Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 5, 2018
John 6:24-35 Commentary
(Note: Since the Lectionary is having us pastors camp out in John 6 for five whole weeks, this week I offer something a bit different than the usual sermon commentary: A sample sermon titled “Never Go Hungry” derived from the middle of John 6. I hope it sparks ideas for my fellow preachers!)
In the Simon and Garfunkel song Mrs. Robinson, we hear the line, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” Originally part of the soundtrack for the film The Graduate, the song became one of the 1960s’ best-known iconic ballads.
But in a 60 Minutes interview years back the songwriter Paul Simon mentioned that some time after the song was released, he received a letter from Joe DiMaggio in which DiMaggio expressed his befuddlement at what in the world that song could mean. DiMaggio wrote, “What do you mean ‘Where have I gone?’ I haven’t gone anywhere! I’m still around–I’m selling Mr. Coffee machines.” Then Mr. Simon smiled wryly at Mike Wallace and remarked, “Obviously Mr. DiMaggio is not accustomed to thinking of himself as a metaphor!”
But then, who is? Most, if not all, of us see ourselves as real people with literal, descriptive identities. For instance, I am a pastor, a husband, a father, a committee member, a volunteer, a son–these are all straightforward descriptions of who I am in relation to the people around me in life. Like most of you, I cannot readily conceive of myself as a symbol for something, as a kind of metaphor that represents something beyond myself.
Indeed, if someone came up to you at a party and said, “You are my shelter from the storms of life,” well, you’d be taken aback. Then again, if you met someone who constantly spouted self-referential metaphors, you’d have to wonder about him or her. We expect people to denote themselves by saying things like, “I am a plumber” or “I’m a stay-at-home Dad.” But our eyes would widen if someone said, “I am the oil that lubes my company’s machine” or “I am the antibody that shields my family from the virus of secularism.”
This is not a terribly typical mode of discourse. Yet Jesus, with some frequency according at least to the evangelist John, did refer to himself in a metaphorical mode. As we have seen here in John 6, Jesus often got into trouble when he uttered one of these “I Am” sayings. Over the course of church history these have become the much-loved subject of hymns, poems, and stained glass windows. We find these sayings rich in meaning. But it was not that way for the folks who first heard these words.
After Jesus said, “I am the light of the world who illumines all,” the Pharisees derided Jesus. They said that Jesus could not illumine anything or anyone and he surely was shedding no light on his own identity by saying such weird things. After he said “I am the good shepherd,” the crowds denounced Jesus as a lunatic, saying he was full of a demon and so was “raving mad.” And after the most lovely of all the sayings, “I am the resurrection and the life,” the case against Jesus was cinched and he was soon arrested.
Make your choice, C.S. Lewis once said: embrace Jesus as the God and Lord of your life or squirrel him away with the rest of history’s odd ducks. But please don’t bore the world with all this blather that although not divine, Jesus was a very fine ethical teacher who had a striking way with words. Naturally, these days a lot of people do want to say that Jesus was no more than a wandering Galilean cynic sage, a good man, a clever and insightful man but no more. He surely was no God and was definitely not thee one true God in our collective historical midst. But given what Jesus is reported to have said about himself, that generic way of rendering Jesus an interesting historical figure just doesn’t work.
If Jesus said these things without also being God, then he was not a good man: he was either a devious deceiver or a nut. But down along the ages Christians have believed that Jesus did say these things but that he was neither devious nor insane. Instead, these sayings teach us not just that Jesus is God, they also tell us more about who God is.
As many scholars have noted, the sheer number of times that Jesus so emphatically referred to himself as “I am” is itself very likely an echo of God’s personal name as he first disclosed it to Moses at the burning bush. “You tell Israel that I AM sent you.” As some of you may know, in the Greek language of the New Testament it is not necessary to use personal pronouns. In Greek the verbs are highly inflected–that is, each verb form has its own unique ending which all by itself indicates whether the subject of the verb is “I” or “you” or “we” or “she.”
So in much of the New Testament when you read in English a line like, “I am going over there,” in the original Greek you don’t actually find the word “I”, which in Greek is ego. The pronoun is implied by the verb form. But in the “I Am” sayings Jesus is very emphatic, each time including the ego as a way of saying, “I am” in a way fiercely reminiscent of the name “Yahweh,” the great I AM of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Creation, the God of the Exodus, the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
As John 6 makes clear, not only is Jesus’ very likely identifying himself with the Yahweh of the Old Testament, you need to have a strong faith in the One Jesus calls “Father” if you are to see in these “I Am” sayings anything other than the ravings of a rather odd man. If God the Father is not working in your heart when you hear Jesus say these things, your reaction will be logical, sensible, and on the human level very straightforward: namely, you will reject Jesus for uttering words that are as ludicrous as they are disgusting. But that’s only on the human level. When the divine level is factored in, the “I Am” sayings begin to coalesce into a vision of such utter clarity as to be startling.
