Bread of Life
First Presbyterian Church
February 5, 2012
The Gospel of John is a weird book.
“If you don’t eat the Human One’s flesh and drink his blood, you won’t have life in you. Everyone who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has unending life, and I will raise them on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink.”
It is no wonder that
“When the disciples heard this, many responded, “This sort of talk is hard to take. Who can take it seriously?”
That is the challenge of the Gospel of John. How do you take it seriously?
One way is to make a ritual out of it. Call it Holy Communion and once a week have people eat a piece of bread and drink some wine, tell them they are eating Christ’s body, the bread from heaven, and you got yourself a religion.
That is not so bad, if we know what we are doing.
How do you take this seriously?
The only way I can imagine that we might take it seriously is to treat it like a Zen koan. Such as,
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
What does that mean? The Zen teacher would say, go wrestle with it and figure it out yourself. Koans are striking, puzzling statements. They are not riddles. The teacher who offers a koan is not looking for a right answer, but the state of mind of the student. A koan is a device used to help students become aware of who they are and what is real.
The Zen tradition didn’t begin until about six centuries after Jesus. I am not making an historical correspondence. I am not saying Jesus or the author of John was a secret Zen teacher. I am simply suggesting that the way to take Jesus seriously may be not to take him seriously. Maybe the author of John’s gospel is playing with our heads.
In the story, Jesus recognizes that the disciples are puzzled and so he offers a clue:
“So, does this shock you? What if you were to see the Human One going back to where he was to begin with?”
In other words what if you were to see reality? What if you were to see my true nature? He goes on:
“The spirit is life-giving; flesh is good for nothing. The words I have used are spirit and life.”
It could be something like this this: Jesus is saying,
“Since the flesh is nothing, telling you to eat my flesh is like saying, if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. Because the Buddha you see is not really the Buddha. Buddha is in you. Similarly, the flesh you eat is not really me. Those who 'eat my flesh' get that.”
In this reading, eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood is a way of shattering an illusion and discovering one’s true self.
The question that I have when I read John’s gospel is how to understand the figure of Jesus. Is John portraying him as a supernatural being who became a human being, did stuff, and then scooted back up to heaven? If that is the case, I am not so interested. Those myths are a dime a dozen. If that is the case, I am like the followers who say,
“Who can take this seriously?”
But, if Jesus is John’s way of saying this is what it means to be a human being, then maybe I will hang around for a little bit.
One clue that Jesus represents the myth of the authentic human is that throughout John, Jesus is certainly sure of himself. He has no doubt about who is, where he comes from, and where he is going.
Because this story is written in the first century, there is heaven up above where the gods live just above the fixed stars. Earth is the center of the universe. Above us is the moon, the sun, the planets all orbiting around Earth. Way out there are the fixed stars also traveling around Earth. Above all of that is heaven, the abode of the gods where Jesus is from and where he is going.
All of those images such as “from above” have to be reimagined in our time. So what might this look like in our universe with a naturalistic world-view? I think those images such as “from above”, “eternal life”, “bread from heaven”, all refer to that center of identity.
- Who am I?
- What is my value?
- What am I doing here?
- What is my purpose?
- What do I want to make of my life?
Those are the kinds of questions we aren’t sure if we want to ask all of the time, because it is sometimes a bit easier allowing others to define our lives for us. It is easier not to pay attention to this amazing life that we share, that is existence. It might be easier to let others tell us who we are. And others will. We are a market share or a voting block or taxable commodity or potential cannon fodder. We are what the powers that be want us to be to the extent that we have value to them.
So Jesus comes along. It is the same world. There are different symbols and a different guy is in power, but it is the same dehumanizing world. Jesus says to that,
“Eat my flesh, drink my blood.
That is what I think of that.
I am not the flesh of this world.
I am the spirit of life.
I will not be defined by your categories.”
A couple of weeks ago, a new member of our community, Presbyterian minister, Rev. Don Steele, talked to the youth group. At our Wednesday night program, we were learning about Martin Luther King. I asked Don to come and speak because Don was in Memphis going to college in 1968. That was during the sanitation workers’ strike. Martin Luther King went there as you recall. Don marched with King on behalf of the sanitation workers. King was assassinated there in Memphis.
The sanitation workers were striking in part of because of wages, but also because of the way they were treated. They were not treated with dignity. There was not a place to even clean up before they went home. They had to ride on the bus smelling like garbage. One event in particular triggered the strike. Two men were accidentally crushed by a garbage truck and the city provided no compensation to the family members.
These sanitation workers marched in the streets of Memphis. It wasn’t just about money. It was about human dignity. They marched with signs that read, “I am a man.”
“I am a man.”
That is for what they were marching. Their humanity. They weren’t asking permission for it. They were declaring it.
"I am a man."
It is as though they were declaring that they were from above. They were not identified with the worldly categories of garbage worker. They were human beings who happened to do this service for the community and they expected to be treated with respect.
That is what it takes sometimes.
When the powers that be do not serve the people but serve instead their own profits, they need to be shaken down. They need to be called out and called down. It is not wrong for a business to make a profit. A profit allows the business to survive in order that it can continue to serve. But when the profit becomes not the means but the end then it becomes, to use an ancient spiritual word, demonic.
That is what we have in our world today. We have demonic corporations masquerading as human beings and not serving the people, but serving their own profits. I am not saying that every business is that way, of course, but many are. We have politicians, not all by any means, but many, who instead of serving the people have sold out to the money these corporations foist upon them in order to stay in office and get elected.
We need people to stand up and say,
“I am a man. I am a woman. I am a human being.”
When our mountains are destroyed, our water polluted for the sake of corporate profits and at the expense of the lives of human beings, we need to say,
“I am a man. I am a woman. I am a human being. This is Earth. This is home. This is not your commodity.”
Sometimes speaking on behalf of real human beings instead of corporations who masquerade as human beings can be risky. But it is what human beings do. These are the final words of the last speech of Martin Luther King in Memphis in 1968. He had received threats to his life. He talked about that.
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
That was King’s last speech.
This speech shows that King had a glimpse of who he really was and what mattered.
The Gospel of John is a weird gospel.
But it is only weird when we take it literally. It is actually a powerful story of resistance to the powers that be when they become corrupt and dehumanizing. The Gospel of John provides a key and a clue in the person of Jesus who declares that he is the Human One, the Bread of Life, and so can we be.
These struggles that we have been witnessing around the world, the Arab spring, the occupy movement, and struggles for equality and civil rights for LGBT people in this country, the struggle for women’s value in many African countries, the struggle of the poor everywhere, is about human dignity, not just bread. It is not just bread, but as the song whose lyrics are in the bulletin, we march for bread and roses.
Bread, yes, but also roses.
Bread and dignity. The Bread of Life.
When we come later this morning and partake of bread and cup, for me, it is about a community of human beings gathering and uniting in a ritual that affirms life and dignity. It is reminding and being reminded of who we are and what we are here to do.
We are partaking together in the Bread of Life.