Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 23, 2015
John 6:56-59 Commentary
Comments and Observations:
But how does it all end? After plunking us down in John 6 for the whole of August in Year B, the Lectionary puts on the brakes before we can get to the end of the story where the REACTION of the crowds to all of this is recorded. So I would suggest to my preaching partners that you extend the reading to verse 69 to round out this series of reflections on Jesus’ at-times strange words in this chapter.
Because there we see that the ending to this chapter and all its teachings on bread and spiritual food is not the proverbial “happy ending.” This whole chapter has been about food, both literal and metaphorical, both physical and spiritual. It began with a great feast as Jesus fed a large crowd from almost nothing. It proceeded from there to talk a lot about food and drink.
Eating is the most common of activities. To live, each of us eats every day. That was just as true 2,000 years ago when Jesus spoke to the crowds. But our familiarity with eating should cause us to have sympathy for the people who listened to Jesus that day and who were quite put off by what he said. It did, after all, sound odd. We’ve all seen those TV ads that declare, “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner.” Well, here Jesus says, “Me: I’m What’s For Dinner.”
Well, we think, obviously he was speaking metaphorically, but even metaphors need to translate into something you can understand. If a poet writes, “My beloved is a tender flower in springtime,” we have a pretty easy time figuring out what he means. But what if a poet wrote, “My beloved is a loin of pork served with sour cherry chutney”? OK, that’s a metaphor, too, but it’s such a weird one, you’d find it simply unintelligible. (Or you would then REALLY want to know what he means by that!)
So also in John 6. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had spoken non-metaphorically about manna–the heavenly wonder bread that had kept the Israelites alive in their forty-year wilderness wanderings. Then Jesus did a little springboard off literal manna so as to slide into the more metaphorical idea that God’s true bread from heaven is his Word. The people responded, “Sir, give us this bread,” which prompted Jesus to say, “I am the bread of life.”
So far, so good. Metaphorically speaking it was not unusual to describe teaching in food terms. Paul did that, too, calling simple gospel teachings spiritual “milk” whereas deeper ideas were the “meat” of the gospel. People still talk this way. How many times haven’t we listened to TV commentators criticize a politician’s speech by asking, “Where’s the beef?” Others might say that someone’s presentation was “thin beer” or “poor soup.”
So for Jesus to say, “I am the bread of life,” wasn’t too scandalous. Jesus was known as a great teacher and so here appears to be comparing his words to bread, to a kind of spiritual cuisine that could feed your soul. Had Jesus stopped there, things may have gone better in John 6. But next thing you know, Jesus says that the bread in question is not his teaching but his own flesh. Getting a bit more graphic yet, Jesus says that what you needed to wash down his flesh was a cup brimming with some of his blood.
This is where Jesus lost a lot of the crowd. Jesus lost them because he was making them lose their lunch. It was disgusting! In fact, as noted in the previous set of sermon commentaries on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website, earlier in the passage Jesus switched his verb from the typical Greek word for eating, phagein, to trogein, which means “to eat” but in the sense of the way a cow chews its cud. This could be paraphrased as “chewing with your mouth open.”
It seems Jesus is being deliberately provocative. Of course, as he makes clear after most of the crowd had fled, he really was being metaphorical. But if the metaphor was strong, it was only because the reality behind the metaphor was stronger still. But the only way you are going to accept such a startling teaching is if Jesus’ Father reveals it to you. But lots of people did not want to stick with a man who talked that way and so they left.
Then, in a touching verse, Jesus turns to his disciples with moist eyes and with a quivering chin. “Are you going to leave me, too?” he quietly asks. Peter’s answer is even more moving than the question. “Lord, to whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It’s the gift of faith that shows you that. “No one can come to me,” Jesus says, “unless the Father enables him.”
Christians regularly gather together to eat what we (too casually) call “the body and blood of our Lord.” In the earliest days of the church, it seems that this sacramental meal was often incorporated into a larger feast in a kind of potluck supper to which all contributed. The church has long intermingled regular eating with sacramental eating. But if we too quickly chalk up the sacramental eating of Jesus’ body and blood as “just” a metaphor, we may miss the power of what happens at the Lord’s Supper. The Father brings his Son to us so that we can commune, really and truly, with the One who gave up his flesh and blood for us. “You are what you eat,” they say, and given what we eat each time we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are clearly to be Jesus. We are Jesus to one another, we are Jesus to our community, we are Jesus to the whole world.
Today as long ago, Jesus still asks, “Are you going to leave me, too?” As preachers, we want to help make it the case that the members of our congregations will always be able to say in reply to this question, “And just where would we go, Lord? You have the words of life!”
