Bread of Heaven (Part 4)

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 27-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 23 minutes). Today’s sermon is delivered by Gaba Tabane, a lay preacher at my church. Or read my text summary below.

We continue with our series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:51-58. In today’s passage, Jesus dives into the deep end of his teaching so far, focusing squarely on himself as the bread of life, and calling us to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood. This is a difficult reading:

“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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Jesus appears to confront us this almost cannibalistic image to make intangible spiritual truths as tangible and tactile as possible, even to the point of being gross. He is speaking of the Eucharist (communion, Lord’s Supper, Holy Mass). He wants us to understand that we obtain eternal life by filling ourselves with his presence. By making him an essential part of ourselves. Thus, eating his flesh and drinking his blood is a metaphor or image to help us grasp how seriously he wants us to allow him to fill us up spiritually and diffuse through every cell of our body and every thought of our mind.

When we let Jesus into ourselves, we have life eternal in ourselves. But if we refuse to let him in, we have no life in us. This is what he says in verses 53 and 54. When we let him in, we will have deep, lasting life and we will be raised up again to new life on the last day. He says in verse 56 that when we allow him in, he will come make his home in us. The NIV says “you remain in me and I remain in you”, but this ‘remain’ means to ‘take up dwelling in’, to ‘make your home in’. Jesus dwells in us – in our body, in our mind, in our emotions, in our spirit.

Jesus says that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink. Some churches think of the eucharist bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood. Others think of them as actual flesh and blood. Our church thinks of them as bread and wine that have been transformed in such a way that the real presence of Christ is present in them. They are real bread and wine, and also real flesh and blood – Jesus makes himself present and available to us in these elements, so that we can feast on him. Jesus says, at the last supper, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”, yet he is sitting right there, alive and without any loss of flesh or blood. So, this middle way between symbolism and transubstantiation is the most workable way of understanding his meaning. Jesus is genuinely and actually present in the bread and wine, but the bread and wine are still bread and wine, and yet far more than just that. We call this consubstantiation, which means both substances at the same time. This is a sacrament: “An outward and visible sign (baked bread) of inward and spiritual grace (bread from heaven), given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace”.

Bruner (2012, p. 436-437) summarises his passage like this:

“Here it is; here I am; take a good look; this is it; the Great Heavenly Visit is now right here in front of you in this little space. You are very privileged to have access to this cosmic, once-in-a-lifetime event. You are looking straight at the meaning of life. This is what it is all about.”

Featured image of rye bread from https://dexam.co.uk/rye-bread

Being God’s Beloved: Day 25: The Wedding at Cana

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Over the last six days we reflected on some of the deep theologies of Christ’s incarnation and teaching. This was, at times, rather heavy conceptual stuff! While there is, of course, much teaching and theological depth in the Gospels, much of what we read is how Jesus lived his life on earth – his ministry, his relationships, his activities. There is much that we can and should learn about God’s love for us and about our Being God’s Beloved from these stories.

Because Jesus is the embodiment of God – Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity come in human form – what we see in Christ is a reflection of God. Jesus says this clearly when Philip asks, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus responds, with what sounds likes a note of exasperation, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. …I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:8-10). It may be hard for us to imagine what God is like and what God thinks about us. But it is much easier to see what Jesus is like and what Jesus thinks of people. When we see Jesus, we see God. We can trust that Jesus accurately reveals God to us.

And so we start with Jesus’ first sign in the Gospel according to St John – the turning of water into wine at the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-11). On the surface, this is just a miracle story: Jesus does something that no-one else has been able to do – he changes a simple chemical compound (hydrogen and oxygen molecules) into wine. There are numerous very deep theological and spiritual meanings attributed to this passage, which all probably have elements of truth.[1]

But I’d like us to reflect today on the kinds of values of Jesus that we can infer from this story. In other words, what do we learn about who God is and what is important to God from this story?

It is surely significant that Jesus performed a miracle involving wine at a wedding. And it is surely also significant that John places this miracle as first in his version of the Gospel story. Would not a loftier miracle have been more appropriate to inaugurate his ministry? For example, a healing from leprosy or raising someone from the dead or restoring sight to the blind? These kinds of miracles would surely have been much more in keeping with the Lukan Manifesto that we studied on Day 22. And much more suitable for dignity of the Son of God.

But perhaps the unexpectedness of such a miracle, even the inappropriateness of it, is exactly why this is important to John and to us, and to Jesus and to God. Jesus chooses to participate in a very human event – a wedding. It is a time of joyous celebration, a time of joining two individuals and two families together, a time to anticipate the birth of children and the start of a new generation. A wedding is, in many important ways, essentially human – a key event in the lives of individuals, families and communities.

