by Rev. Laura Thornton
John 6: 56-69
Here we are on the fifth and final Sunday in chapter 6 of John’s gospel. This five part series in the middle of our summer is different. We don’t usually spend this much time in a single chapter of a gospel. Some days, like today we even have overlap in the verses. What’s so important here? Why is it inserted in the lectionary, this one chapter for five weeks?
And honestly, I’ve been struggling with that. I’ve been reading and re-reading the text for today and reading commentaries and interpretations and trying to get my head around this particular chapter.
Its funny because I was having a really hard time and at some point on Wednesday night I realized — I think I’m experiencing what the people in the story were experiencing. I’m stuck, because of where I am. I’m stuck because I’m trying to make sense of the details and what they mean. I haven’t stepped back far enough to see a bigger picture.
So let’s take a look. Not just our few verses at the end of the chapter today, but we’ll look at the whole chapter and the even bigger picture of what’s going on here.
First it’s important to know that John was an evangelist. He understood Jesus in an incarnate way that other gospel writers did not emphasis in the same way in their storytelling. John is the one who doesn’t give us a baby born in a manger. But gives us this one sentence of a birth story. ‘The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.’
And John is writing within his Jewish Christian community at the time. Believers who were being persecuted and kicked out of the synagogue because they were followers of Jesus. They were struggling to find their way in the this new faith. They were using this common meal to bring them together.
It was not just a tiny wafer and a sip of wine. It was a feast. It was feeding the people, sharing their resources and food and money. And when they met together they were telling the stories of Jesus. That turns into what we know today as church and Eucharist. It is within that community that John, the Evangelist, writes this gospel narrative. So we know it is connected to our understanding of communion. But there is more.
We start the chapter, with a miracle of Jesus feeding five thousand people. I love this story, we’ve all heard it and Helen preached on it a few weeks ago. This huge crowd has come to find Jesus. They have heard about the healing he is doing and they want to come and see. It a big deal. And they follow Jesus out to this grassy hill by the sea and they have a whole day. Then everybody realizes they’re hungry and nobody brought enough food. And we know the rest….bread, fish, baskets of leftovers.
At that point there are murmurings of ‘Who is this person?’ ‘He really is a prophet’ ‘We need him to lead us’. The crowd desperately wants Jesus to be a leader, a king, someone who can help them and show them the way.
And Jesus is a little overwhelmed by all of this and goes up higher on the mountain to pray. Meanwhile, the disciples are getting a little antsy about this crowd and want to get away also. So they have loaded up the boat and are ready to set sail. And Jesus is not there. Finally, they say, ’lets go without him.’
Now, I don’t know about you, but it sounds crazy to me that you would head off in your boat across the sea and leave your leader, your friend behind. The whole reason you are here, the whole reason you are leaving is because of Jesus and our story says they leave without him.
Then we get this piece, where Jesus walks on the water out to the boat, to the disciples. There are not a lot of details, there’s not a lot of drama, though they are scared and he says, ‘it’s me, don’t be afraid.’
The next morning, the crowd, lots of whom who have just spent the night out on this grassy knoll, wake up and realize the boat is gone, Jesus is gone. Though they knew that, when the disciples pulled anchor late last night, Jesus wasn’t with them. They’ve been paying attention. They’ve been trying to grab him and force him to be their king.
They scramble to acquire boats and passage across to follow Jesus. Then in the city of Capernaum the crowd is gathering once again, pushing and screaming for him to lead them and for him to give them a sign.
The people were asking for signs and miracles like Moses in the wilderness giving the people manna to eat. And Jesus says, wait a minute, Moses did not give the people manna, God gave the people manna. God provides the manna. Jesus begins to use this image of bread, of taking his flesh and his blood.
The manna was food for the people of Israel in the wilderness when they had nothing and God provided. And now Jesus says, God has provided me, sent me from heaven. I am the bread, I am the stuff you need to consume for true life.
And Jesus goes on and on in this long discourse about flesh and blood and bread and life. Robin touched on this in her sermon last week. In those days there were groups of people who practiced cannibalism. So the religious authorities and these crowds that keep coming from their boats and listening are hearing this whole conversation but they are only understanding in terms of what they know.
And it doesn’t quite make sense. And it gets difficult. The crowds, his followers, even his disciples are taking a look around at each other and whispering:
I don’t get it. What is he talking about?
Do you get this? Do you know what he’s saying?
Because they are stuck in this place they know.
If we take a step back, and remember how John is writing and what he believes about Jesus as the Incarnate One. We listen again to these words— Jesus is not talking about just flesh and blood. That becomes the vehicle. That is the ordinary thing, like bread that we have everyday, that we can understand. We know about being hungry and thirsty and needing something to fill us up.
But this ordinary thing is a metaphor, a poetic image that points us to deeper meaning.
For the first time Jesus is using language in front of lots of people about how he is God. He is the Word, the Logos, the Source, the Life. This kind of language has not happened before. And the religious authorities start to protest, saying, ‘We know he is Joseph’s son, how can he say he came from heaven?’ ‘What does he mean that he was sent by God?’
But for John’s gospel it is the one big piece. That God has come to earth fully enfleshed in the person of Jesus, who says abide in me and I in you, you will have life eternal. Now this is not about after life, this about right now life.
If you abide in me and I in you, if you take in all of me, which looks like flesh and blood but what you take in is everything, all of God, you will have life.
Take in that nourishment, take in that wisdom, take in that love, take in that knowledge that you are worthy. And you will have this life, this real, true genuine life.
And we may think this is the height of Jesus’ message. Imagine the crowd finally understanding, believing and joining hands to sing a hymn…..
But no, that is not where it ends, that does not happen. The crowd begins to leave. They wander off grumbling and walk away confused and frustrated because they don’t understand. What started as a crowd of 5,000 ends with Jesus and the twelve. And Jesus know that they will soon leave also, betraying, denying, hiding.
‘It is difficult’, they say.
It is difficult for us also as we try to follow Jesus. We must work, struggle, dig deep to find meaning, to understand those gifts that Jesus offers us, especially in times of confusion, doubt, conflict and fear.
My hope for us this week is that this continues to open us up to God. That when we think about the flesh and blood of Jesus, we don’t get stuck trying to figure out the how and the why. But instead, we can expand our thinking and expand our hearts to see this bigger part of Jesus. Not just the human part, not just the flesh on the bones part, but the God part, the divine part.
And we can hear Jesus say to us ‘abide in me and I in you’. Begin to recognize how full our life can be. When we recognize a full life, we no longer see through the lens of scarcity and fear, we see through a lens of abundance and generosity. And that will not only change us, but can change the world.
Pay attention this week to those ordinary things around us that point us in the direction of Jesus to his abiding love, to life abundant.