Sunday, February 13, 2022

Phil Kniss: Ingesting Jesus

I am the Bread of Life
The Word became flesh and lived among us
John 6:1-14, 35-44, 48-51

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A lot of eating goes on in John. And it’s not a coincidence.
Six of the stories take place during an actual meal,
where food is served.
And John likes to use metaphors of eating and drinking—
“tasting death” . . . “drinking living water” . . .
and most notably,
today’s strange text about eating and drinking Jesus.

I’ll get back to that disturbing image.
But let’s begin with a story.
This is Narrative Lectionary, after all.
Story drives our engagement with scripture.

In John 6, we get another miracle story.
Like other miracle stories, it’s less about the miracle itself,
than about advancing the mission of Jesus.
It’s a teachable moment, for the disciples and for the crowds,
but mostly for the disciples.

By the way, this is the only miracle that’s  in all four Gospels.
Details vary, but the storyline is the same.
Jesus makes a lot out of a little,
feeds an enormous crowd of thousands,
and to put an exclamation mark on it all,
they gather the leftovers,
and it’s way more than they started with.

So why this story, and why now in John?
Well, it’s one of John’s six meal stories.
And it sets the stage for the long theological discourse
about bread and life that we’ll get to soon.

But primarily,
this is a story about how and why people are following Jesus,
and what people believe about Jesus.

The crowds and Jesus almost seem to be in a cat and mouse game.
Jesus was healing people and word got around,
so crowds started trailing him . . . everywhere.
Maybe they or someone they loved needed healing,
and they were looking for a chance
to be on the receiving end of a miracle.
Or, maybe they were just curious and wanted
to see another one of Jesus’ tricks.

Anyway, it seems like Jesus was trying, unsuccessfully,
to get away.
He tried going to the other side of the Sea (v. 1)
But the crowd kept following him (v. 2)
So he climbed up a mountain (v. 3) to create some distance
and sat down there to teach his closest disciples.
And just as he was starting his lesson, he looked up (v. 5),
and there was the crowd of thousands again,
trudging up the mountain after him.
So he said to Philip (v. 5),
“Where are we going to buy bread for all these people?”
It was a tongue-in-cheek question,
but Philip gave a serious answer about needing 6 months wages.
Then Andrew piped up, maybe also tongue in cheek.
“Oh, I see a boy over there with 5 loaves and 2 fish.”

After this - almost - joking dialogue, the miracle unfolds.
Jesus gives thanks for the 5 loaves and 2 fish,
they pass them out,
they are multiplied exponentially,
everyone is fed and filled,
and truckloads of leftovers are gathered up.

And then the cat and mouse game continues.
The people are overjoyed at this miracle,
they are about to mob Jesus and try to make him King, v. 15,
so Jesus runs off again,
this time to a mountainous area by himself,
presumably for some peace and quiet.
And the disciples, maybe to distract the crowd,
get in a boat and start sailing across the sea to Capernaum.

And to fill in the part we jumped over in our reading,
there’s another miraculous moment with the disciples,
where Jesus walks on water out to the boat in a storm,
and they safely reach the other side, far from the madding crowds.

For one night.
Because in the morning crowds remembered seeing
the disciples sail to Capernaum without Jesus the night before,
so they figured Jesus got there somehow,
so they hightail it over there.

They find Jesus, and ask him how he got there,
but he doesn’t answer.
He just tells them,
“You are only looking for me
because I gave you bread when you were hungry.
You are in it for yourself, for the adventure.
You don’t see the meaning behind the signs.”

Then we have this long teaching about bread and life.

Now . . . let’s recall the main point behind John’s Gospel.
John’s aim is to tell the story of Jesus in such as way,
that the hearer of the story comes to believe—
not, believe, as in accept some propositional statement about Jesus;
but believe in, as in, come to trust Jesus fully,
that Jesus is who he says,
the One come from God, and One with God,
and go all in as a disciple and learner of Jesus.
That’s what John means by “believe.”
And since Jesus is One with God,
as we experience communion with Jesus,
and friendship with Jesus,
we enter into a process of communion with,
and even, mysteriously, union with God’s very self.

So keep that as a backdrop,
as we look at this strange and off-putting discourse.

Now, on the one hand,
“Jesus as bread” is not a strange or difficult metaphor.
Donna did a great job talking about it with the children,
and making the idea understandable.
Just as we depend on bread for life and strength,
so we can depend on Jesus.

But Jesus took it further.
He made the metaphor graphic:
In the wilderness your ancestors ate manna that fell from heaven,
and they died.
I am also bread come from heaven. Eat me and you won’t die.
Whoever eats of this bread will live forever;
and the bread is my flesh.

