During Lent we’re often disciplining ourselves to undertake challenges, to give up things we like, and to dig deeper into spirituality. I have some plans to cut back on my screen time, but I also wanted to give up something else: my comfort—particularly my comfortable theology.
As I worked on my book Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from the Doubters of Jesus, I had to confront one difficult gospel story after another. At one point I quipped that I was basically writing about all of my least favorite gospel stories. Then I thought: Why not spend some time working through a few of them during Lent?
This week I want to open the series with the story of Jesus and his statement in John 6 that he is the bread of life in Capernaum’s synagogue:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.’” John 6:53-58, NIV
Am I the only person who has a hard time “swallowing” this teaching?
* * *
Jesus had a lot on the line when he advocated something that sounds a lot like cannibalism. He’d just multiplied bread in the wilderness for the 5,000 and then he followed that up by calming a storm in front of his followers. The people were practically ready to crown him king. His disciples were finally starting to catch on that that Jesus had something of the divine about him.
Things were starting to line up. Jesus’ popularity was starting to peak. The only thing that could ruin it now would be alienating the people.
That’s exactly what Jesus did. He shared a teaching that was so confusing, confounding, and flat out offensive that the crowds fled from him and even his disciples considered bailing on him.
As hard as Jesus is to understand in this passage, it’s equally confusing why he would alienate such a large number of people.
Christians today measure the success of pastors by how many people they attract, not how many they drive away.
As I’ve wrestled with this story, I’ve found that perhaps the place to start is with preceding stories. The people were prepared to make him king after witnessing his miracle. It’s possible that Jesus tried to make his popularity take a nose dive. At the very least, he knew that they were operating under assumptions that didn’t have the whole truth in mind.
Nevertheless, I wonder if Jesus could have gone a little easier on them.
* * *
Every time the disciples caught a glimpse of the true identity of Jesus, he ratcheted things up a notch. When Peter declared Jesus the Messiah, Jesus told him about his coming death and resurrection. When the disciples saw Jesus calm a storm, he dropped the bomb about eating the bread of life.
To a certain degree, Jesus was drawing a line in the sand. Who or what would they rely on and trust in?
It’s tough for us to capture the implications of bread for his audience. Bread made up a significant portion of many diets, especially among the poor. Grain was easily transported and stored. The Romans shipped in grain in order to keep the common people of their capital city fed. They even gave grain away sometimes because it was better to keep people satisfied with the status quo than for them to starve and rebel.
Bread was an essential part of daily life for many in Jesus’ audience. Without bread, many of them would starve.
Mixed with his contemporary situation, Jesus also called on the Exodus story where the Lord fed the people. In a very real sense, the people were depending on God alone for their daily bread.
At the center of this story is a message of dependence—who will we look to for our daily provisions and for life?
Much like the water of life that Jesus spoke of to the woman by the well in John 4, Jesus spoke in terms of consuming something in order to experience life. We don’t mind a metaphor about drinking living water, but once we start speaking of eating his body and blood, we’re entering into imagery that is hard to digest.
The people in Jesus’ audience relied on a variety of things to sustain themselves. They relied on hard work, political parties, and religious practices. They had fears and anxieties about the future. They wanted a Messiah to take care of their needs, but they were hardly in tune with what the Messiah wanted. If anything, they were ready to sprinkle a little bit of Messiah into their daily struggles, making life more peaceful, certain, and meaningful. They weren’t ready to completely rely on Jesus.
While we could say a lot about the images Jesus used in this story, especially how they relate to communion, I find it most helpful to look at this story with a big picture view. Jesus wanted them to “feed” on him—depending on him alone. He was, at the very least, giving his listeners clues about spiritual life, even if there are other implications we could discuss elsewhere.
They could not find life by observing the law, following a religious leader, or pursuing a political party. They could only find life by getting Jesus into their lives. This is a story about the life of Christ dwelling within us, seeking first the Kingdom of God.
Each day I have a list of things I need. I need to make money. I need to be praised. I need to be noticed. I need people to help me. As my list of needs grows, it’s clear that I’m missing out on the “bread of life.” And I can only find the sustaining life of Christ by welcoming Jesus into my life.
As much as people used to depend on bread for life, so too must we depend on Jesus.
After receiving mountains of bread, they thought they had everything they needed. However, Jesus intended his statement about “eating his flesh and drinking his blood,” he was pointing them away from such a short-sited perspective.
They needed to find the life of God, and that life wasn’t imparted through bread in the wilderness. The life of God comes only to those who have Jesus living within them.
Do you have a least favorite Gospel story?
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