The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16B)
Sunday, 26 August 2018
Grant, we beseech thee, merciful God, that thy Church, being gathered together in unity by thy Holy Spirit, may manifest thy power among all peoples, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-25
Just so we are all on the same page from the outset, I am not going to address the epistle appointed for today. If you want to give today’s epistle a good think, have a look on our website at the sermon I preached back in 2015, where, in addition to reminding you all that the Bible says a lot of things, I explore the issues raised in some depth. While I am usually eager to address difficult texts, rather than ignore them, I really want to keep working with you through John’s bread of life discourse. Today’s lesson (along with the one we would have read last week had we not celebrated the Feast of Our Lady), helps us fully understand the meaning of the Bread of Life and Jesus’ special relation to it.
Two weeks ago, we heard the passage that culminated with Jesus saying, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." As I pointed out, here we see big shift in Jesus’ language from his earlier pronouncements, such as the ones he makes about the Living Water. Here he is not merely identifying himself with the Bread of Life in an allegorical, or purely sapiential sense, but as the Bread of Life, literally, saying that the people should actually eat him. In the lesson we missed last week, we find an amplification of this theme, which we can confidently describe as Eucharistic.
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him ....This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever."
Eternal life comes not simply from believing in Jesus, but from feeding on Jesus’ flesh. Here we have an intensification as we move from talking about feeding on the bread which comes down from heaven that does not perish, to consuming Jesus’ body and blood. Raymond Brown, the great Johannine scholar, points out that here the use of the highly charged word “flesh" (understood very differently, as we shall see, in today’s passage) is probably a translation from Aramaic, where there is no word for “body," and may refer to a version of the Eucharistic institution narrative in the last supper account known to John, but omitted from the final form of the Gospel. Brown suggests that this passage was added at the final stage of editing the text in order to affirm the connection to the ritual practices that had such meaning for the community.  We have here, therefore, a retelling in Eucharistic language of the more spiritual explanation that came before it.
All this is important because while the passage we have for today does immediately follow this intensely Eucharistic material in the text, from a literary standpoint it is a continuation of the passage we heard two weeks ago that addresses the more spiritual meaning of the Bread of Life. Jesus is back with the disciples, who are still having a hard time understanding Jesus’ words—remember, not about the Eucharistic idea of the meal of bread and wine that becomes for us Jesus body and blood—but about the more general notion of Jesus as the bread of life. They struggle with the idea of how Jesus could be the one who brings to them the knowledge and wisdom of God, believing in whom and coming to whom is the key to eternal life, life that is real (in a Platonic sense), real in that it is imperishable rather than something merely transitory.
Jesus, the bread which came down from heaven, is the source of real life. Believing in Jesus, which is synonymous with coming to him, following him—for believing and doing are inseparable—puts us in relationship with that which is truly real, that which endures and has importance. Jesus tells us, in relation to his identification with the bread of life that, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." Jesus brings "spirit" and gives us what we need to be in relationship with God, to live as we are called to live.
In this context, flesh no longer has the positive meaning it took on in the previous passage where it refers to Jesus’ body given for us and the Eucharistic bread we consume together. It is something negative. Here, “flesh" is the body oriented away from God. Brown calls it “the natural principal in a [person] which cannot give eternal life."  The first key to understanding this concept is realising that we are not talking about a kind of dualism that pits the life of the here and now against the eternal life of the age to come, or the human body against the soul. There is no question that the Creation is something positive, the plane where the divine story unfolds. There are, instead, two ways to orient the lives we have been given, the life in the world into which the Word became incarnate and dwelt among us. Elsewhere, Saint Paul makes it easier for us, for he calls this positive side of life “body" and the negative he calls “flesh."
Life is that to which we are called. The flesh, our bodies turned away from God does us no good. This existence is impermanent, perishable, self-interested. It is the Spirit that infuses us with Life, gives our existence meaning, endurance; connects us with that which is Real and important. Jesus is Spirit, he gives us Life, nourishes us with the bread that comes down from heaven and does not perish.
The Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel speaks to us even now, down through the ages from when it first took the form we know. It begins with the account of Jesus feeding the crowd, doing what at first glance might seem the work of a great Roman patron seeking the good will of the multitude. Yet, we discover that what Jesus does is so much more. Jesus explains that the food he gives—while still nourishing the people physically—brings with it first knowledge and then relationship with God, that which can not simply be consumed and used up, fade away and die, like the manna in the desert. Jesus makes the amazing claim that he is to be identified with that food, that bread, and we are to partake of his body so that we may feed and have eternal life our self. We learn that the Johannine community, like other Christian communities, practically from the moment of its inception began to share a meal of bread and wine in which they understood themselves to be partaking of this meal so that the food which is given spiritually is also taken in physically and becomes a means of transformation. Finally, we come to understand today, as we finish our exploration of this central aspect of the Christian Life, that by partaking of Christ’s Body, of the bread that he gives us, we are orienting our human existence to God’s purpose rather than turning from it.
Jesus gives us life in and through the spirit he brings and the bread we eat. We, too, are called into this life. We, too, can partake of the meal that transforms us so that we may experience physically this gift. As I have been saying, we have a choice. We can live according to the flesh—turned from God—or we can live according to the Spirit. In either case we live, breathe, our hearts continue to beat. Yet, in one existence we only have and give that which is impermanent. In the other we have and give that which endures: love and justice. In today’s story, Jesus reminds Peter that he has a choice and Peter answers, “You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” May we, too, boldly make this confession.
Andrew C. Blume✠
Louis, King of France, 25 August 2018
1Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John, The Anchor Bible, 29 (New York, 1966), 274ff.
2 Brown 1966, 300.
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume