How do we respond to Christ’s gift? (third in a series on John chapter 6)

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Aug. 9, 2009
1 Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Eph 4:30–5:2; John 6:41-51

This is our third Sunday in the Gospel of John chapter 6, and the crowd is starting to get awfully restless. Today we hear them push back against Jesus and object to his words: “How can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

This might seem strange to us if we consider who this crowd is and where they have just been experiencing. They are actually beginning to “bite the hand that feeds them.” Two weeks ago we heard about how Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of 5000 men, plus women and children, from only five loaves and two fishes; and he did it as a sign pointing to some greater truth he wanted to communicate. And then the next day, as we heard last week, the crowd got into boats and crossed the Sea of Galilee to find Jesus again, because they wanted him to satisfy their hungers. And Jesus began to explain what his miraculous feeding as the Messiah would actually be, in contrast to their expectations. First he said that he would give them food not to sustain their earthly life but to lead to eternal life. And that sounds great.

But then he said something that got too close for comfort. What bread would he give to lead to eternal life? He told the crowd, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” And the crowd responds: “Whoa! Hold up there! Who do you think you are!” It was one thing when Jesus was the distant figure miraculously multiplying the barley loaves for them to eat; or even when they imagined that he might call them to fight in a Messianic battle to overthrow the Roman occupiers. But with this simple statement, “I am the bread of life,” Jesus has come very, very close—so that we might say he is “violating their personal space.” And their instinct is to push him back.

Imagine that you are walking in some public place, like a downtown area, or a shopping center or mall, and a stranger walks up to you and asks you for something. How do you react? Well, it depends what they ask for, doesn’t it? If they ask what time it is or for directions, you’re happy to help; and you even pat yourself on the back for being such a good citizen. If they ask you to take a survey or sign a petition, that’s more involved, and you might or might not want to do it. If they ask you for money, or if they want to start some long, heavy conversation to persuade you of some religious or political message, you’re like, “Look at the time! Gotta go!” And imagine if the stranger were a homeless person asking, not for money or food, but to move into your house and to live there in your house with you. A simple, short request can become incredibly intrusive and involved. And then we have to ask: Can we afford to give what is being asked? Do we want to?

So what is it that the crowd hears in this simple statement, “I am the bread of life”? Let’s take it in the two parts.

First, Jesus says, “I am.” Some 1200 years earlier, “I am” had been the name that the Lord revealed to Moses from the burning bush on Mount Sinai. “I am who am. … This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.” [Exod 3:14] Out of reverence, the Jews in Jesus’ time tried to avoid even saying the phrase “I am” in ordinary conversation. But again and again, we hear Jesus saying “I am,” especially in the Gospel of John. These statements are more or less obvious. One of the most obvious ones [8:58-59], was when he said, “before Abraham came to be, I AM“; and they responded by picking up stones to throw at him. Because it was clear to them that he was making himself God—which would be blasphemy if it weren’t true. Now this statement “I am the bread of life” is less obvious than that, but it still had to make them uneasy, raising the implied possibility that this man standing right in front of them was saying, “I am the Lord.” And what could that mean?

In our own culture, we might find Jesus’ “I am” statements uncomfortable for a slightly different reason. Our culture is very ready to see Jesus as one of many religious leaders, all of them pointing their followers in different ways in the same goal: to the same way, the same light, the same truth. It sounds so diverse and equal. And it sounds humble too; just as you and I cannot say, “I am the way” or “I am the bread of life,” but rather, “let me humbly point you to the way and the bread of life.” But Jesus says, “I am.” He is pointing to himself.

  • I am the way and the truth and the life. [14:6]
  • I am the resurrection and the life [11:25]
  • I am the good shepherd [10:11, 14]
  • I am the gate. [10:9]
  • I am the true vine. [15:1]
  • I am the light of the world. [8:12]

How could the crowd respond to Jesus’ “I am” statements? How will we respond?

Now in chapter 6, his statement is, “I am the bread of life”—so let’s move to the second part of that statement. That phrase, “the bread of life,” even before he explains further, already tells us that he not just saying something about himself but also is saying something about us. If he is giving himself to us for food—if we somehow are to eat him—then that is something incredibly personal and intimate. Somehow he’s going to go inside us. His life is going to get mixed up with ours on the most basic level. We will become dependent on him and involved with him in a way that we never were before. Our life will never be the same.

Jesus isn’t asking us for money, or to fill out a survey, or even to give him directions. On the face of it, he isn’t asking us for anything at all; but rather is offering us a gift—the gift of himself, on the deepest and most intimate level. But what will it mean to accept this gift? Who we are, changes. Whose we are, changes. Before whom, in whose presence, we live every moment of our lives, changes. How we see ourselves, and how we see others and the whole world, and how we live, and how we think and feel and act—it all changes! Christ’s gift of himself is a gift that, as T.S. Eliot put it, costs not less than everything [“Little Gidding,” No. 4 of “Four Quartets”].

And how will we respond to this? In one of the communications courses I took in college, we looked at one study that asked the question: If one person comes so physically close to another as to “invade their personal space,” how does that change the second person’s response to the first? And the study found that whatever the second person already thinks of the first is magnified by their closenes. If they already the first person attractive, then standing that close will make them seem more attractive; if they found the person unattractive, then more unattractive.

And this seems to be what goes on inside us when we hear this intimate offer by Christ. Some have longed for a union with God, or searched for truth, or looked for true love or goodness. And when they find that truth and love and goodness and beauty is a Person, and he is standing in front of them, offering this gift of himself—it is everything they always wanted; and more than they ever thought possible.

But to others, like some members of the crowd in the Gospel, this is not welcome. It sounds like an invasion. And so the crowd pushes back. They hold him at arm’s length. Up till now they have been asking him many questions; but now they won’t even talk to him, but will instead murmur to each other—”Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother?” They don’t want to hear any more. They want Jesus to get back to a safe distance, and take back his gift that would ask so much more of them than they are willing to give.

At the end of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus says, “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world,” and next week we will learn more about exactly what his gift of himself is, and how he gives us his flesh to eat.

But today, in a few minutes, by the hands and the words of the priest, Jesus Christ will make himself present on that altar. The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, who for us came down from heaven and became man—will become present here and now in his one perfect sacrifice of himself to his heavenly Father. That altar will then be the center of the universe, and all time and space will turn around it. And from that altar Christ will again offer himself as food to the faithful—to you and to me. It will look simple, that little round white host; it will look like bread and taste like bread. But it will be the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, who offers himself to us as food for eternal life. It will be a simple gift, costing not less than everything. Will we receive him?

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

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Published in: on August 9, 2009 at 6:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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