Bread of Heaven

Published: Sunday, 26 August 2018

Bread of HeavenThis sermon was presented by Geoff Pound on 26 August 2018 at the Ashburton Baptist Church. Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Discussion follow the conclusion of this manuscript.

Reading: John 6: 56-69

‘Oh No’ you said, when the Scriptures were read this morning: “Not another sermon on bread!” Yes, this is the fifth Sunday in a row with a bread theme, mainly from John’s Gospel.

Maybe those who ordered the lectionary readings are wanting us to feel the boredom of the children of Israel in the desert, when every day they went to their supermarkets, all they could find on the shelves was bread. Only bread. Manna bread. They were sick of it.

The good news is that next week we’re leaving the bread behind. We’re getting our teeth into another theme.

One of the fascinating differences we’ve observed in Italy is to do with their bread culture. For instance, at a hostel or restaurant, Italians don’t supply bread plates so the crumbs end up on the table or the floor.

While the bread-loving French seem to serve bread for starters, the bread-loving Italians serve it more as a supplement to pasta. They use bread to mop up their olive oil.

So often the Italian bread is quite hard, not just because of its age but it’s more crusty than most Aussie bread. Under the crust, the rest of it is also tough. Some of the loaves are so heavy they’d would make a handy door stop.

I was concerned that I wouldn’t break my teeth so I looked carefully to see how the Italians did it at breakfast time. Some would take this tough bread from the basket and they’d crush it in their hand before eating it. So, I copied them to avoid paying hefty dental bills. Others would dunk it first in their coffee but even though this softened it, the bread still remained chewy.

Today we hear Jesus saying:

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This 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.”

John 6: 56-58

Jesus is changing his language.

Instead of the usual word for ‘eat’ he uses the word ‘to chew’ or ‘to crunch’ as when we eat raw carrots. So, hear him say this:

56 Those who gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever crunches on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who chews on this bread will live forever.” 

This isn’t soft bread. He’s making us chew on his teaching. This statement might be tough but he uses a warm, positive description of God as ‘the living Father’. This image may not appeal to all but it’s the only reference in the Bible to the words, ‘living Father’. Jesus is describing the loving, living, intimate relationship that he had and that, we also can have with God.

Jesus is also talking about eating my flesh and drinking my blood. Yuck! No wonder people from the community called those early Christians ‘cannibals’ when they heard they were eating bread and drinking wine in response to his words: “This is my body; This is my blood.”

Do you find this talk repulsive? Do you find these words unpalatable? If you do, John reminds us where Jesus said this:

He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

John 6: 59

This food teaching started (v25) outdoors ‘on the other side of the lake’ but somewhere they shifted indoors into a place for Jewish worship. This synagogue had never heard such blasphemy. The drinking of blood was forbidden by Jewish law.

According to Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 3:17; 17:11 animals had to be slaughtered to drain the blood so it was kosher. That’s why their dietary laws prohibited eating liver, kidneys, heart and black pudding because they contain a high density of blood. But here’s this new rabbi in the synagogue, speaking about gnawing on my flesh and drinking my blood!

Maybe Jesus was speaking metaphorically. Like we say, ‘I love you with all my heart’. Not this [my literal heart] but with all that I am. Consuming his ‘flesh and blood’ might mean connecting with Christ, not in a superficial way but with our whole being.

Is it any wonder that John says,

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 

John 6: 60-61

These weren’t resistant Jews, or people eavesdropping on the edge of the crowd. These were his disciples that found his teaching like tough, hard bread.

Some objected to his claim to be ‘bread that came down from heaven’.

They couldn’t get their teeth into his claim to be the new, lifegiving manna.

They refused to believe that he originated from God.

They choked on his words about his pre-existence.

They threw up over his divine claims.

But, Jesus says, if this offends you (or literally if this is a scandal or a stumbling block):

Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 

John 6:62

If you don’t like my claims about where I’ve come from, just wait ‘til you see where I’m going!

A mother asked her son, “What did you learn at Sunday Club today?” The boy said, “Well we had this story about the Jews. They were all jammed up against the Red Sea. They were really in a fix because the Egyptians were chasing after them, so the Jews cut down all the trees, they made rafts and they sailed across the Red Sea. When the Egyptians arrived, there were no more trees left – they couldn’t make any rafts, so the Jews got away.”

Knowing the story, the mother said, “Oh, come off it, you can’t tell me that’s what they taught you in Sunday Club today?”