Jesus places himself at the centre of human living by performing his first miracle at such an event. He shows himself to be interested in and willing to participate actively in and concerned for the centre of human life and love. Jesus is not here only to preach and teach. He is also not here only to die on a cross. He is also here to participate in the full life of humanity – to be human. Similarly, he is interested and willing to participate in our lives, in your own life. And because Jesus embodies God, we know that it is also God’s desire to participate fully in our human lives.

Sometimes we have this feeling that we should not bother God with the mundane trivialities of our lives. In the midweek fellowship group that I belong to, when we pray for each other, people sometimes say, “No, I’ve got nothing important that needs prayer.” We say things like this because at some level we believe that God is interested only in big things – our need for a better night’s sleep or our hope that a relationship at work might improve seem too small and trivial to bother God about. We feel that God has more important things to attend to, and we shouldn’t intrude with our petty troubles.

But Jesus’ presence at the wedding and his decision to address a very practical, down-to-earth problem – “They have no more wine” (John 2:3) – tells us that Jesus is indeed interested, very interested, in our everyday lives. He is interested in the ‘ordinary’ – our day-to-day concerns and worries. And, moreover, he is willing to get involved in the ordinary – to invest in helping us with the ordinary. There is nothing that we cannot take to God, nothing that God would dismiss as trivial. God is not one to say, “Oh, get over yourself” or “Don’t have a pity party”. God wants very much to be part of every facet of our lives.

Jesus expands on this interest in the ordinary by transforming the ordinary into the exceptional. Ordinary water is changed into “choice wine” – “the best” (John 2:10). And not only the best wine, but also a great quantity of wine – roughly 600 litres of it! We are reminded of Jesus’ words, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10) or “have it abundantly” (NRSV & NASB).

God is interested in the ordinariness of our lives, but God is also interested in helping us transform our lives into something exceptional. While God does accept us as we are, unconditionally, God also desires us to become more than who we are. It is not that God wants to change us into something other than what we are; rather, God wants to us become everything that we were created to be, to actualise all the potential that lies sleeping within us. It is as though we were acorns, which is a wonderful thing to be; but God is eager for us to become oak trees, which is even more wonderful! Every acorn contains the image of the oak tree, waiting to be actualised.[2]

We experience this kind of transformation regularly in the Holy Eucharist.[3] At the start of the service, there is a bottle of wine and a container of communion wafers at the entrance of the church. These are things that we have made. Of course, we have made the bread and wine out the things that God created – wheat and grapes. We took what God created and made something ordinary out of them. These ordinary human artefacts signify our ordinary lives that we bring to church.

During the Eucharist service, these ordinary things are brought into the sanctuary and transformed into the body and blood of Christ. And so, as we participate in the communion, we are not just consuming bread and wine, but also participating spiritually in the body and blood of our Saviour. This transformation signifies what God does to us as humans – we become infused with the Spirit of God and transformed into the image of God. Even if you don’t accept that the communion produces actual sanctification, the Eucharist is a metaphor for this transformation – we act out in the communion service what God does by the Holy Spirit.

In our daily lives, God intends that we should be transformed into the likeness of the Son. God intends that the ordinary should become extraordinary. God intends that we should become everything that God created us to be.

This points to another important insight into God’s heart. God has an image of each of us in God’s heart. When God intends us to be transformed into the image of the Son, that does not mean we all become the same. No! Instead, each of us is unique and distinct, created individually as God’s Beloved. When God, metaphorically, closes His eyes and thinks about you, he has a distinct person in mind – a person with a name and a history, with strengths and vulnerabilities, with potential and aspirations, with past, present and future, with emotions and desires. God holds you in mind and heart, both as you are and as you could be. God knows you!

At the end of the Wedding at Cana story, John tells us that “his disciples put their faith in him” (2:11) – they “entrusted themselves to him”.[4] This was, no doubt, because they had witnessed an amazing miracle. But for us, perhaps it was also because we see that Jesus, as the Son of God, was also interested in everyday human life, keen to participate in ordinary human life, able to transform ordinary human life and with an individualised image of ordinary human life. This was a man who really cared about ordinary human life. This was a man who loved ordinary humans. This was a man who helped people. This was a man who loved.

Meditation for the Day

Identify those facets of your life that you avoid ‘bothering’ God with – those ordinary, seemingly trivial things. Make a decision to bother God with them today.

Prayer for the Day

Generous God, in the same what that you transformed ordinary water into extraordinary wine, transform me into something extraordinary. Continue to work out your purposes in me, to become everything that you have created me to be.

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[1] Bruner, F. D. (2012). The Gospel of John: A commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, pp. 125-142.

[2] The metaphor of acorns is inspired by Hillman, J. (1997). The soul’s code: In search of character and calling. New York: Warner Books.

[3] The Eucharist (Holy Communion, Mass, Divine Service, Lord’s Supper) is understood differently by different Christian traditions. I’m writing as an Anglican who believes in the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the elements. In other words, the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but Christ is spiritual present, in a real and meaningful way, in the elements.

[4] Bruner, p. 133.