John 6: 56-69
In an interview on PBS a few years before she died, Julia Child said, “A country that is afraid of food should be ashamed of itself.” She was referring to the anxiety about healthy eating in America that has led us to put warning labels on things we formerly ate with a carefree spirit.
Now, Julia Child knows perfectly well that in this nation we suffer from a variety of serious conditions with strong connections to the sorts of things and how much of them we put in our mouths. She is not a foe of healthy eating or safe eating. What gets her goat are the exaggerated messages we get from every side that make us feel that if we fail to make just the right choice between 1% and 2% milk on our weekly run to the grocery store, we may have sealed the fate of our health forever.
Shopping under the weight of high moral responsibility puts a bit of a damper on the joy of cooking, to say the least. In Julia’s view, we are victims of a mostly manufactured ethic about eating that is making us unduly skittish about simple enjoyment—we are a country afraid of our food. So whenever Julia, with that naughty gleam in her eye, tosses great gobs of butter, gallons of thick white cream, and oceans of good red wine into some hard-to-pronounce French concoction, you can be sure it is not merely an act of obedience to the recipe; it is also an act of disobedience to the food police.
Now, I bring up Julia’s dismay only because, if I read John’s gospel correctly, I think Jesus would have been on Julia’s side.
In this short text from the sixth chapter of John, we confront some big claims and even bigger bewilderment. Jesus’ listeners are confused and angry that a man whose parents and birthplace everybody knows to be local seems now to be claiming that he came down from heaven—and that he can go right back up there again whenever he wants. And of course we modern listeners are probably as put off as that ancient audience seems to be by that icky business about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
We know, of course, that John does not intend us to take such extreme sayings literally. In fact, if we do take them literally, John sees it as a sign that we don’t “get” Jesus at all, that we are relying too much on a human way of understanding. If we don’t get “behind” Jesus’ statement, into the deeper meaning, John says we aren’t listening with the Spirit. This is the same dynamic at work in an earlier episode, Jesus’ famous dead-of-night meeting with Nicodemus, who could not fathom how a person could go back into his mother’s womb and be born again, as Jesus said we must. John makes fun of that sort of common-sense literalism. He wants us to look deeper, to see beyond.
But when you look at the Greek words John chooses to talk about eating flesh and drinking blood in this story, you really do have to sympathize with the disgusted folk who backed away. He does not make it easy for them to assume Jesus has metaphorical intentions. He doesn’t write “eat,” he writes something more like “munch,” “chomp,” “gnaw.” This is gustosyntax, finger-licking vocabulary! It is meant to make the point inescapable — Jesus’ flesh is in some sense“real” food, his blood in some sense“real” drink. Jesus means to be “eaten” — no, devoured— in a decidedly undainty and very hungry fashion.
What is going on here?
Well, one way of approaching things is to look first at a normal-sounding verse we might pass right over in our reflexive disgust at the body and blood stuff, verse 59: “He said all these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.”Ah, now we have a context! John places Jesus in a local town synagogue, preaching a sermon; and that means he’s got a text unrolled in front of him, going verse by verse, expounding its meaning, making applications, and engaging in back-and-forth disputation.
So, what text is Jesus teaching? We can’t know for sure, but because of all the references to Moses and manna in the desert in our gospel portion, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine it was Exodus 16, in which the hunger and complaint of the Israelites was met by God with heavenly bread. The application Jesus makes of these verses is to himself. He says heis the bread that comes down from heaven. He says heis a new kind of sustenance for body, spirit, and the life of the world.
So far, so good. But what could be lost on us is yet another claim being made about Jesus in this scene. To hear that claim, we need to know that there is a tradition of Jewish interpretation that sees scripture itself, the Torah, the Law, as the reality behind the manna of Exodus 16. This tradition teaches that God was indeed feeding the people with bread in the wilderness, but it wasn’t just a wafer-like substance God was providing; it was in reality the holy Law, God’s very Word, the nourishing bread of God’s wisdom.
And how do you get that wisdom? Like the manna, you eat it up! Every day a little portion, because it doesn’t keep well and it won’t last if you leave it lying around. You learn divine wisdom daily, bit by bit, not only with your intellect, but also with your body. Like food, you ingest it, you ruminate on it, like a cow chewing its cud, letting it roll around in your mouth and swallowing slowly, luxuriously; and eventually you digest it so that it becomes part of you, life of your life, flesh of your flesh, blood of your blood.
“Day and night I ruminate upon your Law, O God,” says one of the psalms. “Your Law is like honey, sweet to the tongue,” says another. “O taste and see how good the Lord is,” another urges us. If John presents Jesus claiming to be food, claiming to be the manna, then Jesus is also claiming to be the Word, the Wisdom of God. And thus he invites everyone to eat him and drink him, to relishhim.
This same Wisdom shows up in Scripture in another guise too. She is personified in several Old Testament texts as a mother who builds a house for her children—everyone who wants to know her and live in her. And wouldn’t you know it? She sets a splendid table in that house, and then she goes out and calls to her children, “Come,” the scripture says, “Come from East and West, North and South! Eat my bread, drink my wine! Come to the feast I prepared for you!”
