Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69
Yes… it’s one more week of the sixth chapter of John and the bread of heaven, these discourses that have interrupted the Gospel of Mark in the Lectionary for the last five weeks in which Jesus continues to try to tell his followers a vital truth about who he is and what they, as his followers, must do to have this ephemeral concept of “eternal life.” If you can remember back at the end of last month, we began with the story of the feeding of the five thousand. This miracle that so impressed the crowd that they wanted to take Jesus by force and make him their king. We began with a crowd of over five thousand, following this Jesus, not even giving him time to step away and pray or refresh himself in solitude, and today we hear that his message has become so difficult and offensive that even his disciples are turning away.
As we know, John’s Gospel is the one that is laden with deep and mystical meaning. More than in the other Gospels, language is important in John. Words do not simply mean what they mean, and simple concepts like bread and life are deep with spiritual and theological importance. This bread that Jesus talks about is bread for the body on one level, and on another it reminds John’s hearers of the manna that God provided their ancestors in the wilderness. But it is ever so much more than that, Jesus tells them. This bread is himself, his very life; and those who eat it "will live forever." But they weren’t getting it, and some two thousand years later, we are still wrestling with it!
“You are what you eat.” Or “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are” as Anthelme Brillat-Savarin originally wrote it in Meditations of Transcendent Gastronomy. He might have been saying tell me what it is that you take into yourself, what it is that you surround yourself with, what is it you immerse yourself in, what it is it you identify yourself most intimately with and I will know who you are.
Jesus says to his followers, “I am willing to be given to you, to be completely sacrificed for you in love, because I know who I am and that this self-giving is part of my very essence. And those who allow me to feed them, to take me into them completely will have the life that is true, that is real, that does not end. And…they will become more and more like me, more identified with me.”
“This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” Indeed. This is not the first time the disciples have struggled to understand Jesus. Nor of course will it be the last. The scholars wrangle over whether or not it is the language of the eating of flesh and drinking of blood that offended Jesus’ Jewish hearers, or if it was simply the response to the rest of the message that they were reacting to. Becoming like Jesus. This Jesus who ate with outcasts, insisted on justice and compassion….upset the status quo. Whatever the reason, John tells us, many of his disciples fell away at that point. Apparently it was just getting too hard to follow this strange rabbi. He was asking too much. And in a kind of heart stopping moment, Jesus asks the twelve, “So what about you, are you leaving me too?” And Peter, good everyperson Peter, whom as we know doesn’t always get it right or do it well, in this case has the answer we all want to hear right then, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” We can almost hear the echo resounding down the ages from Joshua choosing “for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Throughout time it is always God who has been faithful, who has remained in relationship, in covenant with God’s people. God’s beloved have always been given a choice, and they have not always chosen to serve God. For though we too know, like Joshua’s people, God has been faithful to us, and perhaps we can think without too much trouble, at least on a good day, of the ways that God has brought us up out of slavery, of our own signs of God at work in our lives, of the ways we have been protected along the way, we also might feel with the disciples that following Jesus is just too much at times, and we, too might want to turn back and no longer go with him.
But still he keeps coming back to us. “I really am the only one who has what you need for life.” Peter knew…. and our hearts know….to whom else can we go really? This Jesus who breaks into human history as the Incarnate manifestation of God….to show us literally who God is…..this living bread….the Holy One of God who willingly sacrifices himself for us…we who are God’s beloved ones, simply so we can abide in God and God in us….what an amazing promise of covenantal relationship…. And then of course…. calls on us to respond.
Because of course there is that other part of the both/and of the Incarnation….Jesus, the bread of heaven comes to feed us God and sustain us….but for what? Perhaps this was the thing that really made Jesus’ followers turn away…. the message of radical hospitality, inclusivity and love that does not count the cost… this Gospel that led to Jesus “ascending” to death on a cross before resurrection could ever be possible.
At times we may feel as Paul did, that we “struggle against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” and that we need to “put on the whole armor of God” on to help us deal with whatever we encounter as we live this countercultural message of the Gospel. While we may not face life and death choices, we are all asked in ways both large and small to take stands for truth and righteousness, and to proclaim the gospel of peace. Through our baptismal vows we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good, News of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
You are what you eat. It is all of this that we commemorate and celebrate in our Eucharist. The great both/and. Jesus, bread of heaven feeding us the perfect gift of God that will not fail…but also our knowledge that this is bread for a journey, …that we have placed on us by virtue of our baptism a call to use the nourishment we are given to do as Jesus did to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth….to act in turn as Jesus did, even if it calls us out of our comfort zones, even it calls us to sacrifice. We cannot feed others if we ourselves are not nourished. Do we allow Jesus to feed us? In the Word and in Spirit, in community and in the Eucharist? Are we open to receive? Can we, like Peter answer Jesus, with open hearts, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."