No doubt our brothers and sisters who have been listening to sermons on the Eucharist are making all kinds of “stale” jokes today. Can you imagine? Five weeks of sermons specifically on the Eucharist. For those of you who have been gone the last couple weeks, we have jumped from Mark to John for a five week sojourn on the nature of sacrament. Jesus has fed the 5000 men, besides women and children. Now, He and the disciples have returned to Capernaum. In many ways, a parallel teaching has been happening here. Jesus has been warning the crowd not to chase after the perishable, but imperishable. More specifically, He has been warning the crowd to follow Him. And His teaching is proving difficult for people to understand or to accept.
Two weeks ago, Jesus declared His eminence above Moses by feeding the 5000 men plus women and children without intercession. He blessed the bread; He broke the bread; He instructed His disciples to feed the crowd until all were satisfied. There was no intercession with God because, as we all know this side of the Cross and Resurrection, He is God Incarnate. The miracle should not have been lost on all who saw it, but it was. Everyone ate from five loaves and two fish until they were satisfied. Everyone. And when the disciples collected the leftovers, there were twelve baskets. The math doesn’t work, but I guess the saying is true that five out of four people are bad at math.
Last week, Jesus pushed the understanding of the crowd. Not only was Jesus greater than Moses, as demonstrated by the miraculous feeding and gathering of the leftovers, but He is the bread that has come down from heaven to give life to the world. The people were hoping for bread in the sense of food. The Temple leaders expected that the manna was wisdom of God. Neither the crowd nor the leaders were willing to accept Jesus’ teaching on His own terms. Neither were they willing to accept His teaching on the work of God. The work of God, Jesus taught them, was to believe in the One upon whom He has set His seal. Like many of us, the Jews wanted to earn their salvation. They wanted to believe they were worthy of a special relationship with God. They were. Just not in the way they wanted to be. They wanted their knowledge of and living in accordance to the teachings of God, the torah, to prove they were special in God’s eyes. They missed that what made them special was the fact that, of all the peoples of the earth, God had chosen them! Nothing inherent made them special. What made them special was the covenant declared by God.
Jesus’ teaching is difficult, to be sure. But I wonder at the claims of some theologians and commentators and preachers that Jesus is trying to be obnoxious and cryptic in this section. There seems to be a desire to claim that Jesus does not want the crowds to “get” His message. We do such a good job of ignoring God’s message or assuming that it is not meant for us or for being jerks in His name that I truly doubt that Jesus ever tries to be confusing or a jerk enough to drive us or others away. Part of the reason, I think, that we find this section so challenging is that we do not see the imagery Jesus is using in the way that the crowd did.
All of Jesus’ teaching, as I shared two weeks ago, takes place in a Passover understanding. The mountain, the meal, the leftovers all point to the overarching significance of Jesus’ activity and teaching. Many in the crowd thought that Messiah would bring freedom from Roman oppression. Jesus came to bring freedom, but not just from Roman oppression. Jesus came to feed God’s people with God’s bread, but it was not manna or “knowledge” He brought, but rather Himself. These are hard teachings. How can this son of a carpenter claim to be the Son of God? How can this itinerant teacher claim to be of more significance than Moses? Put differently, their knowledge of Jesus prevents them from having a right understanding of and right relationship with Jesus. In many ways they are not unlike the demons that Jesus encounters. They know who Jesus is, but that knowledge does not drive them to accept Him as Lord. And, if Jesus is to be believed in this teaching and in these encounters, a wrong relationship with Him has eternal consequences. No wonder they grumble; no wonder they talk so much among themselves!
Look at our passage today. They grumble about their knowledge of His parentage. Does Jesus launch into a discussion of the Incarnation? No. He reminds them that they do not necessarily know what they think they know. Those who think they are special because they are descendants of Abraham or because they worship God are not given any credit for their work or their ancestry. No one can come to Me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. The verb in play is the same verb used to describe the haul of the nets of fisherman. Such an illustration in a port city would be offensive to many. What do you mean “God is dragging me into the boat”? I chose to worship Him of my own free will. Jesus is teaching them and us that they and we must trust Him, but even that initial bit of trust results from the Father hauling on us. Do we understand this? Does it make sense to us?
Look at this crowd in our story. All who are present were at the feeding of the 5000 men or heard about the feeding of the 5000 men. I suppose it is possible that others are there because of curiosity regarding other signs, but all have heard of this particular sign. In the presence of thousands, He fed and collected the leftovers. The messianic sign of Moses has been given, and does anyone truly understand it? To use the image of Isaiah, they have eyes and do not see.
Jesus even goes so far as to meet them where they are, even though the crowds do not ask that kind of question. They are so focused on what they think they know, we know His mom and dad; we know from whence He comes, that they miss His offer. For those who are hungry, He offers a bread that will keep them from death; for those who seek the wisdom of God, He offers to teach, in fulfilment of God’s promises. Yes, His teaching is shocking. Yes, His teaching is radical. But the shock and radical nature of His teaching do not obviate its truth. The people of God want to be restored to an intimate relationship with God. God wants His people restored. To accomplish this, the Son of God will offer His flesh. Now, it is upon those listening to His teaching to “eat” this bread. Those who hear the Gospel must decide whether to believe and appropriate the gift of eternal life or to remain in the secure “knowledge” and die apart from God’s offered blessing. For all the complexity of the passage, its message is rather simple. Do you believe?