This is exactly what Jesus says in John 6: “Eat me and drink me, and you will know the endless, deep, soul-food-deliciousness of God!”
I suspect that all this may sound very odd, mystical and impossibly poetic to us modern American Liberal Protestant Christians who usually expect no more from Jesus and the Word than an ethic for living, a few guidelines to life’s big issues, and some inspiration for action in the world. But our ancestors looked for more. In Jesus’ life and teaching, in his person and work, and in his continued presence in the Spirit, they expected to taste yummy flavors, complex memorable textures, enjoyment and delight.
Our usual approach to Jesus and the Word is via the question and the doubt. Is it true? Can I believe this? We are cautious and measured, a little like the way Julia Child says we approach our food. Is this good for me? Will it harm me if I have an extra ounce of this or one more calorie of that? Are there trans-fatty acids in this passage?
We hang around the edges of Jesus, hang back on the outskirts of Wisdom, ready to peel off and back away when we reach the limit of our reason and our patience with things that seem odd to us. We are often among the first to leave when something in Jesus’ person or in God’s Word tests our assumptions about ourselves or threatens to alter our sense of the world.
You can see it in the way we typically study Scripture. We approach the Bible as an object of religious interest, at a cool objective distance. We ask a lot of historical, cultural and ethical questions of the texts, wanting to understand what they all mean. Not a bad thing, and in fact necessary. But we are rarely aggressively subjectiveabout our learning. We don’t yearn to live with, in and through Scripture. And even more rarely do we simply stand in grateful awe of it. We only seldom speak of lovingScripture, although our Puritan forebears did. They, like their Hebrew ancestors, also spoke of chewing on it, digesting it, licking up its sweet dripping edges as you would a double-dipped cone on a sweltering day.
And the same is true of the way our ancestors in the faith regarded Jesus. They believed that we are meant to eat the rich food and fine wine that he has proved to be for the empty and the thirsty; we are meant to enjoy the free banquet he has always been for the thankful and the poor in spirit; we are meant to feel the heady flush he can be for the lover of justice and the doer of good works.
We are meant to staywith him too, even when others are all telling us that we would be better off leaving him and going away. To stay with him, even though he is a hard person to stay with because he will not let us endlessly cultivate our fears and our skittishness and our carefully constructed and controlled diet of distancing doubts and questions. At some point he just looks at us and say, “It’s all right. Let your fears go. Eat and drink. Enjoy it, enjoy me, and be at peace.”
I will never forget the very first time I attended a Jewish service on the Sabbath, especially the moment they brought out the Torah to chanting and celebration. They danced the scrolls around the sanctuary so that everyone could touch their prayer shawls to them. They were joyfully greeting not some inert object filled with rules and regulations, not some dead letter or object of study.
No, it was not some old and interesting and very wise Book, but a livingthing, a gift of God to God’s people, the very Wisdom and presence of God, the joy of the community, their glory and crown. They danced it and sang it like people at a great feast who were done with the questions for the day and who were eager for, not afraid of, the food they were sitting down to enjoy.
And I envied my Jewish friends their ecstasy. I longed to dance in my sanctuary as they did, cradling in my arms the Torah, the prophets, the book of the Four Gospels — and even those vexing old letters of Paul. I longed to dance with the whole of Scripture, and with the great traditions of our faith, and with Jesus himself! To put the Wisdom of God and the Savior of my life under my head as I sleep at night, to eat them in the morning with my corn flakes, and to dream of it them in the heat of the day.
But I am a Congregationalist. Who and what could compel me to take Scripture and Jesus seriously enough, or to trust their truth enough to dance with them, to dream with them, and, of course!, to argue with them — but not in that cool, distancing way that says “Prove it!”, “Prove yourself!”, but in that intimate, tough, expectant and tender way that people who adore each other fight, always ready to yield, sooner or later, out of sheer love?
“I am bread and wine,” says Jesus. “I am realfood and drink. I am a body and a spirit. I am Life and Wisdom. I am here to make you hungry. I am to here be danced and devoured. Don’t go away! Come to me, come to the table of the Word, and stay with me! Stay with the Beloved Community where my own flesh and blood live and struggle and serve and learn and love. And at the table of faith, don’t be afraid of your food. Don’t nibble when you could chomp. Don’t sip daintily when you could slug it all down the hatch with gusto! Dance and play with your food, as God danced and played with me, Holy Wisdom, before the foundation of the world.”
Long live God, who feeds us; long live Jesus, our food; and long live Julia Child, who commanded us to eat, and never to be afraid!
Some years ago when my granddaughter was about three, she and my daughter accompanied my to the Saturday service at United Church of Ware, UCC where Communion was served weekly by intinction. Lauren eagerly marched up the aisle and just as eagerly grabbed one have of the loaf of bread being served. I love that image–unlike most adults who daintily took a tiny piece of bread, she wanted as much as she could get. Would that we come to Jesus as little children, longing for as much of him as we can get.