Jesus said to the people, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They 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'?"
Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It 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. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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."
( John 6:35, 41-51 )
The writer of Saint John’s gospel took the sayings of and stories about Jesus Christ that had been passed down by word of mouth from the earliest Christians. Then he mashed them all up together, not in the chronological order that you find in the other Gospels, but in such a way that he could emphasise to the Christians of his time and place, what being a Christian is all about.
Our reading this morning concerns the ancient Christian understanding of Jesus being the bread of life. Perhaps this belief came originally from the meal Jesus shared with his disciples and friends shortly before his crucifixion in which Jesus took bread and wine and made them a symbol of his body and blood so that his followers had something tangible through which they could always remember him.
You will find accounts of this “Last Supper” story towards the end of all three of the other gospels. Saint Paul also talks about it in his first letter to the Corinthians. And elsewhere in the letters of Saint Paul and also in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, you can read how, very quickly, the Last Supper, with the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine, had become a weekly ritual in the early Church, taking place every Sunday. It wasn’t quite the same as the way we take communion, it seems that it was less formal, more a part of the meal, or even the meal itself. But it was certainly what became the liturgy of the Eucharist that we, in our own times, also celebrate every Sunday.
You can also find an expanded account of Christ’s institution of Holy Communion in the Gospel of John. But, unlike the other Gospel writers, John does not restrict the doctrine of the Last Supper to just that one occasion. He, in fact, pretty much bases the whole of his Gospel on the statement - Jesus is the Bread of Life. It was obviously, not only something very important to himself, but also the main message he wanted to communicate to the people for whom he was writing.
I think, in order to answer that question we need to look at the event on which John’s theology of the Bread of Life is based, the Last Supper.
At that meal Jesus instructed his followers to regard the bread and the wine they were consuming as symbolic of his body and blood. By doing this Jesus joins together the spiritual and the physical into one act. So, eating the bread and the wine is, in one respect, a spiritual partaking in the person of Jesus. But, in another respect and on a more mundane level, it is also just a meal, like any other meal. In the one meal we have a conjunction between the ordinary and the extraordinary. The two facets become one. You cannot pull them apart.
But, of course, meals are never truly mundane and ordinary. The eating of food, especially the eating of food as a communal activity, have probably always had an element of the mystical about them. Eating is the centre of human, in fact, animal existence. We have to eat to stay alive. And a lot of effort goes into the acquiring and the preparation of the food that sustains us.
We know that communal meals, family meals especially, were very important to the Jewish people at the time of Christ. They still are very important events for Jewish people, especially when they are connected to religious occasions. All major Jewish festivals are celebrated by special meals with special rituals attached to them. Every week, the Jewish family comes together to partake of a meal at the beginning of their Sabbath.
But this is not just a Jewish thing. Other peoples of the world have used meals to recognize religious events and even in modern day, western, secular society, special meals with their associated rituals, like wedding banquets and office Christmas parties are still very important to people.
Most, if not all, of these ritualism infused meals have one thing in common. They are primarily about sharing, and making a statement about sharing and commonality.
The Jewish sabbath meal is about sharing as a family but, in a wider sense, it is also about sharing as a people. Jewish, ritual meals look back to a time when the Jews were one people, and now that the Jewish people are scattered throughout the world, these meals are even more important in creating a sense of cultural and religious community. Although separated by thousands of miles the people are still one around the Sabbath table in each and every Jewish household.
At a Jewish wedding the most important part of the ceremony is the meal which celebrates the commitment the bride and groom are making to sharing their life together and there are other examples in Jewish life of meals emphasising the importance of sharing ones life with others from the culture.
For non-Jews the same is true of many of our festive meals. In this country, Christmas Day and Mothering Sunday are often celebrated with meals which are viewed as a way to get the family together. In America, Thanksgiving Day has a similar history. At weddings, baptisms and even at funerals, we share a meal, albeit a few nibbles and a sausage roll. Sometimes, in this country, we share our national identity by partaking of meals in the middle of the street.
