It’s not about bread.
We are now in the fourth straight week of readings from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel and by now, I hope we’ve made it at least this far. We often call this text the “Bread of Life” discourse, but it’s not about bread. This is Jesus at his most mystical, it’s the Jesus who left Nicodemus astonished and confused back in chapter three. If we try to take Jesus’ words literally here, we will end up as confused as Nicodemus, or even worse, as hostile as the crowd which confronts him in today’s gospel.
Jesus is speaking here of a mystery that words can never fully capture, a mystery that is best articulated in sign, symbol and sacrament, in story and in dramatic enactment. If you read the text carefully, you will notice that each time the crowd tries to latch on to what Jesus is saying in a literal way, he moves in a new direction, spiralling upward towards the great mystery, hoping that we will follow him along that way, that we will trust him long enough, we will stay open long enough to come to experience what that mystery has to offer.
It is a spiralling discourse that begins with the crowds eating loaves of bread, satisfying their immediate hunger but leaving them longing for more. And more is precisely what Jesus offers when they find him a second time, though not the second serving of loaves and fishes that the crowd clamours for.
Instead he offers life, and not just the biological life of everyday living, we’ve already got that. The life that he offers is a different quality of life. It is the life that in chapter 10 he will call “abundant life”. Here he calls it by another name. “zoen aionion”. Literally, the life of the eons. We usually translate it as “eternal life”.
Which tends to confuse us a bit. Because we often associate the phrase “eternal life” with “life after death”, or going to heaven. But though it may encompass these things, the eternal life that Jesus is talking about here is not something that happens in the future. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” Here. Now. Eternal life is available to us here and now, in this life, and beyond.
When Jesus uses the word “eternal”, he’s trying to communicate to us that the life that he is offering is qualitatively different from regular human life. “Eternal” is a characteristic that belongs to the divine. Only God is eternal. And yet Jesus is telling us that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood have eternal life, signifying that we can participate in and experience this divine life right now.
That sounds good says the crowd. So what do we have to do to have this eternal life?
And here Jesus shifts the conversation again. This is what you must do. Believe in him whom God has sent.
And here we get confused again. Because we so often take the word believe to mean that we accept something as true, that we give cognitive assent to some fact or proposition. But the Greek word here, pisteuon, does not have that sense. It has much more the sense of “trust me” or “have faith in me”. It’s a relational word. And it gives us a clue to where Jesus is heading. He is pointing us in the direction of relationship. Relationship with Jesus, the one sent by God, who is God, who came into this world, the Word who became flesh and lived among us. It’s all about relationship.
Now, the gospel doesn’t use the word relationship, because that’s our word, ‘relationship’ is a modern word that likely originated in the 17th century. Instead the gospel of John uses the language of abiding:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
This then is eternal life: that I abide in the divine and the divine abides in me. A mutual in-dwelling, a closeness and a participation that the image of eating and drinking is meant to evoke. This is the mystery that Jesus is pointing us towards, though words will never capture it fully.
Sometimes we call it Communion.
And the communion that is being offered lines up with our deepest desire as human beings, and that is our need for belonging and connection.
One of the things that I had time to do during my recent holiday and travels was to listen to some great podcasts. And one common theme that emerged from listening to interviews with people like Jean Vanier, Richard Rohr and Brene Brown was the immense human need for connection on the one hand, and yet the challenges we face in obtaining it on the other.
Brene Brown, a writer and researcher in Texas, puts it this way:
“We are neurobiologically hard-wired for belonging and connection, we are hardwired to want it and need it so much that the first thing we do is sacrifice ourselves and who we are to achieve it.”[i]
We need connection, and we seek connection. But, according to Brown’s research, we want it so much that we have a tendency to hide the parts of ourselves that we are afraid might stop others from connecting with us. We have a tendency to hide our weaknesses, to not reveal the shameful parts of ourselves, to cover up anything that is ugly. We put forward instead our Instagram selves, and these become the basis of our relationships. But in so doing, we sacrifice ourselves and who we are to achieve connection and belonging.
But God in Jesus is saying to us, I know your weaknesses, I’ve seen your flaws, I’ve been there during your embarrassments, I’ve seen the pictures you didn’t post on Instagram. I know you as you truly are, and that’s who I want to connect with, to be in relationship with, to abide in. I will be in you and you will be in me, and you will experience the divine life. You will know the belonging and connection for which you were created, just as you are, no strings attached, no posturing or defenses required.
There’s something appealing in that. And yet, a lot of people will find this idea of a mystical communion with the divine to be a bit scary. The prospect of a close, intimate, vulnerable, raw, and honest communion with the one who created the heavens and the earth can be a bit intimidating. In next Sunday’s text we’ll see that most of the crowd that Jesus is addressing actually run away. It’s too much for them. But those who are closest to Jesus, those who have learned to trust him, those who have been with him long enough to begin to experience the new life that is being offered, they stay. They abide.
Does all of this, this invitation to communion with God, does it seem a little mystifying at first? I warned you right at the beginning, this is Jesus the mystic who is speaking. But Jesus also understands that we may need to start with something a bit more concrete, something easier for us to touch and see. And so he offers us two things which are within our grasp, which we can reach out and touch. The first is the invitation to communion and connection with each other. “A new commandment I give you,” he will say on the night before his death: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Enter into relationships of communion and connection. Experience mutuality, vulnerability and intimacy, accepting each other as you truly are, practicing forgiveness and compassion, entering into relationship. Because here is another piece of the mystery: one way that we experience communion with God is through our communion with each other.
The second gift that Jesus gives us is the sacrament of the Eucharist, or as we often call it, Communion. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is both ordinary and extraordinary, tangible and yet a mystery. We come to the table together, and we eat and drink. We come together, in communion with each other. When we come to the table, we enter into God’s presence and abide in God. When we receive the bread and wine, which is for us the body and blood of Christ, God enters us and dwells within us. Gathered around the table, we are one. And we participate in and experience, if only for a moment, the divine life, life in all its abundance.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them, and they have eternal life.
Homily: Yr B P20, August 19 2018, St. Albans
Readings: 1 Kg 2:10-12, 3.3-14; Ps 111, Eph 5.15-20; John 6.51-58
Image by philcalvert, Creative Commons
[i] On Being with Krista Tippett. Interview with Brene Brown, “Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart”, Feb 8 2018.