Sunday, 9 August 2009

Living Bread

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on 9th Aug 2009, Trinity 9

One of life’s greatest pleasures is to share a meal with loved ones and friends, isn’t it?
It is for me, and I'm quite sure it is for you too – good food, good drink and good company! And it must have been so for Jesus as well, since so often in the Gospels we find Jesus sharing meals with others. He shared table fellowship not just with his disciples and friends, but also with tax collectors and sinners, and with Pharisees and scribes – with all kinds of people.

When Jesus himself broke bread as the host at a meal, he had a special way of doing so – first he took the food, then he gave thanks or blessed it, and finally he broke it and shared it out. It was so distinctive that only when the disciples on the road to Emmaus saw it did they recognise Jesus, after his death and resurrection. Today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 6:35, 41-51) comes just after Jesus shares a meal with others on a grand scale – the feeding of the 5000 – a gigantic outdoor picnic. There too in his special way, he took, blessed and shared the five barley loaves and two fishes to feed the crowd.

We can recognise this same sequence of actions – taking, blessing and sharing - in the Last Supper as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And that of course is the model for Holy Communion - the Eucharist - which we with all other Christians continue to celebrate in his memory. The Last Supper can be seen as an acted parable – and so, I think, can all the other meals Jesus shared in his Eucharistic way of taking, blessing and sharing.

But what does the acted parable of Eucharist mean? In today’s reading John opens out for us the spiritual significance of Eucharist for Jesus himself, in Jesus’s own words. The last verse (John 6:51) sums up what Jesus meant:

‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Today I’m going to share with you my own reflection on these words.

First, what does Jesus mean when he says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven’?
Jesus says ‘I am’ many things on different occasions, among them ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the door’, ‘I am the way’, and ‘I am the true vine’. He is of course talking in metaphors, about his relationship with those he is talking to, but also his relationship with God, who he calls his loving Father.

Jesus has just been responding to hecklers in the crowd who want him to display earthly power as Moses did by sending bread from heaven - manna - to feed the people in the wilderness, so naturally the metaphor Jesus uses on this occasion is about bread.

As Jesus tells the hecklers, it is God who sent the manna, just as it is God who sends the food we all need to nourish our bodies. But Jesus wants his listeners to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. God also provides what we need to nourish our spirits – by analogy with the bread which feeds our bodies, this is bread from heaven.

And Jesus knows that his loving-father God is calling him, by his every action and every word, to offer this spiritual nourishment to all people. So he uses metaphor to describe himself as the living bread which comes down from heaven.

The hecklers in the crowd knew quite well who Jesus was - the son of Joseph the carpenter from nearby Nazareth. They chose not to understand the metaphor – and they ridiculed the idea that Jesus came down from heaven.

Second, what does Jesus mean when he says, ‘Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever’?
I suppose people since the dawn of humanity have dreaded death and had fantasies of living for ever. But we all know, as Jesus did, that our physical bodies are doomed to die and decay.

Yet for Jesus this is not what truly matters. What does matter is our relationship with God. It is those who believe that God is like a loving Father, enfolding and protecting them, that are released from dread of their own mortality. So he says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life’. Eternal life is surely another metaphor for a loving relationship with God.

And more than that, Jesus knows his own importance. Working in and through him, God reveals his own nature as loving Father to those who listen. Those who feed on Jesus’s words and actions, as on bread from heaven, have eternal life.

'This is eternal life,’ says Jesus, after the Last Supper in John's version, ‘that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’

Third, what does Jesus mean when he says, ‘The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’?
Jesus goes on to equate bread from heaven with his own body, his own very flesh. He does so again at the Last Supper, when he says ‘Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you’, words we still hear every time we attend Holy Communion, when the priest consecrates the Eucharistic bread.

What a shocking thing to say, with that suggestion of cannibalism! It certainly upset the hecklers in the crowd. And it also upset many of Jesus’s disciples, who, we are told, ‘turned back and no longer went about with him’.

And it still causes problems for some of Jesus’s disciples today. On the one hand we have those who accept - perhaps with difficulty - the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby in some miraculous way the essence of the Eucharistic bread is actually transformed into the essence of Jesus’s flesh. On the other, we have those who are disturbed by the idea that the Eucharist involves eating human flesh.

I think that perhaps some Christians interpret these words of Jesus too literally, as the hecklers in the crowd did. For here surely Jesus is extending the metaphor of bread from heaven, and to understand it we need to look behind the literal words.

Christians have wrestled to understand Jesus’s metaphor of his flesh as bread ever since. They have come up with many different ideas – and perhaps this is part of the strength of the metaphor, that it can be understood in so many ways. For myself, I wonder if the point is simply this - that Jesus is expressing the depth of his commitment to God’s saving work for us. He is ready to give up his life, his human existence, his very flesh for it. For that is what he did for us on the cross.

These words of Jesus are difficult, and you’ve sat patiently through my reflections on them, poor as they are.
But why don’t you take a little time to ponder them for yourself? Take out your copy of the Bible and read John Chapter 6. Jesus's words may speak to you in a quite different way to how they speak to me. And that is alright – it is alright if you disagree with me - metaphors often bear many different meanings at the same time. God will surely grant you the metaphors that are right for you.

To finish, let's listen again to what Jesus says:
'I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

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