objections to the followers of Jesus was that they were a cult that believed in cannibalism. It is part of the limitation of our minds and language, I think, that this is the only way that we can express it, and perhaps a better way of thinking of it is to liken God to the mother that feeds us at the breast, and that image is also used in the Old Testament. God loves us and provides food for us. Indeed God is going to fix the broken world by feeding us. God will defeat the final enemy, which is death, by giving us the bread of eternal life.
Now this passage raises some uncomfortable feelings for some of us if we read it exclusively. There are various references that can be read in a way that suggests that we are in and others are out. I think we need to resist this reading and understand that God loves and calls everybody. We cannot know who responds to this call, and how it all works. Jesus here is talking to the Jewish people, who think that they belong to God by virtue of their racial inheritance and Jesus is talking about a more personal response. As I said last week, when Jesus talks about “believing” he is talking about being in relationship. And the only person that we can know about is ourselves. Jesus provides bread for everyone- he is the bread of life. We belong to him by partaking in the Holy Meal.
And this belonging and promise of eternity should, I think, engender hospitality within us. We who are people assured of God sustaining us through God’s incarnation and ascension, should become people who also want to feed and sustain others in the way that we can on earth. Sharing with others a physical meal can become the basis for sharing with others a knowledge of God’s great provision of God’s-self. So as we gather around this table, today, let us be people who fed by God will go out to feed and nourish others.