John 6:51-58 (Common English Bible)
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 Then the Jews debated among themselves, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
53 Jesus said to them, “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Thoughts on the passage:
Most of us know what empty calories are. Even if we have not heard the term before we have at least subconsciously been aware that some (hopefully not a lot) of the food we eat and the things we drink contain things we do not need. The term empty calories refers to calories that usually come from fats and sugars that otherwise contain little nutritional value. While a small amount of these calories is okay, they are generally not healthy.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are foods that people are calling “superfoods”. While there is not a formal nutritional guideline for what a superfood is, the term usually refers to things that are high in vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and other things that help our body stay healthy. Examples of this range from widely known foods like blueberries, salmon, and kale, to more obscure things like acai berries and chia seeds. While there are many undocumented claims about the values of superfoods, it is generally accepted that they contain nutrients that keep us healthy.
Knowing what to eat is difficult. Our views on what is good and healthy have changed over time. Some foods move in and out of favor and how much we need of different vitamins and minerals seems to shift as our understanding of our bodies grows. One thing we are clear on is what we eat makes a difference in how healthy we are.
In John, Jesus uses the metaphor of being the bread of life as a part of his teaching. At that time, bread was a superfood. It contained lots of energy that people needed to do their jobs. Bread also had cultural value thanks to stories of the Exodus and how Moses prayed to God for manna during the journey. Like many marketers of superfoods today, Jesus was making a claim to offer long life (eternal) to anyone who ate this bread.
This is where the tension comes up. How do we know what is real and what is not? Some things marketed as superfoods can actually increase the chances of having getting cancer for example. Others are built on myths, like stories of a Chinese man living for over two hundred years by eating goji berries. What are we supposed to believe?
Obviously, when Jesus talks about being the bread of life he is not making dietary claims but deeper spiritual ones. Even when it comes to our “spiritual diet” we make choices between empty calories and superfoods. We still make choices between those activities and beliefs that are deeply satisfying and nourish our souls and those things that provide temporary gains but do not lead to a sustainable life.
When we consider Jesus’ statement “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” we are left with two questions: do we believe it, and if we do believe it, why do we still reach for empty calories instead. On the one hand in the church we might assume that we all believe Jesus’ claim in verse 55, but as I like to remind people, questions and doubts are a part of faith and certainly what occurs in communion and what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ is a tough thing to fully grasp.
Personally I tend to be convicted more by the second part of the question. I have experienced the sustaining power of Christ’s presence in my live. I do feel like I have experienced life through communion and through my faith. The question I tend to ask myself is “why do I keep seeking the empty spiritual calories instead of the superfood that is Jesus”. It is not an easy one to answer since it involves a lot of soul searching. It requires me to admit that there are times that I do not want to do the work that can be needed to have a good relationship with Christ. When I have a bad day or am feeling stressed instead of turning to God in prayer it is easier to reach for a video game, watch television, or eat something tasty. None of these provide long-term sustenance, but they seem to make things better for a moment and so we gravitate to them all the same.
Jesus promises a real and lasting change in our lives. Jesus goes so far as to make a distinction between what he offers and what God already offered to the people in the wilderness. The bread they were given was a temporary fix to a temporary problem. Now we are being offered a lasting, an eternal fix to the problem of spiritual hunger and the problem of spiritual death.
Superfoods do not work by eating them once, they work when you create a diet based around healthy eating. It requires a change in diet and a change in lifestyle for superfoods to be effective. Sometimes I think we expect faith to be different. We feel like all we need is a quick prayer and everything will be fine. We can even ready a simple message into passages like this; taking it for granted that a quick fix is available if we just take communion, or pray the right prayer.
A life of faith is just that, a life, a lifestyle, a commitment. To really eat and drink of Jesus is to turn both first and last to Christ for our strength and support and to place our trust in God for sustenance. I am not saying we never eat, or we can only pray. Instead I would say that we need to ask this question, where do we turn for life, is it to God, or to something else. Do we place our whole trust in Christ, or do we hedge our bets and seek salvation, or gratification elsewhere as well.
Questions to Ponder:
What are the parts of this passage that are most challenging to you and which ones just make the most sense with what you have experienced?
When is a time when you feel like you have tasted and known the life that Jesus offers?
Who is someone you know that is sustained by their faith in God and what does that look like?
Prayer: Sustaining God, you offer us all a source of life and love beyond anything we can imagine. Too often however we turn away and try and feed ourselves with things that will not last. Forgive us when we turn away from you. Help us to remember the lasting impact of the Bread you offer to us. Help us experience your grace when we break bread and when we trust in you. AMEN