An offensive choice
People have been making some strange choices over the last couple of weeks, haven’t they? At least, their choices have had strange results, like this. [Toilet paper free shelves] Now people do recognise that sometimes they need to make radical choices, and yet when push comes to shove, what sort of choice do they make? Do they make bold choices, or do they tend to stick to the status-quo? The strange thing is, people’s attempt to stick to the status-quo, especially in a bad situation, often pushes them into situations that can be life-threatening. [Cars in a creek]
That’s why the government pays for warnings like these: [If it’s flooded, forget it]
Can you think of choices that ended up dangerous that you or others have made, or perhaps choices that saved you from something bad?
In one of my first hikes in Japan, I made a bad choice to start out late, then followed it up by deciding to continue into the mountains even though it was afternoon, and only the small choice to buy a torch saved me from getting lost in the snow at night and quite possibly dying. Oh, and no-one knew I was up there, either!
That sort of choice is what Jesus is talking about here. It’s a choice between the status-quo and something that may seem unpleasant at this point, but ends up saving you from a far worse fate.
But let’s back up a little, because our Bible reading came in halfway through this long, convoluted conversation.
Now, the bigger context is obviously the context of the whole journey of the Bible.
Remember that God created the universe as a place of goodness and beauty, without death and conflict.
But we humans immediately introduced conflict by trying to take God’s place, despite having no capacity nor right to do so, and we plunged all of creation into a deadly struggle.
God, however, wasn’t content to leave his creation striving against him and itself, so he executed on his plan to redeem us, to reconcile us to himself through the sacrifice of his own son. And that is precisely the mission that Jesus is on right here in this passage.
At the beginning of John 6, Jesus performed his famous miracle of the feeding the 5000. John explained that the people reacted to this by trying to make him king, but Jesus knew that he’d come to die, not to be a political ruler, and so he avoided the crowds.
15 When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.
The next day the crowds woke up to find Jesus mysteriously gone. We readers, along with the disciples, know that Jesus had ruled over the elements and walked on the water to join the disciples in their wind-stranded boat, but this miracle was hidden from the crowds, and they pursued Jesus for his usefulness to their stomachs, not for his calming of creation. When they caught up with him at the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus rebuked this attitude:
26 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs.
And that explains why Jesus then preached a message on the status of Moses and the manna in the desert.
The bread of life
The bread of life
Jesus was always trying to point to deeper realities. John records his mystical, metaphorical language. The other gospels record many parables. In John 6, Jesus uses the sign of the manna as a springboard to explain how he had come to save us all. He started, perhaps rather obviously, with the observation that Moses didn’t give Israel the manna, God did. He then went on to claim that God was now giving them the “true bread from heaven.”
32 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, Moses didn’t give you bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven.
We know that Jesus was referring to himself, of course. We are very familiar with the idea of Jesus as the bread of life. But his listeners back then were not so familiar with this idea. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, who interpreted Jesus’ claim to have water that would permanently quench thirst quite literally, the crowds here at Capernaum did the same.
34 “Sir,” they said, “give us that bread every day.”
But Jesus didn’t leave the crowd in misunderstanding, he immediately explained what he meant:
35 Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
This sentence is the foundation of the second half of chapter 6, so it is worth thinking about a little longer.
First, we should note that the meaning of the phrase “bread of life” means “the bread that is the source of life.” Bread was, and still is, a “synecdoche” for food. A “synecdoche” is a word that is a part of a thing, but which is used to represent the whole thing. Like talking about “so many ‘souls’ lost” in a disaster, when the bodies were lost, too. In this case, bread represents all food. Thus we have the phrase “breaking bread together,” which means “eating food together.” In Asian countries rice takes this place, for instance the Japanese word “gohan” means rice, and thus also a “meal.” But bread is also used metaphorically to represent not just food, but all the requirements of daily life, such as money. So when Jesus claimed to be the bread of life, it was a very potent claim.
Second, notice that Jesus didn’t use metaphor to describe how we consume this bread. At least not yet. Instead he said that “whoever comes to me” would not be hungry and “whoever believes in me” will not be thirsty. This is actually how we “consume” the bread of life. We come to Jesus and we believe in him. That’s what gives us eternal life. It’s that simple. And yet, as Jesus goes on to explain, it’s not that easy.
Eat my flesh, drink my blood
Eat my flesh, drink my blood
For the Jews listening to Jesus back then, the block they stumbled over on the way to deciding to follow Jesus or not was his claim to come from heaven, when they knew his family.
