Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
August 22, 2021
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go?
Finally, finally, we’ve reached the end of chapter six in John’s gospel. If you’ve kept track these past five weeks, you heard the entire teaching of Jesus after he fed five thousand people on that green grassy hillside.
In the church we call this teaching “The Bread of Life” discourse; it may have sounded these past Sunday mornings, like I was reading the same gospel lesson over and over. I haven’t; the lectionary just breaks into parts all that Jesus’ taught as the people followed him from that hillside:
“I am the Bread of Life; Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” living bread, “so that one may eat of it and not die.” It is a little too bad we don’t read this all in one setting, as it is remarkable to see what John does with the entire story.
He begins by telling us Jesus’ followers numbered in the thousands. People have come from all over the region. After the miraculous meal, they continue to seek him out over land and across the sea of Galilee.
The people want to make him king. Jesus tries to make them understand that is not what he came for. He wants to move them beyond the signs and wonders they’ve seen. He wants all of his followers, the hundreds of disciples pursuing him to comprehend the deeper meaning of what they are experiencing.
When we hear Jesus words’, they may not seem so difficult to understand. If you’ve been around the church, you’ve grown up with this symbolism. But to the people at the time, his teaching was jarring. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Jesus knows the people are taken back. He asks, “Does this offend you?”
For several years while living in Huntsville, Rob and I supported an organization called Global Ties. This group’s aim is to build civil conversation between ordinary people in different countries and share best practices in business, law enforcement, and justice.
Our part was to provide a place for them to stay. We would host in our home two or three persons at a time who’d traveled to the US from all over the globe. Over the years we hosted men, women, and teens from Ukraine, Egypt, Belize, Russia, El Salvador and Tajikistan, just to name a few.
Sometimes we had to work through a language barrier, but most of the time, they knew English very well. We shared what our countries are like, and how we do things the same and differently.
So interesting to me, was learning what they thought of Americans before coming here and what they realize now having visited, and being educated myself on what their lives are really like.
Our Russian visitor explained that all she knew about America before, was what she read in the novels of Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts— Robert’s is a romance novelist, by the way, and Clancy an author of thrillers, so you can just imagine what this woman thought America would be like. I remember the Egyptian men asking why our bananas had no taste. Apparently, the flavor of banana candy is really what bananas taste like when they are not picked green, weeks before ripening and shipped across the world.
It was snowing the week the visitors from Tajikistan came— we got two inches of snow! Many of their meetings were cancelled which they thought was hilarious, their country is mountainous with harsh winters, so we spent lots of time together!
Rob had broken his leg a year before while snow skiing, and so he told the Tajiks the gruesome story of being on the hilltop in Utah, and how the ski patrol, seeing his leg turned unnaturally behind him, the red snow around his ski, rushed him down the mountain on a stretcher, bouncing painfully over moguls of snow. And when arriving at the helipad, he did not quite fit into the helicopter with his splinted leg sticking out, so the rescue guys quickly said “sorry” before turning his leg sideways and slamming the door shut. Our Tajik friends looked at one another, smiled, and responded : In our country, you would have been left to die on that mountain.
During each of our visitor’s stay we were to take them wherever we went. Or, at least, offer for them to go. So we always invited our visitors to attend church on Sundays. Some came. Our Tajik friends said yes, immediately.
We knew they were Muslim, so I was a bit surprised, but they said they really wanted to come.
You should try this sometime.
Sit in a pew with someone unfamiliar with Christian practices, and listen as if for the first time. Hear the words of the Eucharist in particular: “Take Eat, this is my body which is given for you.” With our Tajiki visitors sitting next to us, I understood so clearly why early Christians were accused of cannibalistic beliefs. I wondered what our new friends thought of us.
Those around Jesus disputed among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus responded, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus presses on… “It is the spirit that gives life… The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life. Jesus is teaching about listening to the words with your heart.
One reflection I read this week paraphrased Jesus words,
“It is as if Jesus is saying, You are hearing my words in a mundane way — listen instead in a heavenly way, a spirited way, a life-giving way. You are thinking too literally, too prosaically. This isn’t cannibalism — the language of eating is the best language available to express this heavenly mystery, this mutual indwelling – this communion that is for you the source of real life. Open your mind to the spirit of what I am teaching. I know it sounds outlandish and incredible on the surface — but listen in a deeper way. I am the Word, the Logos, the Life. Communing with me, you truly live. Abide in me, as I abide in you. Take and eat. Open your mind, and open your heart, and trust.”
Many of Jesus’ followers were unable to hear this message; they cannot make the leap of faith that Jesus is asking them to make. They turn away. John’s story, that begins with five thousand, tells us the numbers are whittled down. I wonder if the people’s reluctance is mostly about just following the crowd or, if they actually understand what he is saying but do not want to acknowledge their dependence upon anyone.
Jesus uses food, bread, the staple of life, intentionally. Bread offers great symbolism. It begins with bare wheat grown from the earth, ground and mixed with a bit of salt, water and yeast, and bakes into lovely warm loaves.
Just talking about bread reminds us we do get hungry, and as for those living on the margins, such as Jesus’ followers, that emptiness is real, it is scary. Bread reminds us, whose stomachs are never really empty, that we are dependent upon a creator for all that the earth provides, and dependent upon one another for the food that we eat.
Would we be willing or too prideful to stand in the bread line?
From the thousands at the beginning of the story, we hear Jesus now turn to his twelve disciples and ask, “Do you also wish to go away?”
This is a critical turning point in John’s Gospel. John does not hide that many turn back. John also gives us Peter’s wonderful, perfect answer, one of my favorite lines in the whole gospel, “Lord, to whom could we go? We have come to believe and know you are the holy one of God.”
Long before Christian art portrayed Christ on the cross, it depicted him Breaking Bread.
When you think of Christ breaking bread, you might be picturing the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, but that is relatively recent in the scheme of things. Da Vinci painted the Last Supper – the one with all the disciples sitting on one side of a table (an unrealistic, but beautiful scene) – in the 15th century.
But way back, we find the earliest Christian symbolism is simply food.
The walls of third century catacombs are etched with loaves of bread and fish. A beautiful mosaic in Israel from the 5th Century is laid out so that at its center is basket of bread with two fish by its side; 5th C Christians meeting in basilicas in Rome, carved into wooden doors scenes of Christ holding out bread to his disciples at Emmaus.
Our earliest Christian brothers and sisters wanted to share the most important insight they’d gleaned as followers…
that Jesus, in his teaching and life, invites us into fellowship, an intimate fellowship of communion, sharing himself as food for the journey.
Thanks be to God.