The Bread of Life

August 15, 2021

Series: August 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Brook Scott

Today's Scripture: Psalm 111 and John 6:51-58

Today's Sermon


"The Bread of Life"


Psalm 111
Praise the Lord!  I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.  Full of honor and majesty is God’s work, and God’s righteousness endures forever.  God has gained renown by God’s wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. God provides food for those who fear God; God is ever mindful of God’s covenant. God has shown God’s people the power of God’s works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of God’s hands are faithful and just; all God’s precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. God sent redemption to God’s people; God has commanded God’s covenant forever. Holy and awesome is God’s name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever. 

John 6:51-58
“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 Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 

            When I was in high school, I had an engaging English teacher named Mrs. Elias. She knew how to make the stories that we read come to life. When we read The Canterbury Tales, we got to dress up in costumes and dine together, as if we were at a medieval banquet. The best part was that we were allowed to eat with our hands! She explained that they didn’t use knives and forks at these bawdy banquets. So, we pulled the flesh from large, greasy, meaty legs of turkey with our fingers. And we pulled the meat off with our teeth and gnawed on the bones. We drank out of big metal cups filled with mead (which was probably just grape juice). Our fists and faces were smeared and dripping with grease and juice. We were so engrossed in the experience, even though it felt so barbaric! We were “all in,” you could say.

            Well, in the Gospel of John, we are given a shocking image of another banquet of sorts. Jesus says “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Eat Jesus’ flesh? The words may still shock us today. Perhaps they even sound a bit cannibalistic, or even creepy! Drink my blood? But, the words are meant to shock. They are meant to say “get off the fence.” Either you are all-in and believe that Jesus is Divine and was sent by God. Or you don’t. If you believe, you are invited to partake in the body of Christ. Then, you will know God. But we must have the visceral, physical reminder of a visceral, physical God who came in the person of Jesus. We must take the physical bread and dip it in the physical wine (or grape juice) as a reminder of God’s physical presence in Jesus Christ.

            Jesus’ flesh and blood is not, of course, the actual physical flesh and blood of Jesus, although it sounds that way with such graphic language. It is a symbol that points to all that Jesus represents – Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, and the One who was sent by the Father. That claim is the whole point of the Gospel of John.

And once we know God, we, too, can get our hands dirty and do the work of God.

            Let’s take a closer look at what was happening when The Book of John was written around 100 Current Era.You see, at the time of John’s Gospel, a small Jewish sect of people who were followers of Jesus Christ were being challenged by other Jewish followers who did not believe enough in Jesus to take part in the act of communion. 

            So, when we hear the Jews ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” John is not using the term “the Jews” in a pejorative way, as it has tragically been misused to characterize all Jews in Christian tradition. No, of course, Jesus was a Jew. No, Jesus was referring to those Jews who could not buy into Jesus’ claim of divinity and meaning of the eating of his flesh. And certainly, they would be offended by any talk of drinking of blood, especially given the purity laws against eating blood of any flesh in the Old Testament. In fact, in the Gospel of John, many of the followers of Jesus turned away after Jesus’ astonishing proclamation that he is living bread that must be eaten to bring life to the world. So, the Jews here in John’s Gospel are stand-ins for “unbelievers.”  

            Secondly, the listeners, as Jews, would have been familiar with the story of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. It was there that God provided food from heaven, or manna, for them to eat. But, manna given to the Hebrew ancestors did not last. But, this bread that Jesus offers provides everlasting nourishment.           

            So, once we know God, we, too, can get our hands dirty and do the work of God. But sometimes, we enter into believing in Christ reluctantly. And so it was with Barbara Brown Taylor.

            You may be familiar with Taylor, the Episcopalian priest and prolific author. Would it surprise you that she didn’t come to Jesus until she was in college, and even then, she was a reluctant convert to Christianity? That’s right. After two young, evangelical Christian college students came to her room with their Bibles and prayed with her, she got down on her knees with them and declared that Jesus Christ was her Lord and Savior. She explains in the book, The Preaching Life, that she did it partly out of curiosity and partly to get them to leave sooner!

