Jesus in the House of his Parents, 1850, John Everett Millais, Tate Britain, London, UK.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” John 6:51
……But isn’t he the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? So spoke the people listening to the brand new teaching Jesus was giving them. As we saw a few Sundays ago, it was well nigh impossible for Jesus’ neighbors to accept his teaching. In fact, today’s teaching is still striking 2000 years later! Giving one’s flesh for the life of the world??? Whaaat? There were striking stories from the Hebrew Scriptures about miraculous food, as seen in today’s first reading, but Jesus’ words went way beyond anything in the Old Testament. But bread, or some basic solid food, comes up several times in Scripture. There is of course the manna (which can be considered a kind of life-sustaining bread) in the desert, feeding the grumbling and complaining Hebrews, condemned to wander around the wilderness for 40 years because of their lack of belief. Elijah in the first reading has a “hearth cake” to eat, another image for bread. But most important of all is the unleavened bread of the Passover described in detail in the Book of Exodus. It had to be prepared in haste, hence no time for yeast to rise, to enable the Hebrews to be nourished sufficiently to escape from slavery in Egypt. In other words, it was the antidote for starving in the desert. It represented life in a rather more dramatic way than the humble loaf of bread might represent today. Jewish people to this day call Passover and the six days following the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Hence it represents freedom from oppression as well as life-sustaining food, life to the fullest. But it could not last. Death comes to everything. And that’s exactly where Jesus stepped in with his new teaching. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” he said to the dumfounded people of Nazareth. And what was this bread? My flesh, was the answer. It is easier for us to understand what must have been their reaction to what Jesus said! But Psalm 34, today’s response, seems to be strongly prophetic: “Taste and see how good the LORD is…” Please note that LORD is capitalized. That means the original Hebrew text says YAHWEH, God’s most sacred name. But how could a Hebrew possibly taste God? They had to wait until today’s teaching, heralding the beginning of a new age.
Jesus bravely launched into even greater mystery by declaring: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day.” He seemed to be announcing the end of death itself. Note that at the time of Jesus there was a huge debate going on in Jewish circles. For centuries there had been no commonly accepted definition of the afterlife. There was Sheol, a place of shadows to which everyone went, whether good or bad. It was bleak, silent, with no praise of God possible, no interaction, just a basic semi-existence. But a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus, other interpretations of the afterlife had emerged. By the time of Jesus this had settled into two disputing camps, the Sadducees, who denied any afterlife or resurrection, and the Pharisees, who accepted those ideas. So it is clear that Jesus stood with the Pharisees, at least in this instance. It is also clear that those who had lived a just and good life would be among the elect, those who would spend eternity with God and the angels, and with Jesus, who would be the means to securing that reward.
So it is not too surprising that those hearing Jesus’ message for the first time would have some difficulty taking it in. It was in effect a brand-new teaching, never heard before. That made it even more difficult for them to accept this, from the son of a carpenter! But do we accept it fully and unquestioningly? Have we come to terms with Jesus’ message that it all depends on him? Will he raise each one of us up on the last day? There lies today’s challenge; this is the thought, or rather challenge, for the day. Do our actions, words and thoughts invite Jesus, the bread of life, into the deepest realms of our life and spirit? If so, then we are on the right path. If not, there is still time to change things. Jesus waits for us no matter the path we are on, but he stands at the end of the path of righteousness, but it is up to us to choose to walk on that path of light. Jesus guide me and help me.
The Last Judgement, 1435, Stefan Lochner, Wallraf-Wicharts Museum, Cologne, Germany.