The Bread of Life



Van Gogh

 August 12, 2012

John 6:41 Then they 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’?”

There are so many puzzles about John 6. And it must be all right to be puzzled. Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Martha in Bethany– all are a little unsure what Jesus is saying and ask in one way or other, “How can this be?”

Mary, the mother of Jesus, asked that same thing when told she will give birth.

We ought to take a cue from this recurring routine in John in which the people Jesus is talking with fail to catch on to what he is saying. I suppose that John is tipping us off that we might not catch all that Jesus means either, even if we claim to be Christians, on his side.

Maybe, just maybe, Jesus eludes us as well.

Jesus tells the folks who have tracked him down “I am the bread come down from heaven,” and they are frankly baffled. How can that be? They know exactly where he came from. They know his parents, his brothers and sisters. “What’s all this about coming down from heaven?”

Moses fed our ancestors in the wilderness,” they said earlier. Jesus corrected them. “No, it was God, not Moses, who sent the bread. But that was bread that you had to eat every day or face starvation. And just as God sent mana to the children of Israel in the wilderness so that eating it they would not perish in the wilderness, even so we are kept alive with eternal life by consuming the bread the Father has sent which is Jesus.

I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” What does that mean?

I think John inevitably has in the back of his mind the words of the weekly communion service which Christians have observed these two thousand years. We repeat before we eat the bread, the words Jesus spoke that night, “This is my body broken for you.”

Pagans passed the rumor around that Christians were cannibals, because the talked about eating flesh and drinking blood.

Catholics teach transubstantiation. That the substance of the bread becomes instead the substance of the body of Jesus and we are bringing Jesus into our very selves through the act of eating the bread and drinking the wine.

Reformers were a little less comfortable with the magical sound of that and preferred to think that the meal was a memory jogger, sort of like Grandma’s chicken recipe that someone brings to the reunion and everyone talks about when they used to sit down at her table.

As often as you do this, do it in remembrance of me. And so some say we do it to remember, and that is all that happens.

But then, why actually eat? Just hold up the bread and the cup as some visual aide and remember Jesus. Maybe there is a greater mystery here than just recalling something that happened a long time ago.

Have you ever stopped to wonder at how food is taken into us, and transformed into our life. I mean, the proteins and minerals and carbohydrates are reassembled into parts of our cells, so that bread becomes in a sense, brain, nerve, electrical current, muscles, the power to move, the consciousness to write, to verve to sing songs, to yearning to embrace, —that bread is taken up as part of the tears we cry, the energy of our laughter, the callouses on working hands.

None of these look like bread, anymore than the bread looks like the sunlight, rain and rocky soil that were transformed into the wheat that made the flour that became the dough that came out of the hot oven as the bread we eat.

The bread has been transforms from the very elements of earth which itself is the dust of exploded stars that lived and died after the fiery birth of the universe. None of that is obvious in the bread before us.

What a wonder you are. From a tiny baby, with the blueprint of DNA and the soup of experience, and the response of unfolding choices, you are so different from who you were at a year of age, and still are becoming what you will be. What has been flows into what shall be. Accumulated memories opening up onto new vistas. Transformation is happening.

And in all this God moves. In the beautiful poetry of Genesis 2, it is pictured like this– the stuff of this earth is fashioned by God into the form of a human, but the life comes into that form only when God breathes Spirit into that shape. We live because the life God breathes into us.

What Jesus is saying here is that we need that infusion of the Spirit again . To have eternal life in us God must come into us again.

And God is here in the sunset, and the spring rain, in the austere beauty of galaxies and the aptness of Scripture. In the gift of a newborn, and the embrace of a loved one. God comes in a thousand ways.

But there is no greater way God comes to us than in Jesus.

The Divinity deigns to stoop to flesh and blood, a human life, to impart Divine life to us, that our lives take on the imprint of eternity.

Just as bread becomes part of our body, so Jesus whom God sent must become part of who we are. Jesus becomes the fuel, the basis, the sustaining substance of our life.

We are asked to receive his life, his flesh and blood human existence. Jesus says “whoever comes to him” and “Whoever believes in him.” Whoever assimilates Jesus into their life is transformed so that it is no longer just them, it is Christ in them.

