In case you’ve been on vacation for the last, um, bunch of Sundays, we’re in the stretch of John’s gospel in which Jesus talks about himself as the “Bread of Life.” At this point, I’m glad I preached the last two Sundays on other topics/lessons because I don’t know if I can squeeze a sermon out of Proverbs (“Wisdom has built herself a house”), and even I might fall asleep in the middle of a third “bread of life” sermon. But Jesus thought it was important enough to dwell on for a while, and John seems to have agreed, so perhaps it’s time for me to tackle bread of life.
In this week’s lesson, my focus falls onto the quality of life to which Jesus is inviting us. The line that usually rings in my ears is the last sentence—“the one who eats this bread will live forever.” That makes it pretty simple: eat me = eternal life. But, as Steve Pankey wrote about last week’s gospel lesson, that eternal life starts now. It’s not just a ticket to heaven. The kingdom life begins as soon as we belong/abide in Jesus.
I want to spend some time wrestling with this part of the lesson: Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” We eat in order to abide. Just as Jesus lives because of the Father so whoever eats his flesh lives because of him. Communion is that practice of abiding. It is the means by which we are fed and nourished for our life that is lived in Christ. And that sort of life is the life that is abundant and everlasting. In other words, Jesus isn’t giving us magical bread that makes one live forever (like the fountain of youth that makes one young). Jesus is feeding us so that we can live a new life—the kind of life that lasts forever.
In the Eucharist, we discover an entirely new way of living—not just more of the same stretched on forever. It’s the quality of life that changes. Those who ate manna in the wilderness died. That’s not a criticism of the bread that came down from heaven back then. It was good bread, and it sustained them—in this life. But Jesus is offering new life—life in him. The same sort of life that he lives in the Father. Eucharistic bread accomplishes something different than regular bread, and what it does for us is open up a new way of living.
This has me wondering… how many of us notice that on a Sunday morning? I’m a strong proponent of the baptism-before-Eucharist polity of our church because I believe sitting at the Eucharistic table requires transformation. Simply eating the bread and drinking the wine without acknowledging the life-changing (repentance & new birth) nature of the event is to do it injustice. But how many of the baptized come to the table seeking new life? How many of the ordained (that’s me) really look for new life at the altar?