John 6:51 - 58
The Rev. Peter Faass
How many of you are familiar with On the Rise Artisan Bread and Pastries in Cleveland Heights? Awesome place, right? On the Rise is like a foretaste of the heavenly banquet for me. The authentic French baguettes, the epis, the rustic Italian loaves, the cinnamon and raisin bread, that gorgeous round cardamom bread that looks like the sun, the spectacular olive loaf, the Challah, the Pullman.
I haven’t even mentioned the croissants, tarts and cookies! It is dangerous to let me loose in there. I’m told to pick up a baguette for dinner and I come home with an armload of breads and desserts for an army. If bread is the staff of life, On the Rise is its genesis.
On the Rise is opening a kiosk in the new Van Aken food court across the street this fall. Our current food desert in the district is going to turn into a cornucopia of deliciousness.
Jesus said, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” Of course, he wasn’t speaking of On the Rise, but sometimes I feel like I have entered into eternity when I eat their food.
Jesus speaks of the bread as his body. “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.” He continues, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”
The Gospel of John is filled with Jesus making these metaphors:
Of course, Jesus is not literally any of these things (Biblical literalists take note):
He metaphorically functions as these things in our lives when we follow him. He is the door through which we gain authentic life when we pass through it. He is the light that guides us through the dark places in life. He is the Good Shepherd who watches over us through thick and thin. He is also the bread of life which, when we eat it, gives us eternal life.
When Jesus says that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is not being literal either. This is not some grisly cannibalistic ritual we are engaged in, despite some accusations to the contrary. The bread represents his body, his flesh.
In the prologue of John we are told, “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus is the incarnate, or in-the-flesh Word of God. Jesus came to earth so that through his spoken and lived word, he could show us how to live as children of God. So, in the context of John’s theology, when Jesus tells us that we must eat his flesh to gain eternal (or authentic) life, we are in fact called to eat and live the received Word of God that he gives to us.
If we are to distill it down to its essential core, the Word Jesus gives us is summed up in the words of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, the distillation of the Law to love God and to love one’s neighbor as one self, and the new commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us. All the rest is, as they say, commentary.
To eat Jesus’s flesh is to eat and live these words; they are the Word that he incarnates. The Collect for the Sunday closest to November 16th speaks to this understanding eloquently. In it, we pray, “Grant us so to hear . . . read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest [the Holy Scriptures], that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”
When we do this, it causes a paradigm shift in our lives, moving us away from a way of life that is life-denying to a way of life that gives us authentic, and as Jesus says, eternal life. By that, he means eternal life here and now, in this moment.
Earlier, I mentioned that the Van Aken district is currently a food desert. That’s a bit of hyperbole. There are some great places to find good food within a short distance from here, although you need to drive to them. That situation promises to resolve itself soon with a wide array of food and drink options across the street. But food deserts exist, literally and metaphorically. In many urban areas like Cleveland, people do not have access to grocery stores that offer good, wholesome, life-giving foods. Options are limited to fast food and junk foods, which are readily available but not wholesome. Consistently eating these foods causes obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. They are life-denying foods. That’s a literal food desert.
There are also metaphorical food deserts. These are deserts where the food of nutritious words are in short supply. The only words available are fast, junky and degrading.
These are metaphorical deserts, but they are no less arid and no less life-denying than the literal ones.
In a commentary on John’s bread passages, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry asks, "How is it that God is trying to feed the world, not on fast food, but on gourmet [food] that gives life?"
When food that's readily available is not healthy, how do we feed the people of God? And more importantly, how is the Bread of Life trying to feed us?
I believe we can transform this current metaphorical food desert by eating the bread that is the Word of Jesus’ flesh. It is through eating, inwardly digesting and living on this bread that the Church offers gourmet food - not fast food - to the world.
This is how God wants to feed the world. This is how The Bread of Life Jesus feeds us, and then has us feed others so that we all gain the promise of eternal life.