A friend was telling me of a new treatment he was receiving for his cancer. The doctors drew out blood, extracted white cells, which were sent off to Atlanta where technicians exposed the cells to his own cancer in such a way that the white cells learned to identify the cancer as an enemy and attack it. Then the white cells were sent back and reinserted into his blood stream so that now it is his cells, but his cells transformed, that have the power to act upon the very part of his body that is killing the rest of his body.1

Our souls are exposed to the life of Jesus, the real human, flesh and blood humanity and our cells are taught new ways of behaving. Go after what is killing us and allow new stronger life to emerge.

There is something mystical here. Surely Christ is present to us in many more ways than communion. As the story of Jesus coming to the disciples in the storm after the feeding of thousands, Jesus is really present in storms and stresses of life too.

But When Jesus said “This is my body.” is was saying “This is myself.” He is offering the totality of his flesh and blood existence, the full sweep of his life and death and resurrection– all the history of his life here and giving it to us to become part of us.

Who does he think he is?

Karl Barth wrote, “Were we to hear only of a god who measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do for ourselves without him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told man of such a tiresome little god it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied.”

Ezekiel was told to eat a scroll. It was the message of God for Israel. He was to let it become part of his very insides.

We are invited to let Jesus become part of our insides.

To eat this bread and drink this cup is to participate in a parable, to act out a pledge, to practice a ritual that instills habit and reflexes into our life like a permanent press, that no matter what the rough and tumble when wash is over and we dry out we come out with the bent to be like Jesus.

Ephesians illustrates some of that likeness. We practice these and let the presence of Christ remake us.

Do not limit the ways of God coming to you. Take the bread over which we pray. Take it in faith. Discerning the power and presence of Christ that it may give life to your souls, and strength for the journey.

Henri Nouwen, in his beautiful book, With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life, offers wonderful fruit for reflection as one prays with the Bread of Life Discourse. Nouwen writes:

“In the Eucharist, Jesus gives all. The bread is not simply a sign of his desire to become our food; the cup is not just a sign of his willingness to be our drink. Bread and wine become his body and blood in the giving. The bread, indeed, is his body given for us; the wine his blood poured out for us. As God becomes fully present for us in Jesus, so Jesus becomes fully present for us in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist…God does not hold back; God gives all. This is the mystery of the Incarnation. That is that mystery of the Eucharist. Incarnation and Eucharist are the two expressions of the immense, self-giving love of God. And so the sacrifice on the cross and the sacrifice on the table are one sacrifice, one complete, divine self-giving that reaches out to all humanity in time and space.


When I hear people talk about what is wrong with organized religion, or why their mainline churches are failing, I hear about bad music, inept clergy, mean congregations, and preoccupation with institutional maintenance. I almost never hear about the intellectualization of faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list. In an age of information overload, when a vast variety of media delivers news faster than most of us can digest—when many of us have at least two e-mail addresses, two telephone numbers, and one fax number—the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, which have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God. (BBT,The Christian Century, 27 January 2009)

1‘FDA approves novel prostate cancer “vaccine”’ By Tiffany O’Callaghan | April 29, 2010

“To oversimplify quite a bit: with Provenge vaccination begins with a blood draw. Blood is then sent to the lab, where technicians extract immune cells known as antigen presenting cells (APCs) from the sample. From here, Dendreon combines the immune cells with proteins that are prevalent on the surface of prostate cancer cells. An immune boosting substance is also added into the mix. Exposure to the cancer proteins and immune booster spurs the APCs into action—and the prostate cancer proteins move to the surface of the “activated” cells. At this point, the activated APCs are pumped back into the patient’s blood stream.

“Part of what makes cancer so difficult to treat is that the immune system doesn’t react to cancer cells as it does to other infections or viruses—as invaders that should be routed out. The goal of the Provenge treatment is to change that. Once the activated APCs are back in the patient’s blood stream, they come into contact with T-cells (the white blood cells that generally “seek and destroy” any unrecognized bugs). In turn, those T-cells become activated—they now recognize tumor cells as bad guys, and set out on the hunt, replicating more cancer-munching T-cells along the way.

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