We talk often of the mystery of meeting Jesus in the Sacraments. Those outward signs of inward and spiritual grace remind us, instruct us, and challenge us in ways we can never truly theologize or explain. In that, we should be reading John as we contemplate the Passover that Jesus has in mind. Put in today’s language, if we are scandalized by the idea that eating the flesh of Christ Jesus saves us, how will we ever find ourselves, our sinful selves, ever truly crucified with Him even as our redeemed selves are resurrected in Him? Admittedly, these passages are easier for those of who come after the Cross and after the Resurrection than they were for those to whom Jesus was speaking in Capernaum nearly 2000 years ago. But easier does not always mean easy. We have the focusing lens of the Cross which teaches us that this dying flesh of which Jesus speaks, given as an offering for the life of the world, is true. But, like the crowds, how quickly are we to forget? How quickly are we to misunderstand? How quickly are we to deny?
One of the reasons I have purposely avoided focusing upon the Eucharist the last three weeks is that Jesus’ and John’s teaching is not just about the Eucharist. Yes, we see Eucharistic suggestions in the feeding of the 5000 men. Yes, we understand that His flesh is the bread of life. But Jesus is taking on imagery in this section of John, imagery and meaning from the Jewish culture, and reinterpreting it. Jesus is reminding them and us that He is the focus of the Passover meal. Jesus is the real bread that gives life. Jesus is the means by which the world is saved. You and I are reminded of that truth in the Eucharist, but in the other sacraments as well.
My mind this week has been on two that, quite simply, are privileges in the life of a priest. The first is Reconciliation. As I was leading some lay women in the parish to serve as lay ministers for reconciliation this week, I tried to explain to them the thankfulness of those who will hear their words of forgiveness. I did an ok job. I also know they will not truly understand my words until they have seen the burden lift from the shoulders of the one confessing across from them. It is every bit as visible as I am today. But what causes that burden to lift? What causes that heart to soar? What causes one to dare to hope? The very truth that Jesus explains here. He gave His flesh so that we might live forever. He died for our sins so that we could be taught by God, we could be indwelled by the Holy Spirit, so that we could truly glorify the Father. He laid down His life that we might understand what true love is and share in that true love for ever!
The other sacramental mystery where the truth revealed by Jesus in today’s passage is on full display is at the time of death. I once had a professor explain to me that there was no greater privilege, no greater honor, than to be the one called when someone was near death. At the time, I thought Gavin’s insistence was misplaced. Surely adult baptisms were fantastic. Are not conversions what we are all about? A few weeks later, I had my first privileged encounter. And then I grasped part of what Jesus is saying here and part of what Gavin was trying to teach us. I cannot recall the number of “Ministrations at the Time of Death”of which I have been a part. They blur, but in an amazing way. Everyone, and I mean everyone, goes through those moments as they near that wall and begins to doubt. Saints who have entered into glory ahead of me and who will be so close to the throne that I can, at best, hope to recognize the back of their head from where I will be standing go through this, as do those who would describe themselves more “ordinary.” They begin to doubt that their life was not good enough, that they did not love Jesus enough, that their sins were of such a nature never to be forgiven. A commentator, whose name slips my mind, I later read called it the “Garden of Gethsemane” temptation of humanity. There is always that last ditch effort by God’s Enemy to try and steal a soul away. I suppose, in a strange way, it is a temptation we share with our Lord, though His was of a messianic nature. I do not care how much of a saint the person was in life, always there is that “prick” of conscience or building fear. And it is in the midst of that particular effort that we are called to speak these words of Jesus one last time to the sheep of His redeeming. He gave His life for you and promised you that He would be with you to the end of the ages. Don’t you remember? Those who have sat with me and a dying family member will tell you way more words are spoken, but this is the conversation at its most distilled moment. You have eaten of that flesh and you will share in His promise.
Much of what has been occurring these last couple weeks and in much of John for that matter, brothers and sisters, has been a re-focusing by Jesus. Jesus has been teaching those whom He encounters how He is the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation. Earlier, He told the woman at the well that He was the living water. Here, He teaches us that He in the bread of life. In between, He has worked amazing signs, each testifying to the crowd and those who hear the stories that He is who He says He is, the Messiah, the Anointed, God’s Son. The Jews and Gentiles who hear His teachings are right to feel that their world is all jumbled. If what Jesus teaches is true, their world will be turned topsy-turvy. No longer is the focus of worship going to be a specific place. No longer is the wisdom of God going to be reserved for a few professionals. The focus of worship will be Jesus. Where two or three are gathered, He will be in the midst of them. What He offers is so much better than water to slake a thirst or bread to fill a tummy. He offers the opportunity to share in God’s love. Forever. Like fish in a net we might be trying hard to escape the net He has set for us. To paraphrase a popular movie, we might have given up on Him for a time, but never has He given up on us. But to share in these sacramental mysteries, to share in the redeeming love, to drink from that life-giving fount, we must first acknowledge our need for Him and His offer to us. Then, brothers and sisters, having eaten and having accepted, we become active participants in the redemption of the world by God. In this sacramental mystery, we become signposts, we become ambassadors, point those whom we encounter to that same spring, that same bread, Jesus, that they might, too, have eternal life!