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35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
41Then the Jews leaders began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I 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.”
For those of you who have been at church the last couple of weeks, you know that we have heard a lot about feeding and bread. We are right in the middle of the Bread of Life series of the lectionary, where for five weeks, we hear about Jesus as the bread of life. We have read how Jesus fed a huge crowd of people – five thousand, in fact – with just five barley loaves and two fish. And then how the people get hungry again and so they chase after Jesus to see if he will feed them again. Instead of offering them bread to eat, he offers them the bread of a relationship. A relationship with himself – the bread of life.
So today and the next two weeks, we will continue to hear about Jesus as the bread of life. But in today’s text the bread can start to taste a little…..stale.
I mean, you heard the opening verses; it just isn’t all that exciting. There is no bite. It just sort of bends into a mush of confusion. “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’” After a while it just sounds like all the same religious talk that we’ve heard so many times before. All the same stuff you can read on billboards along the highway. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jesus is the bread of life. If you believe in him, you’ll get to go to heaven when you die. So, believe in him. I don’t know about you, but I find that eventually, I just start to tune it out and think my to-do list for the day.
And it is too bad, really, that it has come to this. Because these words in the gospel of John were never meant to be boring and stale. They were meant to be earth-shattering and life-changing. Offensive even. But I’m afraid we’ve lost the context into which they were spoken. And you know how it is when someone takes your words out of context. Suddenly the meaning can shift to something you never meant it to mean.
So our work this morning is to try and put John’s word back into context, so that we might discover a deeper understanding of these words.
And here is the context of John’s gospel. John is writing to a specific community of people. And it is a community of Jews that have been ostracized for their belief in Jesus. Or more specifically, they’ve been kicked out of their synagogue. Their church. Which is to say they have been separated from their entire social, religious, and communal life. They’ve been kicked out. Left behind. Abandoned. They’ve become outsiders. The not-included. Have you ever been kicked out of something? Or abandoned? Or left behind? Then you know what it feels like. And now John is writing down Jesus’ story… but he is telling it for them. They are the ones he’s thinking about as he decides how to tell Jesus’ story.
Whenever you read a story, you always identify with someone, right? You always find where you would fit in the story. I think John’s audience would hear themselves as the crowd of 5,000. As the ones out wandering in the desert fields, hungry, searching and seeking for something.
So now, let’s slow down and listen to those words Jesus speaks to the crowd of 5,000 but recognizing that they were written for a community that has been kicked out.
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (NOT whoever comes to the synagogue, whoever goes to church enough.)… Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone (anyone) who comes to me I will never drive away. (I know you’ve been driven away. I know you’ve been kicked out. I know you’ve been excluded, but I will not exclude you. I will never drive you away.).. for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (I know you feel lost, I know you feel abandoned. But I will not abandon you. But rather I will raise you up.)
Suddenly, when I know the context and who the story is meant for, I hear it entirely differently. And those are earth-shattering, life-changing words for a community that has been left behind.
But then things start to shift. Jesus has been talking to the crowd. But then suddenly, the Jewish leaders show up. The insiders. The rulers of the synagogue. The ones who kick people out. And they start complaining. And at this point, John’s hearers would lean in because now Jesus is talking with their enemy – the ones who kicked them out of the synagogue. What will Jesus say?
And do you know what Jesus does? He offends them. He offends the Jewish leaders.
First of he says that he comes from God, which is absolutely outrageous, not only because they know his parents, they know where he grew up, but also that a human being – so common and ordinary – could be sent from God. As David Lose says, “Who ever heard of a God having anything to do with the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the dirty? Gods are made for greatness, not grime; they supposed to reside up in the clouds, not down here with the commoners. I mean, who ever heard of a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the indecencies and embarrassments of human life? It’s down right laughable.” It is down right offensive to the Jewish leaders.
But then Jesus goes on offending them. Because later in chapter 6 to tell them feed on him. To eat his flesh and drink his blood. And he gets gory about it – he actually says gnaw on my flesh and guzzle my blood. Which paints a much different picture than the somewhat tame and proper version that we partake in each week. Not a lot of gnawing and guzzling going on up here.
But the very idea to a Jew of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus would be unthinkable and make them sick to their stomachs. Because it goes against God’s law in Leviticus forbidding the consumption of any blood, because the blood is the life force of the creature. So to drink Jesus’ blood would be to consume the life force of Jesus. But that’s exactly Jesus’ point – because he will go on to say that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him and he abides in them, and suddenly there is no need to be in the synagogue in order to be connected to God. Because God is in you and you are in God.
Do you see? Do you see how John’s audience would hear that as a comforting word? You don’t have to be in the synagogue to find God. God will find you. I will be with you. You don’t have to be in church to find God. God will be with you. Out there.
So Jesus offends them. But then one more thing happens – they leave. It reads, “Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” They leave him. Can you blame them for leaving? He’s just offended all of them. The only ones who stayed were the 12 disciples, who were probably offended too.
Do see what’s happened? Jesus – the Son of God –has also been left behind. Abandoned. Kicked out. The way John tells the Jesus’ story, Jesus becomes like those who have been cast out. And Jesus stands alongside them, in solidarity.
In World War 2, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor was sitting in the back of a truck with fellow prisoners heading to the concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was sitting next to a Russian soldier. As they travelled the Russian soldier and Bonhoeffer talked and became friends. When the truck stopped for the night and it became clear that many of the prisoners would soon meet their demise, pastor Bonhoeffer was asked to administer communion. He agreed and stood to begin, and invited others to stand, but the Russian soldier, his friend, remained sitting. He said he was an atheist and therefore it would be hypocritical for him to partake. Upon hearing his response, pastor Bonhoeffer sat back down and is reported to have stated, “Then neither will I partake, for how can I be sure that in leaving you for the communion table I would not be leaving Christ.”Bonhoeffer, in the name of Christ, stood in solidarity with his atheist friend.
Jesus stood in solidarity with those who have been kicked out and excluded. Those on the outside. And as a result, he offended most of the people on the inside.
And I’m willing to bet that if we are honest with ourselves, most of us are people on the inside. But as disciples of Jesus, we are all called to stand with those on the outside.
But here’s the thing – If we are going to be disciples of Jesus than we are going to have to be willing to be offended and not leave the conversation.
Last week I said sometimes I hesitate to ask a question out of fear of looking stupid. That’s usually the case, but sometime I hesitate to ask a question out of fear that I won’t phrase it correctly. I’m afraid of offending someone. And they might leave.
Last week, the ELCA hosted a live webcast on racism. And towards the end, Presiding Bishop Eaton encouraged congregations to begin having conversations around race and racism in our country. Which is a conversation I am afraid to have. Because what if I say the wrong thing. What if I offend someone and they leave? But what I loved about what she said is that we have to be willing to have that conversation and fail at that conversation. She said we will say something that is wrong or hurtful or ignorant or insensitive, but that is just the start to a conversation that just might heal our country.
Last week, we talked about being a place that asks our questions. If we are going to be that place, then we will also have to be willing to be offended and maybe even run the risk of offending someone, but not leave the conversation.
Today is the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. If God is calling us into a new day regarding race and racism in our country, and if we are going to stand in solidarity with each other as people of different races, we are going to have to be willing to be offended and maybe eve run the risk of offending someone, but not leave the conversation.
Jesus the bread of life will stand in solidarity with us. But Jesus the bread of life will also offend us for the sake of creating new life for all people. And that bread of life, suddenly doesn’t seem so stale anymore. Amen.