I am having difficulty settling on a sermon for the third section of John 6, so I have decided to move into the fourth segment of John’s continuing Bread of Life discourse. The text for this is John 6:51-58. The sermon for John 6:1-21 can be found here and John 6:22-36 here.
If we read Chapter 6 superficially, it sounds like many, many words saying the same thing. It sounds repetitious and redundant. “I am the bread of life.” Five weeks of sermons saying the same thing.
There are two ways to read virtually any written work, however – literally and figuratively. Most of us don’t stop at the literal wording of John’s gospel – even literal fundamentalists. This gospel defies a literal reading. Jesus is not actually a light, a word or a loaf of bread. We are not literally sheep. The figurative reading, however, can be just as shallow and repetitious – leading many to think that all God expects is to accept Jesus as savior and put him into your pocket as a free “get out of hell” card.
There is a third way of reading any work – a way that is essential for reading scripture. Reading theologically mines the scripture for what it says about God, God’s will, God’s will for our lives, and the message of Jesus Christ.
Of the four gospels, John’s is the one that does not claim to be a historical timeline of Jesus’ life. John is a Greek wordsmith beyond compare and deftly uses words to make claims for the divinity of Jesus’ life and message, and to make statements about God and God’s will. From start to finish, John’s is the most theological of the gospels.
We are very familiar with concepts from Chapter 1, in all their meanings. “The Word became flesh”, “the Word was in the beginning with God, and the Word was God”, and “the Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it” – each of these, and many more, have resulted in many, many rich interpretations and sermons. The images abound within John’s writing in Chapter 1, and preachers have mined the depth and breadth of the wording for each nuance.
Chapter 6, however, is many times taken only at figurative value by preachers, leaving the mining of its intricate theological shifts and turns, variations in wording and word images to academia. Since the chapter deals primarily with the “I am the Bread of Life” discourse, the sermons generally deal with the superficial meanings that are obvious in the English translations. One difficulty is, “how do you write a sermon dealing with John’s subtle use of Greek language that doesn’t sound academic and dry?” Well, ultimately, you’ll be the judge.
Unlike Chapter 1, in which the word imagery is more overt – more obvious – the significance of patterns and words in this chapter only become obvious if they are examined in the original Greek language. Already, in the past weeks, we have encountered imagery that is very subtle in English, but very expressive in Greek. Rather than 50 verses, so far, of repetition, it has become apparent that the chapter is a growing anthem, constantly rising in tenor, depth, claim and meaning.
There has been a developing pattern – most of it built on the crowd misunderstanding the significance of Jesus.
The crowd mistakes Jesus for the King – the bringer of security – feeding them a meal to fill their bellies. Jesus explains how they are wrong. The bread from heaven that feeds Jesus spiritually is the “doing of the will of God.” The bread of life Jesus is referring to is his message about how to do God’s will. Jesus calls himself the message – saying he has been sealed and sent by God to bring life to the earth. Then Jesus says he is the Bread of Life – the message that is his very being is the bread sent by God. Still misunderstanding, the crowd grumbles that Jesus is one of them – they know his mom and dad – he’s just like us – how can he be sent from heaven? Jesus reiterates, “I am the Bread of Life.” But, still the crowd misunderstands – as, many times, do we.
So in the fourth segment we have the climax of Jesus’ anthem. We have another section to go, but that will be the anticlimax, and we’ll save that for another installment.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” continues Jesus from last week. “Whoever eats (estheo) of this bread will live forever; and the bread is my flesh (sartz) that I will give for the life of the world.”
In John 4:32-34, Jesus talked about the food that sustains him. It isn’t worldly food or bread, artos in Greek, but broma from heaven. What is broma? Broma denotes food that is more substantive than artos – bread. Most of the time it refers to meat – the flesh of animals. Meat has more substance – more nutrition – than bread.
From John 4, This spiritual “meat” that Jesus eats (the verb is estheo) is “doing the will of God.” Whoever eats (again, estheo) this bread (Jesus) will live forever. And then Jesus adds, “The bread is my flesh.” The word used is sarka – meaning human flesh. This isn’t body as in “this is my body given for you”, which is of course familiar. That would be soma. This is sarka – the muscle and tissue of Jesus. Now that may seem a little grotesque to us, but to the Jews it was thoroughly disgusting. Taken literally, this is cannibalism. Jews have restrictions on the kind of meat they can eat – and human flesh has never been one of them. The crowd, who has taken Jesus at face value all along, continues here by asking, “How dare he talk about giving us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus, renowned for talking in parables and word pictures, continues with even more disgusting imagery. “Unless you eat (estheo) the flesh (sarka) of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Eat his flesh – drink his blood – it couldn’t get more repulsive. Well, yes it can – and it does. But first let’s examine this statement a little.
