A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 19, 2012.
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.” 52The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
In 1826 someone wrote in a French medical journal, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” In an essay titled Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism written in the 1860s another European wrote, “Man is what he eats.” Both authors were saying that the food one eats has a bearing on one’s state of mind and health.
English usage of “you are what you eat” apparently began with Victor Lindlahr, a nutritionist who believed that food controls health. In 1942 he published You Are What You Eat: How to Win and Keep Health with Diet, and he probably used the “you are what you eat” phrase in radio talks during the 1930s.
During the 1960s hippy era the “you are what you eat” phrase took on new emphasis with the rise of macrobiotic whole food and the organic food movement. Adelle Davis was a leading spokesperson for the organic food movement. When she contracted the cancer that later caused her death, Davis blamed the illness on the junk food she had eaten as a college student.
So what did Jesus mean by telling people in Capernaum “I am the bread of life” the day after he miraculously fed more than 5000 people with a boy’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish? When Jesus told them, “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,” was he inviting them to eat his flesh like their ancestors ate the manna they found every morning during their journey through the Sinai Wilderness?
Some of his audience thought that was what Jesus intended. Some of them said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” If they were offended already, what Jesus said next wouldn’t have helped. “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
For one thing, that statement raises the offensive idea of cannibalism. It would have also been troublesome among observant Jews who distinguished between food that was ritually clean and items considered unclean. No observant Jew would consider eating human flesh.
Surely Jesus understood this. So I don’t think he literally intended for anyone to make a meal of his body when he said “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus’ audience had another problem with his statement: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” They thought, “Man, you didn’t come from heaven. You’re from Nazareth. We know your parents. Your daddy, Joseph, is a decent carpenter. Your mother is Mary. Get out of here with this talk about being “the living bread that came down from heaven.”
Catholics cite this passage in support of their belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. This belief is known as “transubstantiation.” Baptists don’t accept the idea that followers of Jesus literally consume the body and blood of Jesus when we eat and drink the Lord’s Supper.
This passage doesn’t have anything to do with either the Jewish Passover meal or the Lord’s Supper event. John’s Gospel, unlike the other Gospel accounts, doesn’t include the Lord’s Supper event. It’s too much of a stretch to interpret the words of our lesson to apply to something never mentioned in the rest of this Gospel.
What is more probable is that Jesus was speaking figuratively about himself as the incarnation of God’s grace and truth for us. Jesus told Nicodemus that one must be “born from above” to enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3). He told a woman at Jacob’s Well in Samaria that he was “living water” (John 4). In John 6, Jesus described himself as the “living bread” from heaven. Each time, Jesus used figures of speech to describe the moral and spiritual meaning of his presence in the world.
And that’s what the entire Gospel of John involves in the final analysis. At John 20:30 we find the author’s purpose for writing this Gospel in these words: 30 “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe* that Jesus is the Messiah,* the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”24
Jesus’ description of himself as the “living bread from heaven” for us puts the feeding of the 5000 into a new perspective. His life—meaning his very human existence in the world—represented God’s material presence and provision for us. Feeding the 5000 was more than a great miracle. It was one of the “signs” that “the Word” that was in the beginning with God and that was God had become “flesh”—taken human form—and settled with us awhile, as we read in John 1:14-16.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known.
God offers us the “life forever” meal of grace and truth through Jesus Christ. When Jesus told people at Capernaum he was “the living bread from heaven” he was talking about the “food” for eternal life, not human digestion and nutrition! He was talking about whether we will experience life on divine terms or merely exist in the world. Jesus was trying to get us to understand that the eternal reality and importance of human existence can never be experienced without a relationship with God so intimate and complete that it is like a meal one continually munches and is strengthened by. Jesus’ talk about “eating my flesh and drinking my blood” was about experiencing and trusting God’s grace and truth—as God provided it through him—so intimately and completely that the experience always sustains us, gives meaning to our living, and impacts how we behave in the world.
But our problem is that we’re like the people in Capernaum. We won’t get our minds off our stomachs. We’re so focused on grazing that we miss all the “life forever” God has provided through Jesus! “Life forever” means life in God now that never stops, but constantly grows deeper, stronger, and more real. That’s not about bread and wine. It’s about grace and truth!
To get a sense for what living would be like if people acted from the strength of divine grace and truth instead of our personal appetites, look at how Jesus responded a day earlier when he fed the hungry multitude with a borrowed lunch. He didn’t shrug and say, “Not my problem.” Jesus didn’t take a “free market” approach to their situation. He didn’t set up a “Jesus-Fil-A” to privately profit from their plight.
Although Jesus saw hungry men, women, and children, he didn’t act like Ayn Rand, the novelist-philosopher who inspired Paul Ryan. Jesus didn’t act selfishly. He acted altruistically because that is the divine grace and truth way. He provided for them because God provides for us. Jesus acted out the “living bread for the world” compassion of God.
Divine truth recognizes that human need demands service, sacrifice, and compassion. Divine grace affirms that human need should never be commercialized for private ambition and personal gain. Human need is a reality to be met in the spirit of unconditional love.
- Hungry people must be fed unless we want a world where some people have more than enough to eat and others starve.
