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26 November 2018

Jesus came from heaven? And you gotta eat him?

The level of commitment Jesus expects of his followers: You gotta eat the bread of life.

John 6.41-60.

Jesus pointed out he, not the stuff he and his students fed the 5,000, not the manna the LORD fed the Hebrews, is bread from heaven. Living bread. Stuff you eat and live forever. Don’t seek temporal, earthly bread. Seek him.

It’s a metaphor, of course, for a relationship with Jesus. One the Galileans and Judeans, steeped in a culture (and a bible) full of metaphors, shoulda understood. One we should understand too… but of course not all of us do, and I’m gonna get into that a bit today.

But at this point in the story, the Galieans appeared to be tracking with Jesus so far. Their objection—the reason they eghóngyzon/“grumbled” (KJV “murmured”) about Jesus teaching this—wasn’t because they misunderstood what he meant; they totally understood what he meant. Their problem was he was talking about himself. Who, they were agreed, was probably a big deal; probably the End Times prophet. But “comes from heaven”? Waitaminnit.

John 6.41-42 KWL
41 So the Galileans grumbled at Jesus because he said “I’m the bread who comes from heaven,”
42 and said, “Isn’t this Jesus bar Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother?
So how does he say he’s come from heaven?”

If somebody claims, “I came from heaven,” our knee-jerk reaction is naturally, “No you didn’t.” Doesn’t matter how much you know them, how much you like them, how much anything—the only people in the highest heaven are God, the angelic beings round his throne, and those few people he raptured before the resurrection, like Elijah. (We presume a few people because only three get a mention in the bible. For all we know God might’ve raptured way more. But that’s pure speculation.) Nobody can come from heaven but those beings—and we’re quite sure our claimant isn’t among them. Likewise the Galileans and Jesus: Of course he didn’t come from heaven. He was born. He has parents! They knew his parents.

Yeah, Christians are fully aware Jesus existed before his conception, ’cause he’s God. We get how he came from heaven, yet was born. We tend to take that belief for granted. But that was a wholly foreign idea to the Galileans, who presumed God would never do such a thing. He’s almighty, he’s sovereign, he’s dignified… he’s not a man, like Moses said, Nu 23.19 and they figured he’d never stoop so low as to become one.

So the Galileans had to wrap their brains around that one. But Jesus doubled down.

John 6.43-46 KWL
43 In reply Jesus also told them, “Don’t grumble among yourselves:
44 Nobody can come to me unless the Father, my Sender, draws them,
and I will resurrect them on the Last Day.
45 In the Prophets it’s written, ‘And they’ll all be taught by God’: Is 54.13
All who hear and learn from the Father, come to me.
46 Not that they saw the Father—
except the one from God; this man has seen the Father.”

So not only is Jesus claiming he’s from heaven, but he’s gonna resurrect everybody. Which wasn’t at all what the Pharisees taught about the End Times prophet, nor Messiah, nor anyone. Jesus is making some mighty cosmic claims for himself.

And this, folks, is why they couldn’t believe in Jesus. Not because they mixed up his bread metaphors.

What exactly does “eating the bread” mean again?

But let’s deal with the bread metaphor too, shall we?

John 6.47-51 KWL
47 “Amen amen! I promise you, believers in me have live in the age to come!
48 I’m the living bread.
49 Your ancestors in the wilderness ate manna—and died.
50 This is the bread who cames down from heaven, so one might eat of him, and might not die.
51A I’m the living bread who comes down from heaven.
When one eats of this bread, they’ll live in the age to come.”

With him so far? Good. Jesus is the living bread; eating the bread represents a relationship with him. When we “eat the bread,” it’s kinda similar to “drinking the Kool-Aid” (without all the negative, cultish ideas attached): We take in his teachings, embrace his kingdom, imitate his example, live his lifestyle. Eat the bread and live in Kingdom Come. As opposed to eating any old bread, even miraculously-provided manna… and dying.

It’s not quite what people were expecting from the End Times prophet; it’s more real, substantial, and eternal. And now, Jesus makes it hardcore. A little too hardcore for his listeners.

John 6.51-52 KWL
51B “And this bread, which I will give, is my body. It’s for the world’s life.”
52 So the Galileans debated one another, saying, “How can this man give us his body to eat?”

“For the world’s life” can also be interpreted “so the world can live,” although I’m pretty sure those who believe atonement is limited only to Christians might balk at that idea. (Even though the idea of Jesus dying to save the whole world is all over the bible.)

Now I should point out these sorts of debates broke out in synagogue all the time. It has to do with how Pharisees taught. It was similar to how Socrates taught: You got your students to think by making radical statements, or asking ’em really tough questions. Jesus actually wasn’t unique among rabbis by how he’d provoke debate. What made him unique was the fact he didn’t teach like scribes: He didn’t quote other Pharisee scholars when he made his rulings. He made rulings entirely on his own authority. ’Cause he can do that. He is, after all, the LORD God who wrote the Law in the first place.

So getting the students to debate was simply part of the lesson. But when these debates started going off in the wrong direction—students getting angry, or students coming to the wrong conclusion altogether—the rabbi was expected to step in and steer them right.

That’s where we Christians tend to misunderstand what Jesus was doing. Most of our interpreters assume Jesus was deliberately trying to outrage and confuse the Galileans, and get ’em so angry that only the true believers would stick around. That’s not what he was doing. He was trying to teach them to stop seeking material wealth and earthly bread; to seek him, the heavenly bread; to commit themselves to him so far, they’d “eat and drink Jesus.”

And like a patient teacher, once they finally understood what his metaphor meant, then he’d push ’em further. Because he really isn’t kidding about the level of commitment he expects of his followers. And still expects.