In Jewish belief, blood is the life essence of any living thing. Drinking the blood of any animal has always been forbidden – it robs even the corpse of life. Jews had to let blood drain into the earth – an early idea of completing the cycle of life, it seems. Literally, the imagery is unconscionable – no question about it. Figuratively, which the crowd could not grasp, the imagery gets understandable and much more acceptable. We tend to equate this, figuratively with Eucharist or communion. Take my body given for you – drink my blood poured out for you – so you may eternal life. Most Christians do that regularly in taking communion, and most sermons deal with this chapter as John’s description of the communion ceremony.
Well, let’s continue and then see if a theological reading adds any meat to the bones – adds substance, if you will. John, in approaching a crescendo, adds a little more fuel to the fire. “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.”
The word for eat is no longer estheo, but changes to trogo. Trogo is a word that is much more visceral than estheo. You see, estheo describes how humans eat, while trogo describes how animals eat. Trogo means to “chew on”, “gnaw at” or “to gobble”. It describes eating with abandon – being fully engrossed in eating. When applied to humans, it means being gluttonous. Apart from the next few verses of John, trogo only appears once more in the New Testament.
In Matthew 24:38-39 Jesus says, “For as in those days before the flood they were eating (trogo) and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” God caused the Great Flood because humankind was preoccupied with itself – humans were self-indulgent, gluttonous, drunken and only concerned about events in their own lives and communities. They had no time for God, and no time for others. In God’s eyes, they were irredeemable. Thank God for Noah, eh?
Rather than using trogo in a negative context, John uses it positively to describe the manner in which we should eat the flesh of Jesus. Let’s unpack this theologically. What do these figurative images say about God and Jesus, and our relationship with them?
Just to revisit:
The bread from heaven that fed Jesus was “doing the will of God.”
Jesus is the message sealed and sent by God to show how to do the will of God.
Jesus is the Bread of Life.
Therefore, the Bread of Life is the message from God about doing God’s will.
Eating Jesus’ flesh is akin to adopting the message of God – the message that has been consistent from the prophets through Jesus – do justice, act in mercy and live in right relations. You know – you’ve heard it before – “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” But how are we to eat this message. Certainly not while being concerned about our own comfort and full bellies – we’ve already heard that. But not even politely – in nibbles – taking it in little bit by little bit. No! We’re to chew it with abandon. We’re called to be gluttons – not for ourselves, but for God’s message about how we live with each other. Fully immerse ourselves in the process of understanding God’s message.
But what about that blood thing? Jesus’ blood is the essence of his life – and his death. The blood refers to the very life and death of Jesus – the life lead by example and by lesson, and the death suffered in opposition to those that were self-serving and power hungry. This is John’s lesson about how to live a Christian life.
The message – the bread of life – the flesh – of Jesus is not a nice series of stories that we think about on Sunday mornings, but the signposts for a way of living that serves God’s will day in and day out. It is the way we are supposed act with respect, justice, mercy and right relations every hour – every day – with abandon and gluttony. The blood – the very essence of Jesus’ life – is portrayed by how he lived. It’s what living to glorify God and do God’s will looks like – and it is that to which we are to aspire.
If there’s anything that may be more disturbing than the literal imagery of John’s gospel, it may be the theological understanding that he crafts in words.
It’s not about our comfort – about our happiness – about passively accepting Jesus as our savior. It is about the comfort and well-being of the other as well as our own – about using common good as the guiding ethic of our lives instead of self-interest – about actively, gluttonously living out the will of God to love each other.
Now, that’s disturbing.
I’d like to close with a small story – a very, very small illustration of God’s love played out. You’ve probably heard it before, but listen now in light of John’s gospel.
A child went up to the counter of an ice cream store. She asked how much a sundae would cost. The man behind the counter said, “Two dollars.” The girl privately counted her money – obviously planning on paying in coins. She then asks, “How much for a scoop of ice cream in a bowl?” The man answered, “A dollar fifty.” The girl ordered the scoop of ice cream.
At the register the girl empties her little purse of coins on the counter. The man counts them and they add up to exactly $1.50. After being asked if she enjoyed the ice cream, the girl answers, “Yes, very much. Thank you.” Smiling, he thanks her in return, and then stands there wondering if he should have given her the sundae, anyway.
A few minutes later, the man walks over to pick up the little girl’s dish and spoon. Tucked beside the bowl he finds fifty-two cents in pennies.