A Lectionary Reflection on John 6:35, 41-51 for Proper 14B / Ordinary 19B
When I was a child my mother would sometimes cuddle me and kiss me and then exclaim, “I could just eat you up!” As I think back on this now, having been raised on stories like Hansel and Gretel, I should probably have been terrified that my life was in imminent danger, but I wasn’t. On the contrary, I knew that in some way my mother’s expressed “hunger” was not for the flesh of her child, but for a closeness that could never be taken from her. It was an expression of love and intimacy that laid the foundations for a life of closeness and sharing that continues to this day. These words have always come back to me when I read John 6.
It seems incredible that the same crowd that had just been fed by Jesus a short time before would be asking for a miraculous sign to prove that he was worth their faith. Did they not see the irony in comparing Jesus to Moses, and in asking for a sign that would compare to the manna in the wilderness? Were their memories that short?
Yet, in his characteristically enigmatic way, Jesus refused to play the games of this crowd. Rather than perform some amazing feat of power, Jesus simply offered himself as the sign. It was not Moses that had fed them in the wilderness, he said, but God, and now God was offering them something far more durable and nourishing – the incarnate one – to give them life that would not end. The gift of himself was offered in such shocking and challenging words, though, that the people were unable to understand or receive it. Jesus proclaimed that he was the Bread of Life that had come from heaven, and that they needed to eat his body and drink his blood in order to find life. On some level, at least, we can sympathise with the surprised and disgusted reaction of the people.
On the one hand, they knew Jesus. They knew his family. They knew where he had come from, and what he had been like as a boy. Familiarity, in this case, made it very hard for them to accept his claims of divine origin. On the other hand, as the following verses indicate, they took his words so literally, that it seemed he was inviting them into some kind of self-destructive cannibalism. But, in both cases they missed the sign that Jesus was offering. Their literalism and obsession with objective proof made it impossible for them to open themselves to the invitation that Jesus was offering. There is much that we can learn from here, as we wrestle with our own literalist tendencies.
The familiarity of this crowd could have opened a whole new world of intimacy with God for them if they had just been willing to be a little creative and adventurous. Yes, they knew Jesus, but this did not have to negate his claim to be sent from God. How wonderful that the embodiment of God’s life and being, the “food” of God for their souls, could be available in such a close and familiar way! If they had just allowed themselves to question this for a moment, they could have discovered a new possibility within themselves.
Then, Jesus invited them to “consume” him. From the prophet who had been given a scroll to eat (see Ezekiel 3:1-3), they could have known that eating was a metaphorical description of taking God’s word – or in this case, God’s Being – into their own being. What Jesus was – the Bread of Life given to bring life to the world, God incarnated for the world’s nourishment – they could become. If they had been willing to embrace the divinity of Jesus, they could have opened themselves to receiving this divine life into their own lives. They could have discovered themselves as “little incarnations” filled with God, and able to share God’s life with others.
But, to receive this Bread of Life, to discover their own potential for becoming “filled” with God they would have had to let go of their commitment to literal, physical miracles, and become open to the creative, the unexpected, the subversive, the mysterious life of God. Imagine if, instead of being so caught up in the shock of Jesus’ words, the people had entered into the playfulness of it. Imagine if, just for a moment, someone had cried out, “I could just eat you up, Jesus!” Imagine if we could find the playfulness and creativity in ourselves to say it. One thing I know, until we are willing to risk the surprising and shocking possibilities of God’s mysterious self, we won’t ever really know the joy and life of God within us. We can become “little incarnations”. All it takes is to feast on the flesh and blood of Jesus – to love Christ enough that we could eat him up.