John 6.53-58 KWL
53 So Jesus told them, “Amen amen! I promise you, you don’t have life in yourself
unless you eat the Son of Man’s body and drink his blood.
54 One who eats my body and drinks my blood has life in the age to come,
and I’ll resurrect them on the Last Day.
55 For my body is real food. My blood is real drink.
56 One who eats my body and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.
57 Just as the living Father sends me, I also live because of the Father.
One who eats me likewise lives because of me.
58 This bread who comes down from heaven is not like what your ancestors ate and died:
One who eats this bread will live in the age to come.”

The Pharisees believed all you had to do for God to save you was be Pharisee. Much like Christians believe all we gotta do for God to save us is be Christian. But Jesus teaches there’s a commitment level to this—one which many Christians are really sloppy about. We can’t just “be Christian.” We gotta follow Jesus. Wholeheartedly. You want life in the age to come? That’s how far you gotta go.

And just like Christians who base all their Christianity on cheap grace and faith-righteousness, the Galileans realized this wasn’t what they believed. So rather than embrace Jesus’s radical new idea, they fell back on their comfortable old idea.

John 6.59-60 KWL
59 Jesus said this while teaching in the Kfar Nahum synagogue.
60 So, many of his students who heard him said, “This word is hard. Who can listen to it?”

Like Jesus said, they didn’t trust him, Jn 6.36 and that was that.

Holy communion?

For centuries, liturgical Christians read this passage and it immediately reminded them of holy communion. Of course.

Eating Jesus’s body and drinking his blood? We do this ritual all the time. Many of us do it every week. And when our ministers introduce communion, they even quote this very passage: “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” Jn 6.53 KJV It fits so well.

But is Jesus talking about holy communion? Yes and no.

The word communion literally means relationship—sharing and exchanging one’s thoughts and feelings and lives. That’s exactly what this living-bread metaphor represents: Jesus wants this level of relationship with us. We’re to be so close to Jesus, we eat him, drink him, breathe him, wrap up our whole lives in him. We’re to live in communion with him. We’re to have an extremely close relationship.

But too many Christians reduce communion to the ritual: Eat the wafer, drink the wine or juice, and that’s communion. It’s really not. Our sacraments represent spiritual truths, and eating and drinking those elements is meant to represent the close personal relationship with Jesus we have. Not be a substitute for that relationship. Because way too many Christians think if we don’t do the ritual itself, we’re not following Jesus… instead of actually following Jesus with a Jesus-centered life.

If we only practice the ritual, but don’t bother with the relationship it’s meant to represent, our religion is dead. And way too many Christians suffer from dead religion. It’s these same Christians who point to this passage and claim, “Jesus is talking about doing the ritual.” Not about having a real, living relationship with him. Not about being the living bread. Once again, it’s about earthly bread.

Hence we have two factions of Christians: Those who recognize this is about relationship, and those who think this is only about the regular practice of holy communion. And both factions sneer at the Galileans, and claim, “Well, they didn’t understand this passage at all. They were outraged because they must’ve taken Jesus too literally, and thought he was talking about cannibalism.”

No they didn’t.

Why do we get the idea the Galileans didn’t understand him?

Why do so many Christian teachers claim this lesson went entirely over the Galileans’ heads? Bluntly, cultural bias.

Most Christians don‘t know what a synagogue was. They don’t realize it’s a school; they think it’s the Jewish equivalent of church. They think Jesus taught like their own preachers “teach”—they lecture, and the people agree and say amen. (Or don’t.) And if a sermon outrages people, not every preacher bothers to take a moment to clarify things: They just plow on forward, and people either accept the message, or leave in a huff. (Or, which is more likely, sit there and quietly reject everything they hear, ’cause ”this preacher’s an idiot.”)

We presume Jesus was as dense and impatient as our preachers, so he didn’t realize how much he was freaking out his audience. Or worse, didn’t care. We forget the fruit of the Spirit is Jesus’s character, project our character upon him, and assume people reacted for the same reasons they’d react to our bad behavior.

And sometimes project ourselves on the audience too: This lesson goes over our heads, so it must’ve gone over their heads too. Because we have the Holy Spirit—and it’s still hard for us. So how difficult must it have been for those poor ignorant Galileans?

Except those Galileans weren’t so ignorant. They knew exactly what Jesus meant. He walked ’em through it.

And here’s a fun exercise. Show this passage to a pagan sometime, and ask ’em what they think it means. Yeah, there are gonna be those pagans who suck at metaphors and reading comprehension, and their response will be something like, “Wha?—eat his body and drink his blood? Sounds like a vampire. I didn’t know you Christians were into that.” But the pagans who have half a brain will correctly respond, “Jesus is talking about having some kind of connection with him. He says they gotta ‘eat his body’ because he’s so hardcore about it.”

How can pagans figure this out, but it goes over Christians’ heads? Mostly because we’ve mixed it up with holy communion instead of a relationship with Jesus, so we don’t understand it properly either. Mostly because our teachers mix it up with holy communion, so we’re getting it wrong like they are. Mostly because we’re just as uncomfortable with the level of commitment Jesus expects of his followers: All we want is a simple little ritual. All we want is bread. Nothing more.

Anybody who decides to joke, “Oh, Jesus is talking about cannibalism”—even those who insist, “He only means holy communion”—are being willfully dense. They don’t wanna deal with the bigger issue. They’re like the uncomfortable boyfriend whose girlfriend is pushing him to propose marriage, and all he wants is to have a little fun with zero commitment… so he makes a few jokes to squirm away. And like her, Jesus isn’t kidding.

That’s all this “hard to understand” talk comes from: People who don’t wanna understand Jesus. Hopefully we’re not among them.