Still more bread.
What started with the familiar story of the Feeding of the 5000 a month ago has become a subsequent four week excursus into Jesus as the bread of life. And, as our visiting priest Sarah Brock said last week, as we’ve gone along these texts sound more and more like a script for a Halloween horror flick rather than something to be read in polite company at church on a Sunday morning. Jesus says unless you chew his flesh and gulp his blood—and in the Greek he is literally that explicit—then you will have no life in you. Cannibalism much, Jesus? I mean seriously, these words shock. They offend. They make you glad that they’re read in the dog days of summer rather than in a month from now when everyone’s back in town.
A sermon on John 6.
Over the last month, Jesus hasn’t let up. He keeps repeating himself that he’s the bread of life that came down from heaven, and that the way to find life is to ingest his body and blood. As theologian Will Willimon puts it, “John’s repetitiveness can best be seen as a sign that what is being said is important.” He doesn’t want the hearers of his gospel to miss his point. And, Willimon suggests, “it is also a sign of the difficulty of what is being communicated.” Somehow Jesus knew that what he was saying would not compute and so he had to keep at it, saying it in different ways for us to truly hear it. “I am the bread of life 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.” Did you catch that last bit? “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus’ giving of his body and blood brings salvation to the physical world.
A few of weeks ago I was speaking with a person at the graveside of a loved one. She explained to me her belief that when we die our spirits alone continue on, absorbed into the energy that exists in all things. Her cosmology isn’t new, of course, as it was Plato who perfected the idea of the spirit being good and the body, well, not so much and needing to be cast aside. I didn’t respond really—perhaps nodding a little—because she said, “Well, at least that’s what I believe,” before changing the topic. Standing next to a fresh grave is not the time to engage in a deep theological conversation about the place of the physical body in the realm of the eternal. But today perhaps, we could do that because John is so insistent that we understand what Jesus is saying.
During John’s writing, this idea of the superiority of the spirit or soul over the physical body had begun to take root in Christianity. Some of these teachings insisted that Jesus was not really flesh and blood. Rather, those who believed this espoused one of two ideas: either Jesus was a spirit, a phantasm, that wandered around appearing like a physical being and did not actually die on the cross—you can’t kill a spirit, of course—or the spirit of the eternal Christ entered into and took over the body of the man Jesus of Nazareth at his baptism and departed at his crucifixion just prior to his death. You see, it was easier for them to imagine these sorts of things than to say that God became flesh and blood. Yet John’s Prologue, which we often read on Christmas Day, is pretty clear: “The Word—that is, Jesus—became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus came down and pitched a tent in our neighborhood, as the Message Bible puts it. Jesus the very Son of God became a human being like us.
You might be saying, “Phil, c’mon, it’s summer! We’re still a few weeks from the start of school, and besides, no one thinks that way now.” And you might be right in thinking that. But I also want to tell you we have a love-hate relationship with our bodies. The diet industry market grew to 192 billion dollars in 2019, and is projected to reach $295 billion in 6 years. Magazines present ideal bodies on their covers with photos that have been retouched and slimmed and enhanced in Photoshop. In the US, according to Mental Health America, “20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder.” We lift up youth and beauty, and those of us who fit neither category, well, just have to deal with it. So imagining eternal life away from this physical realm and these bodies of ours can sound like, well, heaven, while at the same time be tremendously harmful and not at all biblical. Jesus says, “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.” The direction of Jesus is toward us and this physical world not away from it, and his words deals very much with the literal flesh we inhabit. In our receiving Jesus’ body and blood—in our partaking in communion around an altar—we acknowledge our need of Jesus’ saving grace that comes through his death, resurrection, and ascension. And it is through Jesus’ Passion that the entire world is saved. All of it. The water in the oceans and the puffer fish that swims there, and the places we mine to make our cell phones, and the Amazon rain forest that loses thousands of acres each day. Jesus gives his body and blood to redeem the world.
Why this is so important is two fold. First, we affirm that Jesus overcame death and the grave and was raised in bodily form. He was not just a shadowy spirit—remember the disciples themselves even think that he is at first, and so he takes some leftover fish and eats in front of them after his resurrection. The flesh and blood of Jesus which had indeed died has been restored and glorified through the immense power of love. We believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and that we too will be raised like him. Even though we will die—and none of us can avoid that fate—we can put our hope in the belief that we too will be raised.
Second, our bodies are holy, sacred, and deemed very good in the eyes of God. God did not make a mistake when we were created as if our flesh was not part of God’s design. God intended for us to live in the skin and bones that we have. Through our bodies we experience the fullness of God’s creation. The joy of seeing the perseid meteor shower, of hearing a live concert, of touching the hands of a new born baby, of smelling the salt air at the beach, of tasting sourdough bread fresh from the oven. The feeling of grass on our bare feet, or sitting near a waterfall, or sipping a well made cup of coffee, or being enchanted by birds at the feeder. All of it is a gift for us to enjoy while we walk the face of this planet. We encounter all of this through our physical bodies.
And the evil one works hard to have us believe our bodies are not good. That they aren’t the right size, or that they are too wrinkled or that we need to look a certain way. As we age, we lament our bodies and the failing eyesight or the bad hip or the receding hairline or the stretch marks. We hear the lies and begin to imagine that we do not measure up, and so do not believe God’s declaration that we are indeed very good just as we are, bodies and all.
Which may feel a long way from bread, but Jesus is adamant that he is the bread of life, and that when we receive his body and blood, we find our way to eternal life. What if we were to ingest the truth of God’s love for us when we receive the bread of heaven? What if we were to start experiencing more palpably a fulness of life? Of getting out into the natural world more often, and eating delicious meals with loved ones. Or noticing the places where we overconsume resources or food and cutting back? Or choosing to take a break or cut out completely toxic messages that come through social media or people in our lives shaming us because of how we look?
The life that Jesus offers us is that joy-filled hopeful life of the resurrection. No, friends, we will not live forever, nor will our souls just float around after we depart this life. But on the day of the Lord we will be raised from the dead. This matter that we are made of will be transformed, and God will come down and live among us, and he will be our God and we will be God’s people, as St. John the Divine puts it. We will experience this resurrected life because we partook of Jesus, and we will live because of his love. Jesus loves you, full stop. Not at some imagined point in your life when circumstance will change. Jesus loves you now and always, and he offers us the true bread from heaven so that we might truly live in the knowledge of that love. May we do just that, may we receive him into our selves, so that our lives may be complete.