When I was in my early teens, my mother went to town every Friday after she got off work. She went to the beauty salon on Main Street, up a narrow staircase to a room above the jewelry store. She went to “get her hair fixed” in preparation for her weekend rounds of Ladies Aid meetings, Sunday church services and obligatory visits with relatives. I connived to go with her as often as possible, spending most of my time either at the library or at Dickson’s Record Store where—while I perused the latest Beatles, Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival LPs—I overheard the clerk and one of his stoner buddies discussing the confusing yet fascinating world of Beatles conspiracy theories.
There was the somewhat obvious idea that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was a veiled reference to LSD; to what end I could never figure out—I mean who didn’t know the Beatles used drugs? More interesting was the idea that if you played one of their songs backwards it proved that Paul was dead. In the next 20 to 30 years, there were frequent rumors about supposedly satanic messages in various rock songs played backwards. This led to one of my favorite jokes: “What happens when you play a country song backwards? You sober up and you get your wife, your pickup and your dog back.”
Every time I read John’s Gospel, I start thinking about hidden messages. Frequently in John the people seem to be talking to Jesus about one thing while Jesus is talking about another. And frankly, I often think Jesus is talking about one thing when in reality he’s talking about something else. This is especially true in today’s reading—about the living bread from heaven. When I read this Gospel lesson, especially verse 51, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” it’s quite normal to assume that this text has eucharistic implications, that Jesus is talking about communion. I have even written several sermons on that very subject. And, because the folk who put the lectionary together paired this lesson with the story from I Kings about Elijah eating and drinking, etc. it all appears quite understandable and reasonable, and it is. It’s also quite wrong, or at least misguided.
Jesus’ meaning is not hidden; you can’t read the text backwards and then see the truth. But the message is there, once someone points out the key to understanding it. For me that someone was New Testament and homiletics scholar Fred Craddock in a commentary on these texts (Preaching Through the Christian Year – B). He points out that it is too early in the John’s Gospel for the “bread” references to be eucharistic. Here, John is more concerned with showing Jesus to be the “logos,” the “Word of God.” Note verse 45 and its language about being “taught” and “hearing” and “learning.” “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the father comes to me.” This is not a direct quotation from any of the prophets but summarizes themes that can be found in Isaiah (54:13), Jeremiah (31:34), Micah (4:2) and others. It also picks up on biblical themes of God’s word as food that nourishes and gives life. Just to name a couple, in Ezekiel we read: “He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey” (3:1-3). And in Jeremiah: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts” (15:16). There’s much more throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, but this is enough to help us hear what Jesus is saying.
Jesus’ meaning is not hidden; you can’t read the text backwards and then see the truth. But the message is there, once someone points out the key to understanding it.
The reference here is not to Jesus’ “flesh” as “bread,” as physical stuff one eats; it is to Jesus’ actual, physical presence in the world as the actual, physical presence of God and God’s Word in the world. That’s what the circular language concerning the connections between Jesus and “the Father” is about. And, just as the “manna” in the desert was God’s answer to the Israelites very real, physical need for food in order to survive, God’s “Word” is God’s very real, spiritual response to humanity’s very real, spiritual need for that which gives truth and meaning to our existence.
In this chapter 6, John is making the case that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Word of Law and Promise has taken on flesh, has united the physical and the spiritual, has come into our midst to teach us, in word and deed, about God’s love for us and for all. Jesus, in the flesh, was our “manna,” our “bread”—not merely a sign, symbol or signal of God’s love but rather the very real, physical presence of that love. When Jesus says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (verse 51), he’s not really talking about communion, not yet; he’s talking about his life and teaching in the world and his death upon the cross for us and for all. This is our “manna” our “salvation,” our “food,” the gift from God, the gift of God that sustains us and gives us life, now and forever.
The good news for us today is this—the message of God’s grace is not hidden; you don’t have to read it backwards to get it. Over and over again, the Bible plainly tells us about God’s mighty acts of love for God’s people, including manna in the wilderness, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And year after year, week after week, from then until now, God’s people have been fed by God’s Word—fed when God’s people gather together; fed when the Word is read, and preached and sung; fed when the bread is taken and blessed and given; fed when the Christ is here among us in this place, in our lives, in our world.
Amen and amen.