And the young boy said, “Well, actually that isn’t what they told us but if I told you what they told us, you’d never believe it!”

What are the Bible stories that you find too hard to swallow?

What words of Jesus can’t you stomach?

What commands of Jesus do you find unpleasant and inedible?

Often it's the stance and behavior of Christ’s followers that makes you want to give up.

Jesus says:

It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

John 6: 63

“The flesh is useless?” This is also hard and puzzling. He’s just been talking about the need to ‘eat my flesh’. And this whole Gospel begins with the amazing declaration that ‘the Word became flesh’.

Becoming flesh, he became like us.

Being flesh, God became visible.

Living in our flesh, he has shown us how to live.

Maybe Jesus is pointing to a new way to understand difficult and hard teachings. Spiritual truths need to be enlivened by the spirit to be properly understood. We don’t just try and nut things out or understand them logically or rationally. We shouldn’t stop at the crust. We need to go deeper.

There’s realism here and can you sense the sadness in these words?

But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 

John 6: 64-66

Our passage began with Jesus’ call to ‘abide’ in me. Now they’re leaving him. These aren’t bystanders throwing in the towel. These are disciples who’d followed Jesus who are handing in their resignation. They’re acting like their ancestors who turned up their noses towards the manna.

Maybe they initially followed because they thought Jesus was about wellness and healing. Perhaps they were attracted by the thought that he might make them feel better. That he might make them more popular and more successful.

But following Jesus is hard.

Following Jesus means extending forgiveness to others.

Following Jesus is about freedom for others.

Following Jesus means we push back against the prevailing culture.

Following Jesus means serving people who can do nothing for us.

We might develop café churches and churches with gyms to attract people but let’s be honest: following Jesus will always be a minority enterprise.

Seeing his deserters, Jesus turns to the twelve and says:

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

John 6: 67

Maybe this is the personal, probing question that Jesus is asking you and me:

“Do you also wish to go away?”

‘Abiding’ with Jesus is tough.

Staying with him is a long process.

There’s no quick fix.

Learning from him is puzzling, full of mystery and ambiguity.

It’s hard if you want slick answers.

Peter, who we see so often speaking without putting his mind into gear, now says something truly profound:

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

John 6: 68-69

Peter is saying that following Jesus is hard, but the only other option, like the Israelites in the desert, is to return to slavery. Jesus’ teachings, we cannot always digest but, with the help of the spirit, we can wrestle and make them part of us.

His call to live in solidarity with the poor, to visit the sick, to welcome the stranger and the oppressed is not just hard and tough. There’s also joy, there’s fulfilment and there’s eternal life.

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 

May we come to believe in you more and know that you are the Holy One of God.

Amen.

Questions for Personal reflection and Group Study

Reading: John 6: 56-69

56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This 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.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

When Jesus drops the usual word for ‘eat’ and uses the word ‘to chew’ or ‘to crunch’, what do you think he is meaning when he says:

56 Those who gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever crunches on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who chews on this bread will live forever.” 

How do you resonate with Christ’s description of God as ‘the living father’?

What does this mean for you?

Ponder Jesus’ talk about ‘eating my flesh and drinking my blood’.

Do you find this language repulsive? Do you find these words unpalatable?

Is Jesus trying to be provocative?

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 

What were the difficult parts of Christ’s teaching for those original hearers?

What are the difficult (and offensive) aspects of Christ’s teaching for you?

What are the difficult and hard parts of following Jesus?

63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 

What does Jesus mean by this?

How might the spirit help us in our understanding and following of Jesus?

64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 

Did Jesus have omniscience (the ability to know who wouldn’t believe and who was the one who would betray him) or is John writing after all these events and inserting this back into Jesus’ words?

What must Jesus think about his disciples then and now who deliberately turn away or gradually no longer go with him?

Did you think Jesus went chasing up the deserters and trying to persuade them to follow him again?

In what ways do we seek to soften up the demands of Christ’s teaching and discipleship in order to make it more attractive to people to follow?

“Following Jesus will always be a minority enterprise.” Discuss.

67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Share about any of the times and the reasons when you wanted to give up on following Jesus and his church.

What is holding you (if you wish to stay (abide with him)?

68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

What do you intriguing or valuable about Peter’s response?

Prayer

Pray for the ability to understand the teachings of Jesus, the strength to bear the cost of Christian discipleship, the enlivening power of the Spirit and the hope to abide in him.

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 

May we come to believe in you more and know that you are the Holy One of God.

Amen.