Summary: It is not the wisdom. It is not the miracles. It is not the things about Christ that we need the most. It is Christ - God with us - His flesh, His blood - food and drink.
I don’t know what your week has been like, but I’ve had a week that has been full of typical priest-type things: visiting the sick and organising weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Indeed, in the next few weeks we’ve got two baptism scheduled, there’s one wedding next Saturday, and tomorrow I have a funeral.
*Baptisms are my favourite.
*Weddings .. are OK. They can be great, but they tend to also be quite taxing, mainly in the preparation of course, though listening to the speeches can also take its toll.
*Funerals, I don’t enjoy. No surprises there, I suppose. I’m told I’m good at them - that I take a mean funeral - but I don’t think I’ve ever really enjoyed a funeral.
I guess part of the problem with funerals, and with all sacramental services for that matter, is that they tap back into our own memories of such occasions.
When we hear the couple ,making their wedding vows we remember when we made our wedding vows (which is hopefully a positive memory).
When we baptise a child we remember (well, not our own baptism) but certainly when had our own children or siblings baptised.
And certainly, when we participate in a funeral, we remember people dear to us who have died. Certainly I find that I cannot take a funeral any more without being transported back to my father’s funeral …
We say at funerals ‘at last our beloved is free from pain. He has gone to a better place’, and for the most part I think that we do believe that this is true. But somehow it doesn‘t really make the occasion any less painful! And I think that’s because it’s not really the fate of the departed soul that we mourn. We mourn, rather, what we have lost.
And what do we loose? At one level it’s a hundred little things: the way we used to laugh and sing together, the way he used to tell jokes around the dinner table, the apple pies she used to bake, the stories he used to tell about the war …. all those things. And yet at another level it’s none of those little things but just one thing that we miss so much. We miss them. We miss their presence with us.
‘Presence’ - it is the basic building block of all meaningful human relationships, and it is what we grieve when we loose a loved one. It is the most basic gift that we have to offer one another and, coincidentally perhaps, I think it is also the key to understanding John chapter 6.
The dialogues Jesus enters into in John chapter 6, about bread and flesh and food and blood might all seem a bit of a riddle at one level.
The scene begins with a wonderful feeding miracle where 5000 men, plus women, plus children are fed from a few small loaves and fishes - a miracle that makes Jesus so popular that the whole crowd wants to make him king!
The scene ends though with that same group of people walking away from Jesus in disgust, thinking that he is crazy. And the thing that brings about this transformation in their attitude is the discussion Jesus has with them about bread.
‘You’re only hanging around because you had your fill of the loaves’, says Jesus. "Work not for the bread that perishes" he says, "but for the bread that endures for eternal life". That’s how the dialogue begins, and then it gets progressively more bizarre.
"I am the bread"; Jesus says. "I am the bread that came down from Heaven! The bread that I give for the life of the world, is my flesh".
And when the people find this offensive, Jesus just pushes the point further: ‘My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed’. And at this point the majority of the hangers-on that day decide that they have had enough. They leave, never to return.
Those familiar with John’s Gospel will no doubt see here the familiar pattern of metaphor and misunderstanding that occurs through the book.
In the dialogues recorded in John, Jesus regularly speaks in metaphor, and He is regularly misunderstood.
In John 3 for instance, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and Jesus says to him, ‘You must be born from above’, but Nicodemus misunderstands him, and thinks he is talking about being reborn to his mother all over again!
In John 4, Jesus encounters a woman at the well, and He tells her that ‘she who drinks of your water will thirst again’, and offers her ‘living water’ instead, but she thinks he‘s talking about some underground spring that he‘s found.
And so likewise in John 6, where Jesus is dealing with a whole crowd of people, He says to them, ‘work not for the bread that perishes, but for the heavenly bread that endures for eternal life’, but the crowd thinks that he’s talking about some special health food, similar to that which Moses sourced for them back in the days of old, except that it doesn’t go off - a super-organic-health-bread-concoction perhaps, that has all the wonderful benefits that those health drinks you’ve read about on the Internet are supposed to have for you. ‘He who eats of this bread will live forever!’