41 Then the people began to murmur in disagreement because he had said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph? We know his father and mother. How can he say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
Today our stumbling block is almost the reverse of this. It’s not that we know Jesus and his family so well, but rather that they are so distant. Did Jesus really say these things, we wonder. Did he really do these miracles? Did he even exist? Isn’t it strange how too much knowledge can be a belief-blocker, and so can too little. Thank God that, when we investigate the claims of the gospels, they turn out to be incredibly reliable. Many years ago, there were claims that John’s gospel couldn’t have been written by a contemporary of Jesus, because it’s theology was too advanced. By “too advanced” what these scholars meant was that John made it very clear that Jesus was God. And yet today we have numerous, careful studies that demonstrate that John can be nothing other than a product of a contemporary of Jesus. Tools like the modern science of forensics and the analysis of witness statements have revealed the reliability of the gospels. If we doubt the reliability of the gospels, then we must do so despite much evidence, not because of it. Scholars like Bart Erhmann, who question the reliability of the New Testament, have to make extraordinary contortions in order to justify their disbelief.
And yet, Jesus didn’t take this approach with the disbelieving crowd in Capernaum, presenting evidence to support his claims. He didn’t say, “Aha, what you don’t realise is that Joseph is only my step-father, I was actually conceived by the Holy Spirit!” Instead he said something really weird. He said,
44 For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me, and at the last day I will raise them up.
Now, I don’t want to be distracted by a small side-comment Jesus made here. But, in fact, this is not just a side-comment. All through this passage Jesus was saying that God is the one who saves us, and yet also that we need to come and believe.
He even said it to his own disciples:
64 But some of you do not believe me.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe, and he knew who would betray him.) 65 Then he said, “That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.”
Why, in the midst of a sermon demanding that people make a choice, did Jesus so emphasize God’s sovereign choice? Why did he insist that God does the choosing while demanding that we choose God?
I think Jesus did this for the same reason that he took the metaphor of his being the bread of life, and extended it to how we actually consume that bread. He said,
53 So Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you.
And he went on and on about this, drumming it into his listeners, until:
60 Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?”
And when Jesus was confronted with this push-back, did he back down and say, “No, I was just speaking metaphorically.” No, instead he doubled down on his claim.
What did Jesus mean?
What did Jesus mean?
You see Jesus knew that he was making an offensive claim. He knew that his claim to be the only source of life, the only way to heaven, the only hope of escape from this constant, deadly struggle that we call the world, would offend human beings. Why would it offend? Because, when Adam and Eve staked their claim over the world, it was pride that drove them. They wanted to be God. They believed they could do it, and they deserved it. And today, we still share in Adam’s sin. We still believe that we can bring about paradise, if only everyone would obey us. It’s not just Xi Jin-Ping, the ruler of China who believes this. The person in charge of the office supplies cupboard believes it. The teenager rejecting their parent’s request believes it. The bureaucrat rejecting or approving some claim believes it. The preacher pounding the pulpit believes it. We all believe it. Because that’s the nature of fallen humanity.
Paul recognises this when he quotes Psalms 14 and 53 in
10 As the Scriptures say, “No one is righteous— not even one. 11 No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. 12 All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.”
And Jesus knew this. He knew that accepting his sacrifice on our behalf is as repulsive to us as drinking a person’s blood and eating their flesh. When he presented the choice we make in those terms, he was not exaggerating, he was illuminating. When he talked about God’s necessary role in drawing us, he was recognising the way we are captive to our pride.
Taking Jesus life as our own, obeying his words, loving what he loved, hating what he hated, living like he lived, that’s hard, and we need God’s help. But it is the only way to live forever. It is the only path to peace.
This choice seemed too ugly to many of the crowd who had been following Jesus.
66 At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.
They couldn’t see the point in giving up the status-quo and making such an offensive choice. So they left. They walked away from eternal life, although I’m sure very few of them thought they were doing that.
And then Jesus turned to the Twelve. This is the first time in John’s gospel that we encounter the Twelve, the disciples, and so we meet them in the context of decision and division.
67 Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?”
Jesus turns to us, and asks us the same question, “Are you also going to leave?” As the church dwindles in Australia, as people turn away from the difficult choice to follow this man who wants us to drink his blood and eat his flesh, he turns to us asks us, “Are you also going to leave?”
I hope that we can say, with Peter,
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
I hope that, like the disciples, we can come to Jesus, drawn by God, and believe his words, his life. Because I know that, when we do, he will fill us with his life. We will have life to the max. He will live in us and through us. We will be transformed, we’ll live like Jesus and not like the world. We’ll love being part of his body, the church, and we’ll love being his hands and feet and mouth in this world. And we’ll never again suffer that deep hunger for significance or purpose or meaning. We’ll never again thirst for peace or love or connection. Because you are what you eat.
And on the last day, he will raise us to new life forevermore.