Come to the Table and Taste the Bread of Heaven
John 6:35, 41-51 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, 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.”
C. S. Lewis famously declared in Mere Christianity that Jesus is either “Lord, liar, or lunatic.” Now there are reasons to dismiss Lewis’ declaration, largely because we don’t have a definitive record of what Jesus may have actually said about himself and his place in God’s economy. That being said, in John’s mind, as recounted in John 6, Jesus is most assuredly seeing himself standing at the center of God’s vision of creation. He is the bread of life, and whoever eats of this bread, which is his flesh, will live eternally. If you want to take hold of the promise of eternal life, then you’re going to want to believe in Jesus. I realize that the idea of belief is problematic for many, at least if belief is understood to be assent to creedal statements. In large part that is due to the Enlightenment quest for certainty that turned statements of faith into religious checklists. If you assent (without any doubt) then you’re in. If not, well – sorry about that. In addition there is the question of living faithfully in a pluralistic world. The desire to engage persons of other faiths, which I do consistently, has led some to give up any sense of confidence in the tenets of their own faith. Would we not be wiser to hold our beliefs humbly, recognizing that others might have good reasons for their own beliefs. In other words, confidence needn’t lead to arrogance.
I raise these concerns as background for our reading of the lectionary selection from John 6 designated for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. This is the third reading from John 6 (three are three more to follow), signifying that this is one of the richest chapters in the entirety of scripture. As I noted in last week’s reflection, John 6 is a deeply sacramental text, which offers us a foundation for understanding the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. Since John lacks an explicit institution narrative, this chapter has long been understood to be John’s Eucharistic statement. For John, eating bread and drinking wine serve as sign that Christ is present with us and even with us.
The people came to Jesus because they were hungry and he had them. If he had done it once, wouldn’t he do it again? Jesus receives them but reinterprets their quest. They seek material satisfaction – the filling of the belly. Jesus is more concerned about filling the heart. Therefore, he offers them something that lasts – not just for the moment, but for eternity. In other words, he is offering them a different kind of kingdom, one that transcends life as we know it. He invites them to join up, to be part of his team. In doing this they will be fed spiritually. Not everyone is happy with his answer. They begin to grumble – don’t we know where he came from. What does he mean be coming down from heaven? Is he equating himself with God? How can that be, we know his origins. So, Jesus confronts their grumbles and essentially doubles down on the message.
Speaking of God as his Father, he tells the crowd that the Father will draw to him those who are ready to follow. No one is going to come to him unless the Father determines it. In other words, if you’re not thrilled about the message, don’t worry, Jesus isn’t expecting you to follow him. But for those whom God draws to Jesus there will be a fountain of blessings.
As we meditate on this passage, seeking its message for us, we need to take stock of the possibility of an anti-Jewish reading of the text. John tends to use the word “Jews” to define the opponents of Jesus. It is necessary first to recognize the serious damage that has been done down through the years by using this as an epitaph against the Jewish people. This is not acceptable. We also need to remember that Jesus is/was Jewish, so whatever Jewish opposition to his message is an intramural one. What this does signify to us is that John is addressing a community where it appears that the Jewish/Gentile divide has widened to the breaking point. Thus, the word about the opponents’ ancestors who received manna from heaven needs to be understood in this context. Jesus’ ancestors also wandered in the wilderness and received the bread from heaven. What he is trying to get at is that even as he is facing critics, so did Moses.
Once again I would like to read this passage eucharistically. When Jesus speaks of being the bread of life or the bread of heaven, he is presenting himself as the means of sustenance – not physically, but spiritually. When he speaks of belief, he’s not simply speaking of assent, but commitment to the person and cause. This affirmation is sealed, Jesus suggests, by eating the bread of heaven, which is his flesh. As we will see this causes further grumbling, but what does this passage say to us who are followers of Jesus about the meaning of the Lord’s Table? What is happening spiritually when we eat the bread and drink from the cup (whatever the method of receiving one uses)?
I’m struck here by the message of ingesting the body of Christ. For Protestants like me there has been a hesitancy to speak in such terms lest our views get confused with the Roman Catholic understanding of transubstantiation. That isn’t necessary. For one thing the doctrine of transubstantiation developed long after John’s gospel was written (see my book on the The Eucharist: Encounters with Jesus at the Table for more on this), but as Luther understood in ways that Zwingli did not, there is more going on in the Eucharist than a mere memorial. There is something powerfully spiritual taking place in this meal. If we’re open to it, it can be a place of transformative encounters.
It is not that there is something magical about the elements, but they do provide a sacramental foundation for a deeper relationship with God. How might we understand ingesting the elements as indicating our own reception of Christ into our life? How might the elements take on spiritual power when they are given by the presider and received by the recipient by ingesting the elements, so that one might partake of Christ’s body and blood. Consider what John Calvin writes, with the words of John 6:26 in mind:
It is that we are quickened by the true partaking of him; and he has therefore designated this partaking by the words “eating” and “drinking,” in order that no one should think that the life that we receive from him is received by mere knowledge. As it is not the seeing but the eating of bread that suffices to feed the body, so the soul must truly and deeply become partaker of Christ that it may be quickened to spiritual life by his power [Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 Volume Set), IV.17.5 (vol. 2, p. 1365)].
One needn’t be a Calvinist to discern something important in his words. It is not mere assent, but receiving Christ into our lives spiritually that ultimately transforms us. For Calvin that place of reception comes at the Table. As he continues, he writes:
In this way the Lord intended, by calling himself the “bread of life” [John 6:51], to teach not only that salvation for us rests on faith in his death and resurrection, but also that, by true partaking of him, his life passes into us and is made ours – just as bread when taken as food imparts vigor to the body. [Ibid.]
As Nicholas Wolterstorff notes, “liturgical communion between God and God’s people attains its highest form in the Eucharist. By eating the bread and drinking the wine we receive Christ into ourselves, whereupon, Christ dwells and works within us” [The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology, p. 161]. It would seem appropriate then that this passage be heard and considered in the context of the celebration of the Eucharist, which brings us to a new degree of mutual address between God and God’s people – not merely words but true signs of Christ’s living presence.