Food is so often at the heart of what we do together, not only a necessity of physical life but part of what binds us together socially. And clearly food, the special food of bread and wine, is our spiritual food and drink too. (RCL 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; and John 6:35, 41-51) Jesus said that his flesh was true food and his blood true drink.
Over the last three weeks we have been working our way through this teaching about Jesus as the bread of life. The language is often beautiful but also quite mysterious and potentially confusing in its repetitious nature. So let us draw together some of these images and themes. The gospel according to John is the most reflective and expanded account of the life, death and eternal life of Jesus. Most likely because it was written last, some 70 years after the death of Jesus, so this community of believers had several generations to grow and reflect on the meaning not only of Jesus’ earthly life and physical death but his life after resurrection. Throughout the gospel of John there is the frequent use of a cluster of related images of Jesus – the word made flesh, the provider of miraculous bread, the true bread, the living bread, the bread from heaven, the one whose flesh is our bread, the bread in which eternal life resides, the one whom we must eat – word, bread, flesh. I want to focus on four of these insights.
Firstly that the one who in this passage is proclaiming himself the bread of life, the flesh we must eat, is the same one who at the beginning of the gospel is described as the word made flesh, the one through whom all that is made – is matter - was made. God has always been revealing, expressing the divine self in flesh, in matter, in creation. And now Jesus is the completion of that self revealing nature of God – message and messenger, divine spirit and human flesh.
Secondly we have seen Jesus as eating with others which might be seen as both evidence of his ordinary humanity and in his choice of company evidence of divine generosity and availability to all, including the least and the lost. And some of you will remember that in the season of Easter we read how the resurrected Jesus reveals himself to Peter eating fish beside the lake. Jesus comes to us in the ordinary human intimacy of shared food and daily life.
Thirdly John declares that Jesus is the bread of life, the bread from heaven, the true bread – not the temporary bread he fed the five thousand the day before with or even the Manna and the Law that Moses provided their ancestors with in the wilderness during their formation as a people. In declaring this we are reminded that the emphasis is on relationship with God, made possible in this intimate way because of the human life, death and eternal life of Jesus, not narrowly on keeping the laws given to Moses.
And then fourthly in the language, in the command, to eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood we are reminded that in John’s gospel Jesus is the Passover meal. That on that sacred night Jesus shared the Passover meal with his friends, his disciples, his companions on the journey, and declared his flesh to be the meal and his blood the wine. We remember that the Passover was the meal in which a lamb was slaughtered and eaten in a hurry, standing, in order to sustain the people in the long journey they were about to take from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. And the blood of the lamb was put on the door post so that the angel of the Lord, who was delivering destruction and judgement, would pass over those households who identified themselves as his people and they would be spared.
And so the claims of Jesus as bread of life whose flesh we must eat and whose blood we must drink if we are to have life carry many levels of meaning. When contemplating the mystery of the Eucharistic meal I think it is really important to remember first the teaching of the church that the sacraments are an outward sign of an inward grace. That is, that the sacraments are visible physical things and actions that point to invisible spirit and the love of God in action within us. So when we eat bread and drink wine we are doing a very simple but powerful thing for we take into ourselves not only bread and wine but the love of God made manifest in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We take into ourselves not simply his flesh but his relationship with God, his way of seeing the world, his teaching, his healing, his holiness, his love. And by taking him into ourselves we are sustained for the journey that will take us from slavery to freedom and we will be passed over when judgement and punishment comes. We also take into ourselves his teaching and loving example as our guide in life allowing ourselves to challenged and changed and forgiven and renewed bit by bit, bite by bite, sip by sip.
But it is not only an individual journey for in coming to his table and feeding upon Jesus we find ourselves beside all those others who come to eat and drink – it is the family meal of the church: our families, our friends, our neighbours, those we love and care deeply for, those we are estranged from, those we do not agree with always, and those we do not know. We come as part of the crowd of five thousand who Jesus fed by the lake long ago, and as part of the crowd of millions who today declare Jesus as Lord. And in remembering that Jesus is the Word made flesh, when we feed upon his flesh we know ourselves as part of all flesh, the entire cosmos – as one with all nine billion people – regardless of what they believe, all creatures – regardless of their largeness or smallness , all creation – which makes us part of everything else, world without end.
The bread we are invited to eat, the wine we are invited to drink, is indeed the food of eternal life for it is no less than the flesh of the one who made the heavens, who came down from heaven, who draws us now and at our death into the eternal embrace of God our true home. So whenever we are able to share in the Eucharist feast and participate in the meal we know so well and that yet will always be mysterious, in the meal that is private and for all, that is the local family meal and the universal celebration, that is offered here right now and is the substance of eternity, we are being invited into a bigger world than we can fully understand. The bread and the wine is always more than we know and understand. We are welcome because it is the meal which Jesus invites us to.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ.