After his baptism, Jesus went out into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights. By the time the fast ended, Jesus was famished. Then the tempter came and said to him: “If you are the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Though Jesus was very hungry, he told the tempter that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:1-4).
In the Gospel of John we find Jesus facing another temptation. On the morning after he fed the multitude, the crowd followed him across the lake, hoping that he would feed them once again. Jesus left the crowd behind the day before because he realized that they wanted to take him by force and make him their king (Jn. 6:15). Clearly his withdrawal didn’t deter them, because they hoped he would be a new Moses who would provide manna from heaven. Jesus responded to their requests by telling them that he was the bread of life. He was the bread from heaven that God desires to provide.
There are differences between this temptation story and the one we find in Matthew 4. In Matthew Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread to feed himself. In John 6, he’s tempted to feed the crown in exchange for their loyalty. Jesus resisted that temptation and offered them food that doesn’t perish. He offered them the bread that “endures for eternal life.”
This week, as we continue our Eating with Jesus series, we hear Jesus tell the multitude “I am the Bread of Life.” When you read the Gospel of John, you have to be on the alert for these “I Am” sayings. There are a number of them, and all of them have roots in God’s self-revelation to Moses in the desert. It was in the desert that God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush, and when Moses asked for God’s name, God simply answered: “I Am who I Am” (Ex. 3:13-15). After Jesus tells them that he is the bread of life, he says that “whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
In the Gospel of John, everything we read is rooted in the declaration that the “Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14). The message of John is that the Word of God has been made known to us in Christ, the Son of God (Jn. 1:18). At one level, when Jesus declares that he is the Bread of Life, he has in mind his teachings. That is, as Jesus tells the Tempter in Matthew 4, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). That is Jesus’ mission—to reveal the heart of God. We hear something similar later in John. As Jesus was sharing a final meal with his disciples, he told them that they were his friends, not his servants, because “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (Jn. 15:15).
When we gather at the Table, we come as friends of Jesus. He makes everything he has heard from the mouth of God known to his friends. I titled the sermon “Eating the Bread of Life” in keeping with the theme of the series. The question is: What does it mean to eat the bread of life? At one level it means believing his words. It means putting our faith in Jesus, so that we might be in a position to experience God’s promise of eternal and abundant life. At another level, we need to hear how Jesus develops this idea a bit later in John 6.
In verse 51, Jesus declares: “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.” It’s here that John 6 takes on a eucharistic tone. At least it’s possible to read this chapter in light of what happens at the Lord’s Table, because Jesus invites us to eat his flesh so we can live forever.
Protestants have shied away from thinking about communion in such realistic terms. For us communion has often been a meal of remembrance, but Jesus seems to be diving much deeper than that in John 6. Hear these words from John:
Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. (John 6:53-56)
I’ve always found this passage intriguing. It’s a good reminder why early Christians were accused of cannibalism.
To set your minds at ease, I’d like to share this word from the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, who wrote about the conversion of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He noted that “nothing perceptible happens. The bread remains bread, and the wine remains wine. For if it happened ‘palpably,’ then Christianity would be a magical cult and not a religion of faith, hope, and love.” [Eucharist, p. 222].
Many of Jesus’ disciples found his statement about eating his flesh and drinking his blood unacceptable. So, they turned away. This was too much for them, but when Jesus asked the remaining disciples whether they were going to leave as well, Peter responded: “Lord, to whom can we go: You have the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68).
So, what does Jesus mean by eating his flesh and drinking his blood? What should we make of these words?
We may on occasion use the phrase “flesh and blood” to speak of a familial relationship. So, I might speak of Brett as my “flesh and blood.” What I mean is that he shares my DNA. Could it be that Jesus has something similar in mind? When we believe his words, which lead to eternal life, we become one with him. I’d like to suggest that when we share in the bread and cup by faith in God, then what we’re doing is partaking of his life. Or, we might want to use the word “abide.” The word “abide” appears here in John 6, but it also appears later in John 15 in the context of another “I Am” statement. This time Jesus is sitting at the dinner table with his disciples on the eve of his death on the cross. He tells the disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” He tells them: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15:1-4). What is it that allows the branch to abide in the vine? It’s the sap, the blood of the vine.
As we come to the Table, and share in bread and cup, we come as members of the body of Christ. We share flesh and blood. The bread and cup are signs of that relationship we have in Christ that unites us to God and to one another. I don’t know if John had the Lord’s Supper in mind when he wrote the words we find in John 6, but they do help us flesh out the meaning of the Table. It’s not just a meal of remembrance of an event that took place long ago, when a man died on a cross in Jerusalem. It’s much more than that. It has to do with abiding with the living Christ, who meets us at the Table. If we’re receptive, he transforms our lives. Then we can experience that which is eternal, that which is abundant. Indeed, as that old hymn declares: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.” [Chalice Hymnal, 537].
To eat the bread of life is to put our trust in Jesus, for as Peter reminds us in his own confession of faith. Jesus has the words of eternal life. Thanks be to God!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
February 5, 2017