What did Jesus mean when he said “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (John 6:54)? Does being a Christian mean we are supposed to be cannibals? It’s no wonder a bunch of his disciples left him after that zinger.
If you’ve been following along in the Narrative Lectionary preaching series with us, then you realize that we skipped right over this whacky chapter. We skipped from the Woman at the Well in chapter 4 all the way to the healing of the Blind Man in chapter 9.
A Lenten Series of I AM
Next week affords us a wonderful opportunity. We begin a five-week series on Wednesday nights that explores five out of the seven “I AM” statements of Jesus. The first one is found here in John 6 where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”
Here’s a schedule of all the weeks:
A Visual Commentary on John 6
I spent the day, yesterday, soaking in John 6. Here is my visual meditation. The image comes first, followed by a brief commentary. Enjoy.
It always starts with an analysis of the text. It is important to remember that all 71 verses work together. This follows the pattern of sign, dialogue, discourse found elsewhere in John. The sign is a simple narrative of Jesus doing something amazing. The rest of the passage is a dialogue about the mystery of the act, followed by Jesus explaining its meaning.
The sign is simple to say and hard to believe. Jesus turns five loaves of bread into a meal that feeds 5,000 people. Twelve baskets of bread are left over. This is grace upon grace. It happens at a “grassy place” which alludes to the good shepherd feeding the sheep.
At first glance, it seems that the story of Jesus walking on the water is a non sequitur.
Jesus repeats what he said to the Woman at the Well. “I AM.” He stands in the midst of chaos. The wind and waves beat around him. He reminds his disciples, who cower in the boat, that he is the Great I AM, creator and sustainer of all things. Immediately they come to shore. He’s about to rock their world.
People seek him. This is reminiscent of the first disciples asking, “Where do you abide?”
The crowd tries to make sense out of the sign and connect it to Moses and the manna in the wilderness.
Manna was not from Moses, it was from God. The bread of God gives life for the whole world, not just Israel.
Like the Woman at the Well who wanted the living water, the people want the bread of God.
Jesus is the bread. The bread is his flesh. Notice that he did not use the term body, but flesh. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).” That’s how the story begins. The bread of God that gives life to the world is the fact that God became flesh.
What are the two basics staples of life? Bread and water. Jesus is the source of creation and the one who provides life itself; not just a spiritual, abstract reality, but life in its fullest.
To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is to fully participate in the life of God at work in the world. It is to abide where Jesus abides. It is to realize that having flesh and blood is a good and glorious gift from God. It is to realize that we are part of something much bigger than our self or our ethnic/religious identity. It is to live for the sake of all creation.
This scene reminds us of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus took Jesus’ phrase, “You must be born again” literally and wondered how he could return to his mother’s womb. If we hear Jesus’ words here literally, then, of course, this is crazy talk.
Are we supposed to be cannibals?
Of course not. Yet, Jesus flushes out the fair-weather friends with his shocking speech. Many leave.
He turns to his closest friends and asks if they will leave also.
For those of you who enjoy the traditional liturgy, this is the source of the Alleluia that is sung before the reading of the Gospel each week. The disciples emphasize the point of the Gospel: they BELIEVE and KNOW Jesus. This is life. It is relationship with God and each other.
Here’s the disturbing part of this story and the plot twist. Nope, the disturbing part was not the flesh-eating and blood-drinking. The disturbing part is that one of Jesus’ closest friends, one whom Jesus chose, will turn away and sever the relationship.
The plot twist is that this whole chapter was a set up for this development in the story. Jesus has said, again and again, throughout the Gospel of John, that he is doing these signs so that people might believe. Jesus gives everyone a choice. If you believe, you will abide with me and have the abundant life for which you were created. If you don’t…well, the opposite it true.
I love what Karoline Lewis says about this:
For some denominations, the idea of decision or choice when it comes to a relationship with God will be resisted and even rejected; for others, central and celebrated. Ownership of one’s own denominational biases is essential when it comes to preaching, especially preaching Biblical texts with integrity and truthfulness. There will be some preachers who will ignore these verses altogether, thankful that the lectionary has eliminated for them a “choice” they did not want to make. Yet, to exclude these verses from the lectionary passage and from one’s own theological wrestling is to risk casting a blind eye to the very real presence of evil that this text acknowledges and that exists in all of us, even preachers.1
The topic of choice is where my Evangelical background collides with my current place in the Lutheran church. Lutherans are allergic to “decisional theology.”
The Lutheran says: Salvation is a gift from God and there is nothing I can do to get it. My identity is in my baptism, and that was done for me.
The Evangelical says: Salvation is a gift from God and you must receive the gift in order for it to be yours. Once you admit you are a sinner, confess your sin, and accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then you are saved and you can be baptized.
Which is right? In my humble opinion, they are both right and both wrong.
I don’t want to get distracted by this topic and go down a rabbit trail. However, a clue to this seeming dichotomy of theological perspectives may lie in a misunderstanding of the term salvation and the eternal, abundant life that Jesus offers. Jesus’ abundant life is one that is lived in flesh and blood. It is a life of unconditional love lived in and for all of creation. It is abiding with Jesus for the sake of the world. Perhaps it is less about eternal destiny in the afterlife and more about abundant living as the Kingdom of God is on earth as it is in Heaven.
Yet “the world”–the human systems of hatred and violence (darkness)–have not recognized the light. We continue to kill each other, and steal, and lie, and covet, etc.
Notice the last lines of this passage. “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” Judas did not believe, even though Jesus chose him.
Lewis says, “These last verses of chapter 6 attempt to articulate what is, in the end, unexplainable: why some people believe in Jesus–particularly who Jesus is in this Gospel as God incarnated–and some do not.”
Jesus is the bread of life in the flesh. Jesus is the living water, the life blood of all creation. We are invited every day to abide with Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father, and for the sake of the world.
Do you believe?