Bread of Life: A look at the Lectionary for August
July 5, 2018 by Presbyterian Foundation
By Rev. Thia Reggio
Editor’s note: Each month, we ask a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor to write about upcoming opportunities in the lectionary for discussing stewardship. For August 2018, Rev. Thia Reggio, Pastor of Astoria First in Astoria, New York, writes about John 6, which is part of the lectionary for the entire month of August. Pastors might consider a series on stewardship beginning with this passage.
August’s lectionary gospel texts, drawn from John 6, give us the beautiful and at times unsettling, even terrifying discourse on the Bread of Life. In this chapter, Jesus, having fed the 5,000, is intentionally challenging both his detractors, his disciples, and his would-be followers to understand the intensity of his mission and purpose on earth. He does this using the allusion to himself as bread. Jesus first offers this description of himself in what sounds like a metaphor, a way of understanding his presence on earth tied into the ancient Jewish scriptures. He doesn’t stop there, though. Clearly this image of bread is more than a literary device. He is intent on pressing into difficult and uncomfortable places where spirit and flesh meet and consequences are felt.
Jesus calls into question the motivations of the crowd who follow him. Are they there for the food? Are they coming on full stomachs only to fall away if they don’t continue to be fed? In the heart of the passage, included in the pericopes for the second and third Sundays in August, Jesus uses language that is hard to hear, about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Extremely uncomfortable language to hear directly from Jesus.
We tend to cherry pick from these passages, focusing on the more palatable and lofty verses, rather than those that are harder to swallow, if you will. Using these texts to examine stewardship patterns and possibilities, you can take a more holistic approach over the course of the month. You might think of this discourse as a loaf of bread itself—a loaf of braided Challah with one strand containing the language of the bread of heaven, Jesus sent to earth as the living bread of a living God; one strand bringing the flavor of the ancient promises of Moses and the manna in the desert; and one strand, Jesus’ very real, physical, fleshly presence and its reminder of Jesus’ humanity and sacrifice.
Taken together, August’s gospel lessons can provide an examination of stewardship and giving that calls for reflection on personal motivations, takes us into difficult conversations about what Jesus was willing to give and what Jesus requires of those who follow him, and finally brings us to the words of Peter, the Rock of the Church, “Lord, to whom shall I (we) go? You have the words of eternal life.”
This post looks at:
- Week One: John 6:24-35—Motivations and expectations in stewardship and giving
- Week Two: John 6:35, 41-51—Jesus sets the stakes with the giving of his whole self
- Week Three: John 6:51-58—Abiding in Christ, the lack of want
- Week Four: John 6:56-69—Devotion beyond understanding
Notice that the passages are tightly connected by the inclusion of a verse from the previous pericope at the outset of each following week—emphasizing the interrelatedness of the strands of the story.
Week 1: August 5
Gospel John 6:24-35
24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
You are looking for me… because you ate your fill of the loaves. –John 6:26
To examine and ultimately reframe stewardship, you can start with an honest reflection on motivations for faith and giving.
Why are you looking for Jesus? Do you have a transactional faith? Do you have expectations that the church must meet in order to keep you coming back? What are you requiring of the church and what do you believe is required of you in return?
Earlier this year, the Poor People’s Campaign (A National Call for a Moral Revival), co-led by PC(USA) Pastor Liz Theoharis, held 40 Days of Action. For six weeks, people all across the US marched on state capitols, gathered for learning sessions and shared arts events to draw attention to issues affecting the most vulnerable among us.
Each week, at the end of the marches and rallies organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, there was food. Sandwiches, or pizza, or salad would appear as if by magic on street corners or plazas or buses due to the generous donations of individuals, churches and businesses that believe in the campaign’s message that it’s time to “fight poverty, not the poor.” It’s not magic that makes this food appear. It’s generosity.
At the end of a long day, I’m grateful for that food. But it’s not why I came. It’s not why people come back week after week. It begs the question, why do I come? Why did thousands of people come?
Most people would say that they don’t come to church each week for the food either. Still it’s worth examining whether there is some part of what brings you back each week that has to do with getting something you need. What expectations do you have of Jesus? What have you gotten in the past that keeps you coming back?
Jesus challenges the people who are following him, flatly stating that they want him to keep their stomachs full and that they are missing the larger picture—that they don’t care about the signs he is showing them. As he continues to drive home the seriousness of his mission and the stakes of following him, he gives no quarter. If they’re coming to get something for themselves they’re following the wrong leader.
Going back to the questions at the beginning of this section, examine your expectations and motivations for following Jesus and coming to church. Once you identify your expectations, consider what expectations Jesus and the church might have of you.
