The next month is dominated by Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse in the book of John. For four weeks we are invited, again and again, to enter the mystery of how an incarnate God becomes real food for those who hunger. As Christians we are called to be Christ’s body; Jesus assures us that by consuming his body we too are consumed, and transformed, so that we in turn can transform the world—from death to life, despair to hope, exclusion to welcome, and judgment to mercy.
Like all great mysteries, the teaching is meant to be entered into and lived rather than intellectualized. In the words of theologians Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, “We can never grasp a mystery; we can only allow ourselves to be grasped by it. That kind of surrender … is needed if we are ever to receive the gift of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.” It is proof that through the most humble and basic of foods, God has yet again found a way to be presence and present to us and to the world.
Finally, it is no coincidence that Jesus welcomed sinners and was welcomed by them at the table. Sharing food was always a joyous occasion for Jesus, through which he rejected oppressive social and religious laws and extended God’s boundless mercy and love. This feast has become both sacrament and sacred: the unique time and space in which we receive God as bread, and then joyfully share God with the world as the body of Christ.
Michaela Bruzzese, a Sojourners contributing writer, lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Food that Endures
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13; Psalm 51:1-12; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
WHILE JESUS UNDERSTANDS that people seek him out because they ate their fill of the loaves, he urges them to seek more—“the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:26-27). Writing in The Great Themes of Scripture: New Testament, Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos insist that “Much of John’s gospel is directed against cheap religiosity. Well-run churches and sermons that are easy to listen to may appeal to us at first, but they do not satisfy our deep spiritual hunger.” Like the Israelites in the desert who wished for the good old days of slavery—when “we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread”—Jesus knew that people wanted a quick fix and easy answer instead of entering into the mystery with heart and soul open to receiving the new life that discipleship could bring.
It was a temptation not lost on Paul, whose letter emphasizes the importance of superficial vs. truly sustaining food. Paul pushes us further, insisting that by eating the body of Christ, we must then become it: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). If the gospel we live is going to be truly transformative, so must be the food that sustains us.
A Living House
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
ADMONISHING THOSE WHO search for reasons to dismiss him (“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”), Jesus returns to the real issue—faith—stating simply that “whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47).
Careful consideration of Jesus’ words is important, however, for taking Jesus’ body into our own has profound implications. Where will God lead us? As writer C.S. Lewis described it in Mere Christianity, our acceptance of Jesus as the bread of life has permanent consequences that can take us beyond what we expect, or are prepared for: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you understand what [God] is doing. [God] is getting the drains right, and stopping the leaks in the roof …. But presently [God] starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably, and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is [God] up to? .... You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but [God] is building a palace. [God] intends to come and live in it.”
With our faith in Christ as our sustenance, we realize that the only preparation we need is faith enough to let go and enough faith to welcome a guest.
Proof of God’s Love
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
TO BE THE body of Christ in the world means that, like Jesus, we accompany those who suffer. To do so, we need sustenance that goes beyond mere food. As Father Damien of Molokai noted, “Were it not for the constant presence of our divine Master in our humble chapel, I would not have found it possible to persevere in sharing the lot of the lepers in Molokai …. The Eucharist … is at once the most eloquent proof of [God’s] love and the most powerful means of fostering [God’s] love in us.”
Knowing that the call to discipleship requires such radical commitment, Jesus assured those who would follow him that to survive such ministry, their source of strength, joy, and perseverance had to be truly superhuman. Without it, his followers would be without the energy and hope needed to continue: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). The life that Jesus gives is the life of the resurrection—ultimately triumphant over the cruelties and sufferings life brings: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:54). Jesus calls us to walk with those who literally walk through the valley of death. Being sustained by the strength and nourishment of the good shepherd—the bread of life—allows us to do so as a way of (eternal) life.
Center and Sustenance
1 Kings 8:1-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
JESUS’ INSISTENCE THAT he alone be our source of strength and sustenance was simply too much for some: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). Jesus makes it clear that his disciples have a choice, asking “Do you also wish to go away?” It is a question that we, too, must answer. Jesus does not condemn those who wish to leave, or damn them to hell. He knows what he asks, and he knows the commitment it requires. But those of us who can confess with Peter that “You have the words of eternal life” know that God will help them to build great things.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose birthday is Aug. 26, is only one example. Like Father Damien, her trust in God was absolute, and like him, she showed us new ways to bring Christ’s body to the most outcast and abandoned of India and the world. Her devotion required not only radical faith, but radical sustenance. To this day, she wrote in In the Heart of the World, life in the communities she founded revolves around prayer before Communion: “After the sisters have finished their day—carrying out their service of love in the company of Jesus, and through Jesus—we have an hour of prayer and of Eucharistic adoration.” Her example is one among thousands of those who, nourished by God as their center and their sustenance, become bread and life for the world.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
IT IS DIFFICULT to misunderstand the message coming from the New Testament this week—both Jesus and James state the case too clearly to miss. First, returning to the gospel of Mark, Jesus responds to the sanctimonious criticism of religious leaders, calling them hypocrites and reminding them that (quoting Isaiah) “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:6-8). James’ plea reveals that not much has changed, despite Jesus’ teachings. He warns that “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27).
Once again, what is at issue here is legalism vs. love. Jesus and James make clear that it is the attitude with which we approach one another and the world—pride or love, mercy or judgment, exclusion or acceptance—that betrays our true hearts. We can either be devoted to our own egos and self-promotion, or to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For Christians, these attitudes are mutually exclusive, and discipleship means choosing one over the other. Both Jesus and James give us the tools to determine if our own religion is “pure and undefiled before God” or “worthless.”
“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.