Summary: In the Eucharist, bread and wine are the elements that provide our spiritual nourishment and nurture our faith in God. Is Jesus our daily bread or a seasonal dish?
An atheist was swimming in the ocean one day. Suddenly he saw a shark in the water, so he started swimming furiously toward his boat. He looked back and saw the shark turn and head towards him. He was scared to death, and as he saw the jaws of the great white beast open, revealing its horrific teeth, he screamed “Oh God! Save me!”
In an instant, time was frozen and a bright light shone down from above. The man was motionless in the water when he heard the voice of God say, “You are an atheist. Why do you call up on me when you do not believe in me?” The man was confused and knew he could not lie, so he replied, “Well, that’s true. I don’t believe in you, but what about the shark? Can you make the shark believe in you?”
The Lord replied, “As you wish,” and the light retracted back into the heavens. The man felt the water move once again. As he looked back, he saw the jaws of the shark start to close down on him, when all of a sudden the shark stopped and pulled back. The man watched as the huge beast closed its eyes, bowed its head, and said, “Thank you Lord for this food which I’m about to receive…”
Have you ever noticed that most of the social life of churches revolves around food? Think about it for a minute. Weddings and funerals, for example, involve receptions. Trinity Church and Saint Andrew’s Church are famous for their pot luck suppers. Saint John’s Church is known for its annual strawberry supper. Many of our congregational meetings involve refreshments, even if it is only tea or coffee. It seems to me that you can’t have an event at church these days without having something to eat! Food certainly encourages fellowship. It is ritual, spiritual and historic.
In fact, many of Jesus’ miracles, teachings and parables involve food. The story in today’s Gospel reading is a good example. It also involves food, but not the type you would expect. It takes place shortly after Jesus has fed the 5000 with the five loaves of bread and two fish. He has left Capernaum with the disciples, but the crowd found them. The people were still hungry. They wanted Jesus to once again give them physical food, but he could see that their true hunger was for spiritual food. When he said, “I am the bread of life,” he was not talking about literal “bread”, but he was talking about the true “living bread” in the sense that those who believe in him will have their spiritual hunger satisfied.
John’s discourse about the bread of life in Chapter 6 of his Gospel is his way of dealing with the Eucharist, especially since his Gospel is the only one of the four Gospels that does not include the story of the Last Supper. The story is told in its own way in all for Gospels because each one was written for a different audience. In John’s case, his Gospel was written for the church in Greece approximately 60 years after Christ’s Ascension. At this time in history, the Greeks were leaders in politics, philosophy ideology and culture, so their interpretation was much different than that of the Hebrews, for example.
The main reason why John’s Gospel doesn’t include the story of the Last Supper is because he wanted to focus on the meaning of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist Jesus meets us just as he did 2,000 years ago. People fall into sin when they don’t believe in God’s word or trust him. To restore us to the way we are meant to be means that we have to be able to trust again. In the incarnation, God became flesh and lived among us. Christ’s entire life was God’s life in the flesh so that we might know him as a God of grace and truth, of mercy and love, and therefore trust him again.
When Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross, he created the final link between his teachings and the Old Testament with its Jewish rituals. The Jewish rites of worship and asking for forgiveness from sin often involved animal sacrifices. Salvation depended on being part of the right race, nationality, bloodline, clan or group. In contrast, the Gentiles believed that life and breath came from the spiritual realm. Consequently, the Gentiles believed that the flesh was corrupt. Their spiritual life consisted of trying to get away from the flesh. The result was rituals and liturgies that pushed God away and made him difficult to reach.
Jesus bridged that gap through his death and resurrection---which is the bread of life that he refers to. The bread that Christ refers to is his human nature, which he took to present to his father, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. They are called the flesh and blood of Christ because they are purchased by the breaking of his body and the shedding of his blood, and because they are meat and drink to our souls. His crucifixion provides the spiritual food we need for eternal life.