Jesus begins with “I am the bread of life.” He begins with that most basic of human needs: sustenance, calories, food. Yet the bread Jesus talks about is clearly not that kind of food. Jesus, of course, has just finished the miracle of feeding 5,000 folks from five little mini-loaves of barley bread. It created quite a sensation and, as Jesus says in verse 26, that is why so many people are still following him around. We like people who can give us good food. Just look at the average fundraiser or auction even in churches: of all the things people put up for sale to raise money for the youth group or something, nothing quite brings in the bucks like the food items! (I once auctioned off a gourmet dinner to be cooked by me for 6 people and it went at the church auction for just shy of $1,000!)
Jesus just fed a great throng of folks in what at that time must have been the world’s biggest tailgater-like picnic. Naturally he attracted a lot of attention. “I know why you’re all here today,” Jesus says in verse 26. “It’s not the other miracles I did that has drawn you–you’re looking for another free lunch. But that’s nothing compared to the true bread of heaven that endures.” What follows on this is a fairly long and, as you no doubt noted earlier, an at-times rather confusing verbal tug-of-war as Jesus and the folks around him go back and forth about manna, true food, and eternal life.
It’s a bit confusing and repetitive but what becomes clear is that although the manna in the wilderness long ago was a wonderful miracle, it was only a shadow, quite literally just a foretaste or appetizer, of the larger plan of God. As great as the manna was, it was still just regular food. And so of course those who ate that manna were long dead. The 5,000 folks on the Galilean hillsides that day would die eventually, too, even if Jesus provided a picnic like that every week for years. So Jesus keeps talking about a food that will last, a sustenance that nourishes and strengthens for eternal life, and not just for this life.
But did you notice something else about the passage we just read? Even though Jesus keeps talking about himself as a kind of living bread which would sustain an eternal life, he keeps returning, refrain-like, to talk about raising people up on the last day. Clearly whatever else Jesus means by his talk of a bread that will last, he is not envisioning some wonder bread, some Ponce de Leon-like fountain of youth, that will keep you from physical death on this earth. Jesus’ thought here stretches toward the more distant, but very real, horizon of the New Creation.
But if you want to have that kind of a future life, you need to eat the food God gives. In this case the bread to chew and the drink to sip is Jesus’ own flesh and blood. You need to believe that Jesus is who is said he is: the one who was rained down from heaven by God the Father. Eventually in the church the way to confirm that you believe that core message of the gospel would become enshrined in the Lord’s Supper–the table of our Lord where bread and wine would become our way of connecting again and again with the Christ whom we believe is the very Son of God.
When you read John 6 through the lens of all those Lord’s Suppers you have in the past eaten, the scandal of what Jesus says is blunted. Because of that we almost guffaw at those overly literal people around Jesus that day in Capernaum who started gagging over the thought of some cannibal-like eating of Jesus’ actual flesh. How nice it is that we know what Jesus really had in mind! How nice that the vision which dances in our heads when we read John 6 involves perfectly cubed little chunks of white bread and wee shot glasses of Welch’s grape juice. It’s nicer to picture that instead of bloody pieces of Jesus’ forearm or beakers of dark purplish blood. And because we can think that way, John 6 is a safe passage for us to read. It neither grosses us out nor particularly scandalizes us.
What we miss by looking at these verses that way is what appears to be Jesus’ overt effort to cause a stir on that original day. As some of you may know, there is an interesting little facet to the Greek language used in this text—I know you don’t come to church to hear me talk about Greek but this time it’s important! You see, throughout most of this chapter Jesus used the typical Greek word for “to eat.” It was the word phagein which, had you been a Greek-speaking parent back then, was the word you would have used when you said to your child, “Jimmy, eat your carrots now!” But suddenly in verse 54 Jesus switches to the word trogein, a word which meant something like “to chew with your mouth open.” This is the word a parent would use if a child was smacking his food and chewing in a rather rude and impolite way: “Jimmy, don’t eat like a pig! Keep your mouth closed when you chew!”