Meals are about filling our stomachs, but they are also, on many occasions, and throughout the world, about sharing, sharing with our fellow human beings.
It was against this background that Jesus arranged his last supper with his friends. Those friends may not have known that this was to be the last supper but they would have definitely known that this was to be an important meal and that an integral part of the meal would be their sharing together.
Now, as meals are about sharing, when Jesus uses the imagery of food to describe himself he is saying that he is to be shared, just as food is shared at a meal. That is why the Eucharist is called a communion. We commune. We share. With Jesus. With each other.
So, lets go back to our reading from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Now, although this passage is towards the beginning of the Gospel, well before John’s account of the Last Supper, it still has to be understood in the light of the Last Supper. Remember the writer of this Gospel already knows all about the institution of the Holy Communion and, because of its personal importance to him, he has put it right at the start of his account of Jesus. So, the theology of the end of the book informs the whole of the book.
In our reading today we are told that those who were listening to Jesus found his words hard. They would have been shocked by the idea of eating human flesh. Cannibalism was not part of jewish culture and would not, no matter what the Roman propaganda machine tried to claim, ever be part of Christian culture. I think that there are Christians, even today, who think there is an element of cannibalistic imagery in the words Jesus employs in our reading today. As far as I know, most, if not all, cannibalistic peoples have believed that in eating another person they are taking that other person’s power into themselves and I think some Christians do believe that they are receiving something of Christ’s power when they eat the bread and drink the wine in Holy Communion. At its mildest, this will only be regarding Communion as a spiritual top-up each week, like filling up your car’s tank at a petrol station. And, although we should never treat the sacrament as just another commodity and church as just another supermarket, we should be pleased if our worship builds us up and gives us the strength to live out the Gospel when we leave the church at the end of the service. But, there is no magic in the Eucharist. We are not cannibals. We do not draw in Christ’s divine power when we eat the bread and drink the wine, when we partake of Christ’s body and blood.
You see, if we go back to Christ’s institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper we will find on the lips of Christ a very important word, “Remembrance.” Now, I don’t think Jesus said that just to tell us not to forget him. If he only meant that I don’t think he would have stated that the bread and the wine were his body and blood. He would have just said, “When you sit down for your Sunday lunch remember me.”
No, what I think is happening is he is telling us that, in the days ahead of him, he will achieve our salvation, once and for all. And that we should take the opportunity of sharing meals together to remind ourselves of his action in the world which, for us, has already taken place and cannot be overturned.
We do not take on Christ’s divinity when we share in his body and blood because his divinity was given to us, once and for all, when his Father raised him to life on the third day.
Jesus is the bread of life. He already is the bread of life. Communion is a celebration of what already is. No Christian can refuse to give communion to somebody else, or share communion with anyone else or refuse to take part in communion with anybody else, because, if they are a Christian they are already in Communion with Jesus Christ and, through him, with all the branches of the vine, because of what he achieved for us. When we join together at the communion rail with all those baptized in Christ’s name we are in communion with him who saves us. If we refuse to share the bread and the wine with those for whom Christ died, then we then we also turn our backs on Jesus Christ. If we excommunicate others, we excommunicate ourselves. And then we starve. Jesus gives - he does not take away. If we try to take away that which Jesus has given freely and for all time, we blaspheme his name and question his power and authority.
But that would be spitting in the wind. Jesus is the bread of life. Jesus is the wine, the beer, the fruit juice that we drink. Jesus is the air that we breathe. He is the sun that keeps us warm. He is the water in which we wash. Jesus is in the mundane details of every part of our existence. We do not, we cannot, fully exist without him.
The reason why the writer of John’s Gospel kept going on about Jesus being the bread of life is that he wanted to make sure his listeners fully understood that Jesus is life. He makes real life possible for us. He has made real life possible for us. We can experience that real life that Christ has won for us if we are in communion with him, and in communion with each other through him.
The bread and the wine is his body and blood. It is not ours. It belongs to him, not us. He reminds us, in the bread and the wine, of that which he has already given to us and all he wants is for us to accept it his gift as a reality in our lives and to freely offer that gift to all we meet.