The summer I turned nineteen years old I traveled to the British Isles by myself. One of the things I did on that trip was to ride a bicycle across Yorkshire. I did a 120-mile roundtrip in two days. On the second day, I was riding against the wind. I had to stop every so often to wipe the bugs and the sweat from my face. I was very glad on the afternoon of that second day to come across a friendly looking pub when I was about halfway to my final destination. I went inside the pub and ordered the largest meal they had along with a pint of bitter. The meal was something typically English like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or shepherd’s pie; it was your basic meat and potatoes with some kind of green vegetable. I felt so strengthened after that meal that I had energy to ride my bike the rest of the way without stopping.
That is the power of a good meal; it gives us the strength to complete our journey, or at least, to go the next mile.
In our lectionary reading from John 6:47-59, we are going to read the words of Jesus about another kind of meal that gives us strength for the journey….
Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”The first thing Jesus tells us in this passage is that the one who believes has eternal life. Eternal life is not pie in the sky by and by. Eternal life is an entirely new quality of life; if we put our faith, our trust, in Jesus, then he gives us eternal life, fullness of life that can begin now and never end.
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
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.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
The second thing Jesus tells his listeners is a reminder of what he has already said. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”
“Look,” Jesus says to his first century audience, “your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and died. However, here is the bread you may eat and not die. I am that bread of life. Whoever eats me may live forever.”
Jesus says this because after he fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish the people were coming to him and wanting him to feed them forever. He says, “Look, you are focused on the wrong thing. You can have all the physical bread in the world that you want, but you will still die in the end, just like your ancestors who were led by Moses through the wilderness. It is much better to focus on eating the kind of bread that will enable you to live forever. I am that bread,” Jesus says. “That bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.”
Phil Ryken has written,
Most kingdoms do anything they can to protect their king. This is the unspoken premise of the game of chess, for example. When the king falls, the kingdom is lost. Therefore, the king must be protected at all costs. Another notable example comes from the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill desperately wanted to join the expeditionary forces and watch the invasion from the bridge of a battleship in the English Channel. U.S. General Dwight David Eisenhower was desperate to stop him, for fear that the Prime Minister might be killed in battle. When it became apparent that Churchill would not be dissuaded, Eisenhower appealed to a higher authority: King George VI. The king went and told Churchill that if it was the Prime Minister's duty to witness the invasion, he could only conclude that it was also his own duty as king to join him on the battleship. At this point Churchill reluctantly agreed to back down, for he knew that he could never expose the King of England to such danger.We can understand, in retrospect, that Jesus gave his flesh for the life of the world on the cross. However, Jesus’ offering of his flesh for us to eat raises a question. Immediately the crowd asks, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They could not figure out how Jesus could do this, or what he meant.
King Jesus did exactly the opposite. With royal courage he surrendered his body to be crucified. On the cross he offered a king’s ransom: his life for the life of his people. He would die for all the wrong things that we had ever done and would do, completely atoning for all our sins. The crown of thorns that was meant to make a mockery of his royal claims actually proclaimed his kingly dignity, even in death.
Rather than explaining how he could give them his flesh to eat, Jesus makes the problem even more perplexing for his first century Jewish listeners. He says, “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.”
This statement had to be very disturbing for Jesus’ first century listeners because they were told in the Law of Moses that they were not to drink blood. Meat had to be prepared in a special way so that all the blood was drained out of it before they could eat it.
Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the crowd that his teaching can only be understood through the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that John, the disciple of Jesus, who is writing this Gospel, reflected on Jesus’ words many years after the fact, and the Holy Spirit gave him understanding that he did not have when Jesus first spoke these words. Years later, John sees in Jesus’ words an allusion to the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving Meal of Christians, the Lord’s Supper.
It is an interesting fact that John does not recount the Lord’s Supper, Jesus' celebration of the Passover with his disciples, as the other Gospels do. The Last Supper itself is not specifically mentioned by John, though the events surrounding it are.
However, in John’s recounting of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus giving thanks over the bread before distributing it to the crowd, there is a definite echo of the Lord’s Supper. It is as though John is subtly reminding us that the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving Meal of the Christian Church, is not just something we need at the end of our story, we need it at the beginning and in the middle as well. In fact, it is through faithful participation in the Lord’s Supper that we enter into the whole of Jesus’ story.
The Eucharist is the place where we take Jesus into ourselves, into our bodies, through eating bread and drinking from the cup. The result of taking Jesus into our bodies and souls, through a faith-filled participation in the Eucharist, is eternal life.
In January 2008, a story made the rounds about a 15-year-old girl in Australia named Demi-Lee Brennan. Brennan became the world’s first known transplant patient to change blood types from O negative to O positive, taking on the immune system of her organ donor. At first the doctors assumed someone had made a mistake, because it has always been assumed that a change like that can’t happen. Now they say she’s a “one-in-six-billion miracle”.
The blood stem cells in Brennan’s new liver invaded her body’s bone marrow, taking over her entire immune system. She now has an entirely different kind of blood—blood that welcomes life, rather than carrying death. “It’s like my second chance at life,” Brennan said.
Something similar happens to us when we partake of the Lord’s Supper in faith. We take Jesus’ perfect body and blood into our own sinful bodies, and his perfect blood type takes over, changing us from the inside out, making us into little copies of Christ. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper in faith, Jesus injects new life into us that gives us strength for the journey.