… So Jesus said to them, “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. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me…. (Read the whole passage)
Today we receive our fourth loaf of bread. We have been abiding in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel for 4 weeks now, and still there is one more week to go. The ongoing discussion that we have been eavesdropping in on, between Jesus and the crowds, began with the feeding of the 5 thousand, with 5 loaves and two fish. But soon after the food had been eaten and the baskets of leftovers collected, the crowds and Jesus get into a debate. A debate about what the bread means. A debate about who Jesus is. A debate about who God is. A debate about life in the community of faith.
And now, instead of just celebrating the simple and beautiful miracles of 5 loaves and 2 fish becoming enough for all and then moving on, we have delved deep into the heart of the issue between Jesus and crowds. We are dealing with the big issue for the people listening: Abandon all they know to be truth, and accept the promise of life and grace, a promise made by wandering carpenter turned preacher. Abandon their families, friends, culture and all sense of security that exists in a troubled world and life, for a promise that has no guarantee.
For the crowds listening to Jesus, the idea of eating flesh and blood would have made them squirm, as it does us. Yet, for the Jewish crowds, the challenge to their religious practice and tradition would have been equally hard to accept. The eating of flesh and blood was something done in pagan temples. The pagans believe that by ingesting the sacrifices made to their gods, they could acquire their god’s powers.
In the temple in Jerusalem, some of meat that was sacrificed was permitted to be eaten and it was not because it had any special power, but because it was good food. And the blood used in temple rituals was understood to have purifying effect, not magical powers.
But what Jesus was talking about was on a whole other level. Eating my flesh. Drinking my blood. This is a direct challenge to the way the Jerusalem Temple and religion operated. Jesus is suggesting that there are other ways to obtain God’s forgiveness than temple sacrifices. There are new ways of acting and being under the law. That there is a new understanding of how God feels about sinners and the unclean.
Eat this bread, eat his flesh, and you will live forever Jesus says. But at what risk? Giving up the system, the traditions, the practices, the worship that everyone knew and understood. Give up knowing how the world works, even if it is hard and exclusive world. Even if often the poor and common people cannot obtain forgiveness or be made clean or find God’s love because it is simply too far from reach.
American Lutheran Pastor and Professor Joseph Sittler wrote about his experience with a parishioner who held fast to her understanding of prayer. Sittler’s congregant often boasted about her prayers for parking spots.
“Whenever I am going to work or to the mall or to church or to the theatre, I pray for parking spot. And without fail there is always one waiting for me when I get there.”
This understanding of prayer bothered Sittler, and often he would try to show her different ways to view prayer and how God answers it.
“Have you ever not found a spot? What about others praying for parking?” he once asked. Yet these questions did not sway the woman’s view.
Another time Sittler asked,
“What if there was a mother with a sick child driving to the hospital? And what if you were on your way to a routine doctor’s appointment? What if you took her spot? Which prayer did God answer?”
“Well mine of course” responded the woman fiercely. “Because I prayed harder and had more faith”.
As modern Christians, we understand Jesus’ words today in a eucharistic context. We know, we can feel it in our bones that Jesus is pointing us to the Lord’s Supper. To that holy meal that we share each week that feeds our faith, that binds us together as a community and that gives us strength for service in the world.
But we also know what it is to squirm with the crowds who are debating with Jesus. We may feel icky at the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood, but we can place this idea within a larger understanding of what Jesus is getting at.
Yet, like the crowds, we too have our own views and understandings. We have traditions and our system for religion. Like the crowds, we know how good faithful people worship and pray, how we keep the laws and rules and act morally. We know who among us has the sincerest faith and the most studied understandings. And when we begin to differ, we also know the arguments that prop up our point of view best are the ones that condemn others.
And so while we share in Jesus body and blood, we don’t escape the challenge that Jesus presents today. We don’t escape the challenge that Jesus gives to our traditions and systems, to our abilities to keep the rules and judge those who don’t. And most importantly, we cannot escape the fact that Jesus is telling us today, that it is God and God alone who obtains, who gives, and who allows us to be forgiven. It is God alone who gives us life. It is not by our own merits, or faithfulness, or acceptance of Jesus that saves us or makes us pure. It isn’t by being a good Christian that we save ourselves. It is always in the moment we think we can wrap our hands around this faith stuff and the moment we think we know what God wants and likes, that we lose it all. It is in the moment when we think we have got the right understanding, that Jesus steps in and reminds us that it is always different than we think.
Over the course of years, Joseph Sittler tried again and again to convince his parishioner that parking spots were not likely to be one of God’s chief concerns. And again and again, he was rebuffed. “You need to pray harder and more sincerely” was the response he got over and over again.
Until finally, one day in Advent, and the topic of praying for parking came up again, Sittler knew how he would respond to this certain and self-assured parishioner. After hearing once again, that when this woman prayed for parking spots God always provided, Sittler said,
“What do you suppose a very pregnant Mary was praying for as she bounced along on the back of that donkey while riding to Bethlehem.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, Pastor”, the woman replied.
“Luke 2 verse 7” Sittler offered. “And she gave birth to her firstborn and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Just when we think we have the world figured out, just when we think we have God figured out. Just when we think we can point to God and say, if you worship, or pray, or act, or serve in this way, you will be in God’s good books, Jesus lands in front of us again. Jesus lands in a manger when there are no room at the inn. Jesus lands on a mountain top with hungry people needing bread, but needing God’s love even more. Jesus lands on a cross, and transforms death into life. And here, Jesus lands as body and blood in our midst, at our table, in our mouths and into our bodies. Jesus lands in, with and under us, reminding us that just when we think we have God figured out… Jesus is the one who is giving us life, and we are forgiven, not because of our efforts or faith or ability to know, but solely because of God’s love for us.
This fourth loaf of bread might be the hardest to swallow. The first loaf was a miracle, a miracle reminding us that with Jesus there is enough for all, enough for us. But today, as we hear again of the Bread of Life, as we hear about who the bread of life is and what it means for us to eat this bread… we are stripped of our comforts, of our traditions and systems that help us to be self assured and certain of our understandings. Today, Jesus feeds us bread from the living Father, and we will live. It might not be comfortable and it might make us squirm, but in this Jesus, this God who turns what we know upside down, in Christ there is life.