Week 2: August 12
Gospel John 6:35, 41-51
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “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’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. –John 6:51b
In this passage, some of those who were upset by and skeptical of Jesus, tried to point to his humanity as proof that he had an inflated vision of himself. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”
Jesus sees in this challenge the opportunity to drive home this essential part of his identity. It’s precisely because he has come as a recognizable human being, made of flesh and blood, that he is able to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Here, Jesus unequivocally sets the table stakes for participation in his ministry. While we may prefer to focus on living forever, Jesus is intent on driving home the very real sacrifice he is preparing to make, and the requirement that his followers must partake of this reality.
In the wilderness, God required the Israelites to eat manna to survive. That was about sustaining their lives (remember the expectation of the crowd who had followed Jesus because their stomachs were full?) certainly a gift from God. What Jesus is about is a different kind of food—his own flesh and blood.
Now, he has begun to get to the heart of his mission, the willing sacrifice of himself to end the practice of human sacrifice for all time. The death of the physical, but not the spiritual self. Without a physical body to put on the line, God in Christ, could not demonstrate this action of the divine.
High stakes. As you consider what is required of you as one who has been drawn to Jesus by the One who sent him, consider first what Jesus willingly gave. This is the starting point for all discussions about stewardship and giving: First, that the goal is not to hold onto what one has but to give it fully and freely without fear; second, that Jesus doesn’t ask us to give up our lives in the physical sense, but to be part of his sacrifice, so that everything we give of our resources is an echo of that ultimate gift for the life of the world: Jesus’ flesh.
Week 3: August 19
Gospel John 6:51-58
51“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53So Jesus said to them, “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. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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.”
56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
John uses the word “flesh” six times and “blood” four times in this passage. Rather than correcting those who question whether he can really mean that his followers are to eat his actual flesh, he insists that there is no life apart from doing so.
There is an opportunity here to make a vital connection between Christ, Creation and Communion. Jesus understood the message that we now focus on mainly on Ash Wednesday—that all life contains the same essence of physical matter (though he wouldn’t have used that term) along with the spiritual transcendent life force. In a very real sense, the bread we eat and the cup we drink at The Lord’s Supper is therefore at its essence one and the same with Christ’s body and blood. The remembrance that Jesus calls for is at least in part the remembrance of that connection—that all
living things are connected. We abide in Christ, who contains and embodies the essence of life, and we consume Christ so that Christ abides in us.
Jesus makes a point here that goes to the purpose of incarnation—not to dwell only in the spiritual realm from which he comes (ascending and descending), but to dwell in the flesh, so that he may end death as we know it by willingly going to it for the sake of others and the sake of life itself.
Jesus will die a very real death in order to keep his promise. He will bleed. He will endure the wounding, tearing, and torture of his flesh. He wants us to take this in and experience it through him as the deepest possible connection to life itself. In relinquishing our fear of death and its fleshy, bloody messiness, we join Christ in a full life.
Considering the relationship between what God has done through the Incarnation to prove the necessity of physical commitments as well as spiritual, there is a clear call toward giving of the real, tangible physical possessions that we are given in life. Once again, the context of Christ’s own sacrifice provides the foundation for a life abiding in Christ as one that emulates his priorities for giving.
Week 4: August 26
Gospel John 6:56-69
56“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. –John 6:68
Echoing the words of the beautiful Psalm 139: We come to the end, we are still with you.
Jesus has taken his disciples, detractors, and would be followers on a difficult journey. Some may have misheard him as belittling Moses, suggesting that the Jewish tradition leads to death, being self-aggrandizing, outrageous, even grisly. It’s important to remember that Jesus lived his entire life as a Jew among Jews. He began his ministry with a teaching from the Prophet Isaiah, and grounded all of his teaching in the Law, which scripture tells us he did not come to abolish, but to uphold. Jesus draws on the story of the manna, not to diminish God’s great saving work in preserving the lives of the Israelites, but to place his work beside that as another act of mercy sent from God, this time with a different purpose—to give spiritual life, through fleshly sacrifice of God’s self.
Jesus is clear that those who come to him and follow him do so because God has drawn them to him. God has drawn you to Jesus Christ. That means you are drawn to hear his message, even the parts of his message that are hard to hear; the parts of following him that are difficult; the parts of being on his path that are hard to accept, even beyond our understanding.
Hearing these difficult teachings that force us to look at the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper unflinchingly, we still find ourselves saying with Peter, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Somehow, the harder Peter listened, the more his sensibilities were offended and his belief was tested, when he looked inside himself, he realized that he belonged to and with Jesus.
We serve this complex, challenging, difficult God who loved us so much, loved the whole world so much that there was nothing to do but to come in flesh and blood and show us how that love can look in human form.
This is the love, the life in which we abide eternally. This is why we give. This is why we come back week after week to hear the Living Word. The question is not whether we can ever get enough; its whether we can we ever hope to give enough? To show enough love to others? To follow Christ’s example of service to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized so that it can ever come close to the way he set before us? As with everything God does, teaching us what it looks like to give is both beyond our capacity to fully understand and within our capacity to fully embrace.