Jesus seems intent on drawing out the startling scandal of what he is saying here. He doesn’t merely say, “Eat my flesh,” but goes further: “Chew on me, smack your lips over me, eat in a way that no one will miss what you are doing because they will be able to see what’s in your mouth!” In other words, Jesus seems determined here to do everything he can to prevent his hearers that day from envisioning a nice sacrament of bread and juice served on silver trays from a table with a nice linen covering. Jesus is steering us away from picturing people politely and discretely popping bread into their mouths the way we do each time we celebrate communion here in this sanctuary.
Of course, we all know of the moving, lyric beauty of the sacrament as it has come down to us. We understand the sacrifice of Jesus’ flesh and blood. So why on that day in John 6 didn’t Jesus explain this with a bit more precision and a bit less effort to shake people up with some disgusting word picture? Well, maybe because Jesus wanted to make vivid the absolutely radical nature of what he is talking about. Maybe it is not the people on that day who had the problem but maybe it is we who have made all of this too tame, too mundane, too easy-to-digest! We hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life–eat me if you want to live,” and we respond, “That’s nice!” even as we then embroider that verse onto a counted-cross stitch picture to put on our kitchen wall!
But we would never decorate our kitchens with the image of someone chewing on Jesus’ flesh with an open mouth! That’s disgusting! Indeed it is, but what ended up happening to Jesus’ precious flesh and blood was also disgusting. It was terrible. It was hell on earth in a way none of us can imagine. Jesus says we need to become part of all that. We need to stick with him through hell and high water, through the cross and into the tomb, if we are to eat the food and sip the drink which alone can keep us with Jesus right on through the resurrection from the dead.
We need to see this odd man who kept spouting self-referential metaphors and who ended up being killed for it. We need to see him clearly and, despite all appearances, we need to believe that he was none other than God’s bread of heaven. He didn’t look like it. The manna in the desert long ago had been more wondrous-looking than Jesus had been most days. But we must believe that he’s God’s man, that he is the one sent from heaven, and that by ingesting him by faith we are nourished with a life that won’t die even when the doctors pull out the last tube of our existence on this earth.
It’s a radical thing we are called to in the Christian faith. Jesus did everything he could in John 6 to make that clear to the people around him that long ago day. We need to see it with equal clarity, disgusting, startling scandal and all. Too often we fail to do that. It finally gets to the point in some of our lives where it is unbelief, and not faith, which takes us aback. We’re surprised not by what we see on the Lord’s Table each communion service but by our neighbor who finds the Christian faith to be merely an oddment, a curiosity, perhaps even a quirky collection of ancient superstition.
Sometimes we need to be shocked back to the funny thing we do and proclaim each time we eat the bread and drink the cup. In his book The Message in the Bottle Walker Percy suggested that sometimes a good way to see life in a new light is to imagine yourself an anthropologist from Mars. Try to see your life from an outsider’s perspective. Imagine some Martian arriving here on a communion Sunday and seeing most members of this congregation pop some little white cubes into their mouths precisely on cue (the “cue” being some words about “this is my body”). Most people don’t get to see communion from the vantage point of where the pastor stands, but you’d be amazed at the military-like precision with which people make that hand-to-mouth move at almost precisely the same second!
So suppose our Martian friend asked just what in the world this could mean, and suppose we told him that we were metaphorically ingesting the flesh of a man who was crucified two millennia ago but whose flesh and blood somehow, even all this time later, have the power to bring our flesh back to life one day at some distant, but unknown, future time. You get the feeling that were you to say that to our Martian anthropologist, his asking of questions would by no means be finished! And rightly so. For Jesus to claim that his flesh was real food and his blood real drink is properly arresting, maybe even a bit alarming. It ought never to be regarded as merely obvious, especially by those of us who have grown altogether too accustomed to this mystery.
I love the way John concludes this section: “He said these things in the synagogue in Capernaum.” There’s more going on in that line than a simple geographic report! There is tremendous irony there: Jesus said these quirky, yet finally cosmic, things about himself and he did it in some out-of-the-way little town in the backwaters of Galilee. Faith begins on that postage stamp of real estate and in that ordinary son of a carpenter whose body was no bigger than any other man in this room tonight. Faith begins small like that but then explodes outward as the shock waves of what Jesus said ripple on and on and on. If you can believe that Jesus is God’s Son, the one rained down from heaven by the Father, then the radical message of John 6 is the dearest truth: Jesus is the bread of life. Feast on his love and you will never go hungry. Never. Amen.
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