“The Jesus Diet”
John 6:51-58 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ August 19, 2018
This morning’s text, on the surface, seems to elicit images of vampires drinking blood and eating flesh. We wonder: is this the origin of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” which led to popular modern day shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “The Vampire Diaries”, and “True Blood”? I recently came across the term “vampire theology” from a colleague who was concerned over churches in decline who viewed new people entering as providing ‘new blood’ to help keep their churches running. In his workshop, he strongly warned against such views and practice. And if we were to read this morning’s text in it’s Greek form, you would find that the words we so elegantly refer to as “eat” and “drink” are actually closer the cannibalistic notions of “chewing” or “gnawing”. As we look at John 6, this seems to be a troubling text indeed!
But as we begin to examine this passage, we know that the gospel of John is steeped in metaphor and a lot is going on with this text beyond vampire fangs and black capes…and you thought I was going to preach this reflection in a vampire costume! As we examine this passage, we are taken back to a time before Jesus. We are taken to the time where Jesus’ ancestors, the Hebrew people, had been liberated from Egyptian slavery and were wandering in the wilderness searching for the Promised Land. Jesus alludes to this time when Moses fed them manna in the wilderness when starvation from hunger seemed imminent. He says “this is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever”. Jesus begins with the baseline of recalling God’s pattern of feeding God’s people. Yet the food that he provides differs from the bread of the past. The bread of the past was only sufficient for people’s needs; however it is not sufficient for eternal life. This new food that will lead to the eternal.
As we wade further into the gospel of John, we are reminded of some of the unique aspects of this version of Jesus. Contrasting John’s gospel with a gospel like Luke which as a ‘Gospel for all” designed to bring people into relationship with Jesus, John’s gospel is written to a community of ‘insiders’ ~ John assumes that they know much of the story and he continues to provoke people’s thoughts, faith and theology. In our case here, there is no telling of the last Passover story like the other three gospels. It is assumed that his listeners know the story well. And with this omission, it causes us to do what we are doing this morning ~ thinking about the meaning of the loaf and cup. Jesus is not speaking literally about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Jesus is speaking figuratively about its meaning and how it points us further beyond the symbol and towards the unknowable grace of God.
I would like to shift gears for a moment and introduce a new metaphor for our consideration. Mammals are a unique animal in that female mammals possesses mammary glands giving them the ability to feed their young with breast milk. There is nothing more nurturing to a growing baby than their own mother’s milk. To see a child feeding from their mother’s breast is a beautiful design of nature where the young feed from their mother’s milk. This is the image that Jesus is trying to convey in this passage. Jesus wants us to see him like a hungry baby sees their mother’s breast. A deep and natural connection with the divine; receiving freely offered gifts of life; feeding as if our life depended on it.
I think more than anything, what is being communicated in this text is the mystery of the incarnation ~ of how God becomes flesh. John’s gospel opens telling how (to quote from the modern day version of the Bible called “The Message”) “The Word became flesh and moved in with us”. God would no longer be distant and we no longer need to be afraid. God would come to us in human form; walk with us; teach us; love us; heal us; God would save us. It is interesting, Muslims speak of Jesus as an esteemed prophet, second only to Allah. And while we share with our Muslim brothers and sisters many similar thoughts about God: common ethics and noble ideals. Yet, where we differ is that we see God as not just fully God, but also in Jesus ~ to be fully human ~ sharing our humanity. Jesus is flesh ~ like us; his veins flow with blood ~ like us; his eyes weep tears ~ like us. And like a mother pumping the lifeblood of milk to her young, Jesus’s Way offers us life in all its abundance. What we find in the mystery of the incarnation is that the Christian faith is not a matter of mere belief or sterile intellectual assent. We find that Jesus wants to burrow deep within us; he wants to flow through our veins; he wants to nourish every nook and cranny of our being. Jesus is God’s gift from the heavenly realm: for God wants all of us ~ not just our minds ~ God wants have all of us and for us too have all of God ~ God wants us to have the gift of the eternal.
One of the biggest mistakes the church often makes, in my opinion, is that the only bread the church commands us to share with people is the spiritual bread of heaven. It is as if we think we can somehow separate our spiritual and our physical needs. Rod coordinated a few of us for a “Hot Lunch Ministry” gathering yesterday and we were out in Whalley handing out food to the folks living in the new modular housing units. That was sharing in Jesus’ body as much as any other way we offer ministry. Last week, we received an announcement from Janice ~ our office manager ~ of the need for us to re-stock our Northwood food pantry as we continue to help the many folks who come in from the street for food ~ sometimes as many as a dozen each week! And many of you responded last week with food and monetary donations. That was sharing in Jesus’ body as much as any other ways we offer ministry. And tomorrow, a few of us are meeting with the folks at the Surrey Urban Mission Society to see how our Shoebox Ministry might be a future partner with their work. That is sharing in Jesus’ body as much as any other ways we offer ministry. I remember a difficult conversation I had with a woman who believed she was not worthy enough to receive communion. She confessed to me: “I cannot receive because I am not worthy. My previous church told me that because I was not married in church, I could not receive the bread and wine. I’m here now and I know that I am welcomed to the table of this church, but I just can’t go up and receive”. Yet, as I told her, I think that no matter what any human institution says, each time we dwell in Jesus’ presence, we are eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. Whenever she opens her life to Christ, she will be fed and quenched for Jesus said “whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never thirst”.
I think what we are getting at this morning is an evaluation of what I would like to call: ‘The Jesus Diet’. Increasingly, dieticians are encouraging us to be conscious of what foods we put into our body. People are concerned about the genetic modification of food; about pesticides sprayed on our produce; about hormones being artificially enhancing the growth of livestock. Hippocrates famously wrote: “let medicine be thy food and thy food be thy medicine”. The Jesus Diet is a spiritual parallel to these kind of considerations. It causes us to ask the question: are we taking in the life that Jesus offers or are we dining on the ways of the world? The Jesus diet would consist of being spiritually conscious of the spiritual life-blood of what we take in. Jesus’ body was broken…broken into many parts…like the loaf is broken into many parts ~ in order that we might all share in it…and his body might live through us. Jesus poured the cup that we might be part of an eternal covenant made in his blood…that our spirits might pulse with the same heartbeat that Jesus’ did. Jesus had two commands: that we love our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and that we love our neighbour as ourselves. Is our ‘Jesus Diet’ taking into our heart, mind, soul and strength what God is offering? Are we dining on prayer, worship, and spiritual entrees? Are we breathing out love, compassion and service the way Jesus did? This text is among the many that might be entitled as the ‘difficult sayings of Jesus’. It would be placed alongside his charge to: “go sell all that you have and give it to the poor”, his teaching that: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out”, and his challenge to: “be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect”. This text is the reminder that ‘we are what we eat’ ~ the challenging call to consider putting “The Jesus Diet” into our body, mind and soul.
As we come to an end of our reflection, I want to close with the hopeful and provocative words of Jesuit author William A. Barry who in his book “Letting God Come Close” wrote: “conversion is a lifelong process of letting God remove the scales from our eyes so that we can more and more embrace the reality of God’s overwhelming love for us”. May we ‘feed’ on the table of grace that God has provided.