Living forever (John 6:51-58)

FullSizeRenderSee this loaf of bread? What if I told you that this loaf of bread would make  you live forever? What if I told you this simple loaf could keep you from having a heart attack or from coming down with cancer?

It is really a healthy loaf of bread. It has organic whole wheat flour, farm-fresh, free range eggs, butter from grass-fed cows, seeds and oat meal…you know that oatmeal can lower your cholesterol, right? This bread has all kinds of B vitamins, fiber and other good stuff. Why, if you ate this bread and drank this bottle of red wine with its resveratrol and other antioxidants, you could live forever…well, maybe not quite forever, but a really, really long time.

Every week there is a new claim that some miracle food will cure all that ails us. One week it is oatmeal, the next it’s blueberries and pomegranates, the next super oxygenated water and even medicines like steroid drugs. All through history, people have bought the claims of various snake oil salesmen, scientists and the latest study of nutrition and pharmacology hoping it will be the miracle fix. We are always looking for ways to live forever, to find the fountain of youth.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes the most amazing claims about the bread he offers us. He offers us bread, not just healthy, nutritious bread, but living bread–bread that will make us live FOREVER.

Throughout the Book of John we are given signs of who Jesus is. The book begins with John the Baptist proclaiming Jesus’ coming. Then we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism. John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

The first of these signs takes place at the Wedding in Cana when at his mother’s request, he reluctantly turns gallons of water into wine…not just any wine, but the best wine. “And his disciples believed in him.”

Jesus soon after meets the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and tells her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  She tells him that she knows the Messiah will come and when he does he will proclaim all things. Jesus tells her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” The woman leaves the well and tells everyone she meets about her encounter with this remarkable man and his promise of water that will forever quench her thirst.

Later on the Gospel tells the story of Jesus feeding 5000 or more people miraculously with five small loaves of bread and two fish. After everyone’s hunger was satisfied, the disciples gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers. This miracle is another revelation, a sign, of who Jesus is. Then he walks on water…just to be sure the disciples are paying attention.

People follow after him. They have heard the story of Jesus feeding the multitude and remember that Moses gave the people of Israel manna from heaven. It saved their lives. He reminds them that is God who sent their ancestors manna, not Moses. He tells them not to “work for bread which perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said “I am the bread of life. Whoever believes in me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” What? What kind of wonder bread is he promising them? Never hungry? Never thirsty? 750 million people in this world do not have access to clean water! Between 800 million and a billion people go to bed hungry every night! Is it possible that none of them believe in him, is that why they’re hungry? Or is Jesus talking about a different kind of hunger and thirst?

In verses 47-51 Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

That sent the religious leaders into a frenzy. “Who is this that tells us to eat his body and drink his blood?” they asked. The Law forbade any Jew to eat dead stuff that had not been killed according to the food rules laid out in Leviticus. Eating human flesh was especially repulsive and is to us as well. Drinking blood of any kind was strictly forbidden. That’s one Old Testament law I have no problem obeying! The listeners present said, “Who is this guy? Isn’t he from Nazareth? Nothing of importance comes from Nazareth. Why is he suggesting we eat things that are unclean? This is gross!”  Even many of his disciples found the idea repulsive.

Jesus answered, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

It is important, I think, to notice that in these verses Jesus talks about “living bread” not just bread or even the manna eaten by Moses and the Israelites in the desert. He is not talking about his dead body and blood. This bread is alive. The words used in the original Greek to describe the eating of his body literally mean “gnawing, eating with one’s teeth, munching, crunching, eating noisily.” Certainly the eating to which Jesus is referring is more active than letting a tasteless, white wafer slowly melt in one’s mouth. It is an active eating, chewing. It is not pasty white wonder bread. It requires some effort to chew and digest–whole wheat, with nuts and seeds and a crunchy chewy crust–bread that can sustain you, feed your body and in this case, your soul.

What we eat becomes part of us. When we eat bread, the fats become our fat. The proteins become part of our muscles. The calcium becomes our bones, the salt our tears. The carbohydrates are our energy. The wine we drink affects our thinking (if we drink enough). It affects our muscles including those in our hearts, our blood vessels, our blood and our body’s very chemistry. The nutrients in the foods we eat become part of us and we are part of the food.This bread becomes our body and we become the bread.

As a friend once asked me about some of my writing, “Where is the gospel in this?” What does it mean to have Jesus abide in us and we in him? What does it mean for us to gnaw on the bones of his flesh and to get drunk on the wine of his blood, to become one with the bread of life?

This is, as the disciples said, “a difficult teaching.”

The fact that Jesus talks about himself as the living bread and wine implies that this is about this life as well as the next. We are not taking into our bodies the crucified, dead Christ, but the living Son of God. Not only did he die for us, but he lived and rose again that we might have eternal life. In our lives on this earth, as believers and partakers of his body and blood, we are compelled to  live as he lived, to love as he loved, to be open to the Holy Spirit’s calling us.

Bread and wine, food and drink are essential for life, both physical and spiritual. Everyone needs food and something to quench one’s thirst. One of my Haitian friends reminds us that people can’t hear the Good News if their stomachs are empty. Neither can we hear God’s word and live in it if we don’t read that Word, study the Gospel or “gnaw” on the meat of the scripture.

When we live in Jesus and he lives in us we cannot help but live lives of grace, compassion, loving our neighbors as ourselves, feeding and clothing the least of these, caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner…and living forever. We are, after all, what we eat.