And saying it once wasn’t enough. A couple verses later he says,
“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.”
You know those words very well.
They appear in one of our favorite communion and Easter hymns,
“I am the Bread of Life.”

With great emotion we all sing it—
after communion,
on Easter,
at funerals,
and many other times.
We belt out those lines we barely understand,
many of us even spontaneously stand up
and raise our hands.
In the third stanza we sing,
“Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man,
and drink of his blood (and then we say it again),
and drink of his blood,
you shall not have life within you.”

I don’t know, maybe some of you squirm when you sing that.
I admit I sometimes have.
But no longer.
I have come to appreciate these lines from John 6 in a new way.

And it has to do with a newer interpretation of this discourse.
I won’t get into the weeds of the scholarly debate.
But as recently as four years ago,
in the rarified air of the Society of Biblical Literature,
there was scholarly debate on the exegesis of John 6.

The traditional interpretation is that this language in John
grew out of an early Christian community
that already saw the eucharist, the Lord’s Supper,
as a way to eat the body of Christ,
and drink the blood of Christ, albeit mystically.
And that Jesus was here referring to the eucharist.

I slogged my way through a journal article about it this week,
and from the best of my limited understanding,
the newer argument is that there’s no evidence
John meant to have Jesus talking about the eucharist,
or that it was influenced by any existing church ritual
that said they were eating Jesus’ flesh and blood.
Rather, the influence was the other way around—
these words in John led to particular understandings
of the eucharist that developed later.

John used Jesus’ words about eating and drinking himself,
not to refer to the eucharist,
but as an expansive metaphor,
in the same way the prophet Jeremiah
talked about eating the word of God,
“Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy.”
Or the way prophet Isaiah spoke,
encouraging his people to ingest the law, the words of God—
“Listen carefully to me,” Isaiah said, “and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.”

Like Jeremiah and Isaiah,
John is all about ingesting Jesus,
about consuming the Word, the Logos.
Remember the prologue in ch. 1 gave us that image:
Jesus as Word become Flesh.
The Word moved into the neighborhood, and dwelt with us.

All through the book, the reader is invited, repeatedly,
to come closer to Jesus,
to take Jesus in,
to let our life be subsumed in the life of Jesus,
to be united with Jesus,
to abide with Jesus,
and here, to ingest Jesus.

So John 6 is not out in left field.
It’s consistent with the rest of the book.
If we see eating and drinking as metaphor, which of course it is,
then this is no strange idea in John.
It’s not offensive, barbaric, or cannibalistic.
It just reinforces John’s main point—
be united with God, through Jesus, the Word, the Logos.

When John has Jesus saying,
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood, so you can live,”
it’s just another way of him saying,
Go all in with me.
I am where life is found.
I am the living Word, the Logos.
Eat me up.
Drink me up.
Let me become part of you.
Let me course through your veins.
So you can live. Really live.

This is beautiful!
Let’s embrace it, not be repulsed by it.

Apparently, at the end of John 6,
these words did offend and divide.
It separated those who were just following Jesus for kicks,
and those who were coming to believe in a deeper way.
Some were grossed out, I guess,
by Jesus talking about people eating his flesh
and drinking his blood.
Others were offended by Jesus’ claim to have “come from heaven,”
like the manna in Exodus.

In any event, the crowds started thinning out.
So at the beginning of chapter 6,
Jesus couldn’t get away from the crowds.
At the end of the chapter,
so many had left that Jesus turned to the Twelve, in v. 67,
and asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?”
And Peter answered him with these immortal words,
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

So, with the Gospel of John,
I implore us all.
Let us ingest Jesus.
Let us allow the living Word, the Logos, to fill our being.
It will not happen without the intentionality and regularity
of Christian practice—
both individual and communal.
Prayer, listening, scripture, silence,
embodied communal worship,
singing our faith together,
retelling the Gospel story together,
confessing and reconciling,
eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table,
as we did last Sunday,
and more.

Let us commit ourselves to that.
And let us say so, through our confession.
Please join with the bold type, as seen in the order of service,
and on the screen.

one God our Provider, we confess we are hungry, 
        and in want of bread.
We are weary, and in want of your sustaining life within us.
all At your invitation, we come to your table of plenty. Feed us.
one We confess we often eat of that which does not satisfy.
We miss opportunities to be deeply fed by you.
all At your table, we receive what you offer of yourself. Fill us.
Words of assurance
one All who hunger, gather gladly; Jesus Christ is living bread.
Come from loneliness and longing. 
Here, in peace, we have been led.
Taste and see the grace eternal. 
Taste and see that God is good.

—Phil Kniss, February 13, 2022

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