John 6: 35, 41-51
Our gospel reading continues a series in Chapter 6 of John’s gospel, an extended discourse on Christ as the bread of life.
Last week Alma pointed out that each of the great sayings of Jesus is preceded by an act of practical compassion, on this occasion the feeding of thousands of hungry people. So the symbolism of bread is grounded in the experience of being fed. The week before, Michael mused on the sharing of the broken bread and the common cup, as physical experience, and how we hope before long to return to this practice.
Bread in Jesus’ time was the staple food – you could say as a word it meant “food” – for every family would make bread, usually with barley flour (wheat was for the rich), a little oil, and water. Loaves would be cooked on a griddle, shaped like thick pancakes. And where meat or vegetables were added, the bread could serve as plate as well as food.
So Jesus takes this most common of stuff and develops a theme for his teaching, very much in the style of a Jewish rabbi. There is a progression in the narrative, from bread as food for the hungry, to the bread from heaven, and then becoming more focussed on Jesus himself – from “this is the bread” to “I am the bread” and ultimately “the bread…is my flesh.”
In part, Jesus looks back, to the story of the Jews. As they wandered in the desert, God provided bread for them, in the manna which appeared each day with the morning dew. In Jewish understanding there is a connection between the manna and the law of Moses – both are gifts from God to the people who came out of Egypt, which give life and which point to God, as signs of his loving care.
But the gift which comes through Jesus builds on and surpasses the gift shared through Moses, for the gift of the manna, like the law, requires continuous effort and renewal. Going further, the bread which Jesus will give (and here the future tense is used, pointing forward to the cross) – this bread will be a once for all gift, bringing eternal life.
As the narrative focusses in on the person of Jesus at the centre, the living bread, the symbolism becomes more vivid, for it is his flesh and blood that we are invited to share. The Jews who respond are affronted by the presumption that Jesus, whose earthly parents they know, dares to claim to be the son of God. But more than this they are disgusted at the notion of eating human flesh and drinking blood. A practice, as Michael pointed out, which led early Christians to be accused of a kind of cannibalism.
So the theme of bread draws on the founding story of the manna in the desert, and at its heart replaces the law with the gift of the Son of God, who surpasses and transcends the law, taking the old idea and transforming it in a new light, focussed on Christ’s person, the incarnate word of God.
For those 3rd generation Christians for whom John’s gospel was written, this narrative underpins and gives resonance to their weekly practice of sharing the bread and wine together.
As I reflect on the significance of these images to us today, I am struck by the imagery of bodies – Christ’s body feeding our bodies – a glaring physicality, offensive to many who heard it.
Perhaps I focussed on this aspect because my musings started on holiday last week in Madeira, as we lay on our sunbeds around the hotel pool – bodies everywhere, a bit like a colony of stranded seals, with the occasional walrus.
For the Jewish religious mindset, and indeed in other religious cultures, there was it seems an implicit separation between the spiritual and the bodily, and between religious worship and everyday life. This separation finds expression in the Jewish purity code, with its emphasis on only approaching the holy places if you had ritually cleaned your body of the residues of various aspects of daily living. And we find similar instincts in Christian culture – for example in the doctrine of priestly celibacy and in the practice of wearing your “Sunday best.”
There is then this instinct to set apart those times when we approach our God, to come to them in a seemingly purer, less embodied version of ourselves. And with this inevitably an elitism creeps in, the suggestion of a selective divine attention.
I wonder if Jesus in this teaching seeks to disrupt this separation, to suggest that body and spirit are interwoven, even at root the same thing: that every one of us, including the marginalised, the physically infirm, but also every part of each of us, are all sacred elements of the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven, in the here and now.
There is an image in a poem of Baudelaire I studied at school, I want to leave you with. He tells of an albatross, that wonderful, mythical bird, gliding lazily on its 10-foot wingspan high in the sky behind a fishing boat. For sport, the sailors lure the bird down onto the deck, where at once it is all clumsiness, its great wings dragging along the deck as it limps painfully forward. The poet, Baudelaire says, is like the albatross, soaring in imagination and yet gauche and hobbled in everyday life.
Perhaps this is a picture not just of the poet but of all humanity, by turns soaring and stumbling, joyful yet riven also with frustration and failure, sparkling with inspiration, transported in prayer, yet also vulnerable and anxiously mortal.
Christ shared with us these mingled contrasts, bringing together body and soul, life and joy, suffering and death. And in the bread of life which is his body, all of creation is redeemed, made whole, and welcomed into eternal life.
Richard Young (Rector)