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
It’s sad to see people abandoning Jesus as John 6 concludes. But do you think that precisely such a winnowing out of the crowd was Jesus’ intention all along? Do you think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in being so provocative in his language about eating and drinking his own flesh and blood? Surely he was not ignorant of the fact that people would find this gross and offensive. When in verse 61 Jesus asks, “Does this offend you?” you have the feeling that he knew full well that it was offensive, at least to those who were not being granted the gift of faith by the Holy Spirit and at the Father’s behest.
Still, what does this departure of so many people tell us about the fundamental nature of the gospel? It seems that in all four gospel accounts, including John’s, the more true to his message and purpose Jesus stuck, the thinner the crowds became. The more he spoke God’s own truth, the more people turned away from him. Everybody liked the free lunch at the beginning of John 6 even as people liked the free wine in John 2 and the miracles that followed in John 3-5. But when it comes to the harder truths of the gospel, when it comes to the message that salvation comes not by what we do, think, perform, or believe but only when the Father draws us in, people are less apt to get enthused.
As someone once observed, there is a difference between actively giving offense and someone’s taking offense. Sometimes through carelessness or through calculation, we offend someone by deliberately saying or doing something we know will rankle this other person. This kind of giving offense is the kind of activity that Paul and others in the New Testament warn us against. But sometimes people take offense simply because we spoke the truth. Maybe we even “spoke the truth in love” and yet still someone was offended insofar as it challenged some long-held belief that this person is loath to give up.
As preachers, we are not to be deliberately provocative so as to rattle people’s cages for the sake of rattling them and making a splash. But even if we know that some in the congregation won’t like to hear a certain idea, if we are convinced it springs directly from Scripture—if we’re sure this is God’s truth and not just some hobbyhorse idea of our own—then we must speak it even if people leave the church as a result.
None of us wants to have to say to those who remain, “Are you going to leave me, too?” But if the few who remain can answer by saying something along the lines of, “No, you are speaking the words of eternal life, and we know that this is exactly what we need to hear,” then we are being faithful even as Jesus was faithful.
Verse 62’s reference to Jesus’ “ascending” to where he was before seems an odd insertion into a passage that had otherwise not come anywhere near broaching such an image or idea of an ascension. Nor does Jesus do much with this himself in the subsequent verses. But as Donald Juel once pointed out, this does hang together with earlier references in John 6 of Jesus’ being the one who had “come down” from heaven. The offense people were feeling toward Jesus was all of one piece. If he really is the Son of God who came from the Father and who would return to the Father, then those who found Jesus offensive were proving themselves to be, quite simply, on the wrong side of history (salvation history in this case). But as Juel further points out, this fleeting reference to Jesus’ going away is a preview for the extensive material still to come in John 16 when Jesus talks so very much about his going away for a while but how this would prove advantageous for the disciples in that it would allow him to send them the Spirit, who would lead them into all truth.
Mark Salzman’s novel, Lying Awake, is set in a Carmelite monastery just outside of Los Angeles. The book details the lives of the nuns who live there and ultimately ponders the meaning of what constitutes a genuine religious experience of God’s presence. The nuns devote themselves to prayer and contemplation, allowing the rhythm of liturgy to set the cadence of their lives. All their thoughts are bent toward the Holy and the Divine and so they eschew anything that could distract them.
One of the perceived threats to a spiritual life is food and drink. And so when, three times a day, the nuns gather in the monastery’s refectory for meals, they are not allowed to speak a single word. The only one who does speak is that day’s appointed reader, who reads from Scripture and classic works of Christian devotions while the other nuns silently take in their sustenance.
The goal at mealtime was to do anything-but pay attention to the food. At the head table where the Mother Superior sits, there is a calvarium, a human skull, sitting in the center of the table, serving as a reminder to the nuns that everyone will die one day anyway and so food and drink were of only marginal significance. And so the nuns made as little noise as possible during the meal in the firm belief that maintaining a proper spiritual focus was never more threatened than when taking food into the body. It was, therefore, every bit as important to observe proper decorum in the dining hall as in church.
As some of you know, a monastery such as this one reflects a strain of asceticism and austerity that runs fairly deep in the Christian tradition. It is not, however, a particular hallmark of the Reformed tradition that tended to view the physical creation and all its bounties as profound gifts of God. Whereas the nuns in Salzman’s novel are convinced that pondering food would distract them from God, Reformed types are more apt to think that not celebrating food is a sign of ingratitude toward God. Because it is striking how frequently Scripture yokes the image of a feast with God’s salvation.
The nuns in the novel Lying Awake hoped incessantly for vivid experiences of God’s real presence among them. They were so focused on this goal that they ate their food as though not really eating lest they get pulled away from God. But every time we gather at Jesus’ dinner table—and indeed, every time we gather at any dinner table—we should see in food and drink not a distraction from all things holy but a connection to the truth of God’s creation care, to the reality of our salvation through Christ, and to the final truth that one day, what will be good news for us will be good news for also the rest of creation.
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