            But then she explains: “All I know is that something happened, something that got my attention and has kept it through all the years that have passed since then. I may have been fooling around, but Jesus was not. My heart may not have been in it, but Jesus’ was. I asked him to come in and he came in, although I no more have words for his presence in my life than I do for what keeps the stars in the sky or what makes the daffodils rise upout of their graves each spring. It just is. He just is. ‘’who are you?’ “I am.”

            That is the answer the Pharisees, she says, could not accept because they could not see through it. It was opaque for them, a claim that caused terrible problems for them no matter how they looked at it. Whether Jesus was speaking for God or insteadof God, he was way, way out of line, claiming the equality with a God who had no equals. The way they saw it, there was only one great I AM and Jesus was not it.

            She continues: But there is another way to view his answer – not as opaque but transparent – the answer of someone who does not claim equality with God, but intimacy, whose being is so wrapped up in the being of God that when he says, “I am,” there is no difference between the two. When you look at him, you see God. When you listen to him, you hear God. Not because he is taken God’s place, but because he is the clear window God has glazed into flesh and blood – the porthole between this world and the next, the passageway between heaven and earth…

            We cannot nail him down, she said, we tried once, but he got loose, and ever since then he has been the walking, talking presence of God in our midst, the living presence of God in our lives. If we cannot say who he is in 25 words or less, it is because he is our window on the undefinable, unfathomable “I am,” and we cannot sum him up any easier than we can sum up the one who sent him.

            “Who are you?” That is the only question worth asking.

            “I am.” That is the only answer we need” she concludes.

            So, how has the life-giving, hands-on work of communion been represented in the Christian tradition? Certainly, the passage in John of the blood and the flesh has eucharistic overtones. Yet, John’s Gospel is different in significant ways from the three other Gospel stories of Matthew, Mark and Luke. For John’s Gospel uses the symbol of the bread of life and the “I am” statement, which indicates Christ’s divine nature, while Matthew, Mark and Luke do not. John uses the graphic description of flesh and blood, while Matthew, Mark and Luke use the more familiar: “Take, eat, this is my body.” And John’s Gospel does not tell the communion story at the Last Supper as the other three do. Instead, the eating of the bread of life comes after the feeding of the five thousand near Passover. But all four gospel stories point to the same Jesus Christ, who came into the world for the life of the world.

            God wanted everyone to know Jesus who God sent, so that everyone who believes could get their hands dirty and do the work of God in community with others.

            Once we know God, we, too, can get our hands dirty and do the work of God, sometimes when we are not even planning on it. It can be sacred work. Like when a young, teenaged girl in Mrs. Elias’ English class ended up going “all in.” She turned toward Christ again 15 years ago in this church after her breast cancer diagnosis. She went to seminary and became a hospital chaplain. She knows that God’s presence channeled through her when she sat with cancer patients in the hospital two years ago, in the most sacred work she could have ever imagined she would experience. That young girl in Mrs. Elias’ class was me. And, as I stand before you now as a Pastoral Associate preaching the Word, I know that God does, indeed, work in mysterious ways.

            Once we know God, we, too, can get our hands dirty and do the work of God as a church, sometimes in big ways, or, other times, in small ways.

            William Sloane Coffin, the late Yale University chaplain and minister at Riverside Church in New York City, talked about communion with God and how it can spur us into action in one of his sermons.

            He said: “I have a special fondness for the Communion Service…Food is the most basic affirmation of life, and the bread of heaven feeds my soul. But the bread is not only a symbol of Jesus, it is also symbolic of the church that calls itself “the body of Christ.” I believe that as members of Christ’s church, Christians are brought together in one loaf to be broken to feed the world. I believe Christians could make an enormous difference in this world; and maybe, by God’s grace, even save it. The only question is if we will.” Amen.