John 6:35, 41-51
“Jesus 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. Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They 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’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It 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. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.”
Many of us here in the Triangle are defined by the color blue – more specifically, a certain shade of blue. Duke blue, or Carolina blue. But the other day I heard a fascinating story on the NPR show Radiolab. They were talking to a professor who had recently discovered that in literature from ancient cultures, the word for the color blue never appears. Greek, Chinese, Icelandic, even the Hebrew of the Old Testament – the word never shows up. There was only one exception – the Egyptians. And the understanding is that there was never a need for the word because except in Egypt the color is not easy to be reproduced. It’s also rare in nature: there are not many blue animals. Blue eyes were extremely rare, as were blue flowers (until recently by genetic modification.)
This is even still true today. There is a tribe in Africa that still does not have a distinct word for blue, the Himba tribe in Namibia, and found that when shown the color blue and green, they don’t see the difference between the two colors. They still see the blue, but it doesn’t jump out, it’s harder to spot.
Perhaps the obvious question is, what about the sky? Right? But there was another study done, and it turns out you have to be told the sky is blue to see it as blue. People who have not been told the sky is blue don’t really see it as a color. They have to be told of the distinction; the color must be given a word, to fully perceive the color. To see the sky as blue.
And I was thinking about this as it relates to the passage we heard from John. About Jesus claiming to be the bread of life. And those listening to him, his fellow Jews, his neighbors – can’t quite comprehend this. They are like, we know this guy, he is the son of Joseph, we’ve seen him grow up. Apparently they did not believe the rumors of Mary being a virgin when Jesus was born. In the verse preceding todays reading, the Jews ask for the bread of heaven that gives life to the world. But they cannot grasp how Jesus himself can be this bread. How is it possible for him to come down from heaven if he is a man of flesh and blood? They see Jesus, but they see him as the son of worldly parents. They are unable to perceive the mystery of Jesus as both fully man and fully God. Of Jesus as the son of a human couple but also the Son of God.
Later in the Christian tradition, we see things going the complete other way. No longer is Jesus seen as a human being who ate and drank and went to the bathroom, but instead he is understood as one who just appeared to be human. And it is understandable that things would go back and forth this way. Previous to Jesus, there is no word for this. A human being born on earth that is also from heaven? Physical bread eaten in order to live forever? Bodily flesh given to save the world through the consumption of regular bread? There is no previous category for this, no word to name what is occurring. The only way to capture this union of earthly and divine is through the word and name of Jesus.
But this does not mean that because we have this name we can brandish it as a weapon of salvation. I remember in Divinity School reading how the early Church Fathers often spoke about the Eucharist as “medicine of immortality.” And I thought this sounded pretty cool. But there is also a danger in the use of this language, in the way that we can use the word Jesus and the taking of Eucharist, as a foil to the rest of the mortal world. We have the secret solution, the secret word, that allows us to be masters of eternity, to dictate the ways of the world. If I just eat this bread, I will live forever. Such issues then cause us in the Church to then argue over whose bread is legitimate, what is the true bread of immortality, the real bread of life.
How fast do we forget the words of Jesus in this passage, “do not complain among yourselves.” The church needs to do some serious reflection on that verse. Jesus says, “no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me, and I will raise that person up on the last day. Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” Notice the emphasis here on Jesus and the Father. It is the Father who sends Jesus, the Father who draws us to Jesus, and Jesus who will raise us from the dead. All we can do, all we must do, is believe. “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “it is not our religion – not even the Christian religion – but God’s grace: that is the message of all of Christianity. It all depends, not on our outstretched beggars hand, but on what God puts in it, and that means basically that it’s not about us and our doing, but about God and God’s doing.”
And praise God our hope does not rest on ourselves, but rather on God. But praise God also we have been given the word, the ability to categorize things through the name of Jesus. Jesus, the name of a person born of flesh but also from heaven, who is able to give himself for the sins of the world. Jesus, the name that allows us to perceive the ways that heaven and earth have been intertwined in his body. That allows us to perceive this intermingling in the midst of an often broken and troubling world. To recognize the goodness of life, of bread, of wine, of chocolate chip cookies- but also their limit. To see the transcendence of God, of Jesus the bread of heaven, in normal earthly elements. To perceive in death the signs of resurrection. To see blue when the rest of the world can only make out the color green.