- Homeless people must be housed unless we want a world where some people have shelter from the elements while others are exposed to heat, cold, rain, snow, and every other variety of weather without protection.
- Abused and oppressed people must be defended and protected to avoid a world that is cruel, brutal, vicious, and unjust.
Feeding the 5000 by using a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish was not the Ayn Rand/Paul Ryan response to their hunger. It was the divine response. It was the “living bread of heaven” response. It was the “Good Samaritan” response. It was the “life forever” response of divine grace and truth, not self-serving and self-righteous ambition and greed.
Living according to divine grace and truth always challenges every other notion of life. When some of the people who were fed sought and found Jesus in Capernaum the next day, Jesus challenged their notion of living, including what they considered living with God to involve. Simply put, Jesus told them the only reason they were looking for him was because they wanted him to help graze their way through life. But he was in the world to do more than quiet their growling stomachs. He was there to give them a relationship with God that defined their living with God and others.
This “living bread of life” relationship with God—this grace and truth perspective of reality and what truly makes living worthwhile—is a direct and ongoing challenge to every other notion of life.
In the first place, it challenges the notion that anyone is self-sufficient and that humanity is self-sufficient. The “life forever” relationship that Jesus presents declares that none of us is self-sufficient.
- We need God’s protection.
- We need God’s provision.
- We need God’s love.
- We need God’s truth.
- We need God’s forgiveness.
- We need God because we are not God!
- And we need others because we experience life together, meaning communally, not separately. We must not confuse personal and private. We are individual persons, but we are not private entities. We need other God and other persons to truly live!
The great moral problems for humanity stem from our notion that we don’t need or shouldn’t have a “life forever” relationship with God and that we don’t need and shouldn’t help others. Humanity is constantly trying to prove that it can get along fine on its own terms. The history of the world shows that we’re wrong. That history also shows how wrong religion becomes when it is self-focused, self-directed, self-righteous, and not conducted according to divine grace and truth.
Living in the power of divine grace and truth means living in the power to change the world. This seems to what Jesus meant at John 6:57-58: Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
The feeding of the 5000 shows us how acting in the power of divine grace and truth can and does change situations.
- As the “living bread” embodiment of divine grace and truth, Jesus saw more than thousands of hungry people.
- As the “living bread” embodiment of divine grace and truth, Jesus saw more than a boy’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish.
- As the “living bread” embodiment of God’s grace and truth, Jesus saw the super-abundant power of God to address human conditions by that grace and truth.
The pain in our personal lives and in the world is not greater than the grace and truth of God. Injustice is not greater than God’s love for everyone. Hatred and violence are not greater than God’s power and purpose that everyone experience life that is full, meaningful, and at peace. False belief in human pride, ambition, and self-righteousness is not greater than God’s truth.
The big question is whether we are connected to God’s grace and truth so fully and faithfully that we, like Jesus, act in the power of God’s super-abundant grace and truth to address the painful realities of our time and place.
A “life forever” relationship with God’s grace and truth will expand and deepen our morality and strengthen our ethics. It will not only make us “know better.” It will give us the courage and will to do better.
- A “life forever” relationship with God will give us the moral strength to know the evil of cutting social services and programs designed to prevent people from men, women, and children from going hungry so prosperous people can avoid paying taxes to help feed them. And it will give us the courage and strength to resist policies and politicians who would let people go hungry so prosperous people can avoid paying taxes.
- A “life forever” relationship with God will give us the moral strength to know that it is evil for people to suffer and die for lack of affordable healthcare in a society that has the resources to provide affordable healthcare to everyone, which refuses to do it, and also refuses to allow inexpensive safe medication to be obtained from elsewhere. And it will give us the courage and strength to create a healthcare system where no person suffers and dies because he or she can’t afford healthcare.
- A “life forever” relationship with God will give us the moral strength to understand that no powerful person, group, or nation is entitled to abuse, mistreat, or otherwise pick on weak and vulnerable people. And it will give us the courage and strength to protect weak and vulnerable people from oppression.
- A “life forever” relationship with God will guide us to understand and apply ourselves and all we can appropriate to do good where there is evil, show kindness and compassion where there is pain, replace the injustice of war-making with peaceful justice, and protect the weak and vulnerable from those who would oppress them.
Sadly, it seems life with God as a follower of Jesus is typically considered a call to complacency with oppression, self-privilege, and willingness to ignore pain and injustice. It is even worse when religious people and practices are complicit in or responsible for suffering and injustice. Universal healthcare, protecting social services from being de-funded, and prophetic activism to protect people who are weak, vulnerable, or unpopular appear to not fit within what many Christians and churches consider as “life” with God and others.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that more people are rejecting the mindset and practices of so-called “mainline churches.” Perhaps too much about the mindset and practice of “mainline” religion smacks of grazing to inspire confidence that the people associated with it are committed to living and challenging their time and place according to God’s grace and truth to change the world.
God invites us into a “life forever” relationship with divine grace and truth that will challenge and change the world. Is this the “life” we want to be about and what we are strengthened by? Or do we merely want to use God and others for our private advantage? Do we want to graze or live?
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.