This meditation on John 6 is the first of three that I plan to post this week. There are so many ways to interpret what Jesus said about being the bread of life.
“Chew your food 20 times before you swallow it.” In 2001 in the U.S., there were more than 17,000 visits to emergency departments for nonfatal choking in children 14 years and younger (60% related to food). As you might guess, researchers found that choking rates are highest for children under 1 year, and decrease as children grow older. When too much food goes down an opening that is too small to accept it, you choke, spit it up, and it doesn’t reach it’s destination.
So what do you do when something is too big to swallow, even though it’s good for you? You break it down into smaller pieces so you can swallow it. And you take additional time to do it. For four Sundays in a row, the lectionary has focused on the same thing – Jesus as the bread of life. So I started asking ‘why’? Why did the Church choose to spend so much time on this one chapter in the Gospel – John 6. A whole month of the church year? We have 4 Gospels and 89 chapters to pick from.
In the first part of John 6, Jesus is fairly gentle in his description of how we are to receive him in the bread. But as the chapter has progressed, he gets more specific and more graphic – until, in these verses, his description gets almost offensive.
I believe the writer of the gospel of John is trying to help us to learn how we grow in our understanding and in our trust and love for God. Jesus often used metaphors and analogies in his teachings. We weren’t supposed to take everything literally. “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son…” in Matt. 22. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers…..” in Matt. 20. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed….” in Matt. 13. Jesus used bread as a metaphor for his body and his blood. We need to keep this in mind.
What analogy Jesus is making with his talk about “eating” in this lesson? In the Greek text, when Jesus tells us we are to “eat” his body, he uses the Greek word fago that simply refers to eating. But later in the text, the Greek word changes to progone. The meaning of progone is more than simply “eating.” It means “to munch or to chew.” It indicates more breakdown is needed to swallow it without choking.
John’s purpose in writing this account of Jesus is not for a historical record. He has a much more important agenda. He wants his readers to believe that this Jesus is the Son, the resemblance of God, the Word made flesh. And he is teaching his readers why Jesus came into the world. He calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world in chapter one. John started his first chapter this way: “In the beginning was the Word (w/capital “W” – reference to the Greek word for God = Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. In him was life … The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Let me emphasize this: the Greek word logos is what was “in the beginning,” was “from God,” and “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The word logos was the Greek name/word for God. The “word” was NOT writings in a book. To say the “word” (logos) became flesh was to say GOD became flesh.
So now we have some important pieces of this lesson – the Logos/Word is the Son of God, the one who resembles the Father. When Jesus says we should chew on his flesh, and drink his blood, his flesh refers to his actions and his blood refers to his life. Blood was life itself. That’s why you couldn’t eat animals with their blood still in them. It was a negation of the mystery and wonder of life itself. Talk about offending Moses and the tradition! Drink Jesus’ blood? Get the nails and cross ready. Who wouldn’t choke?
As children, we received simple Bible stories: Noah’s ark, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, David and Goliath, God giving Satan permission to destroy Job’s family. I wonder how many adults have chewed on these stories now that their mental development has matured to a point where they can ask questions. Do these images of God match the same image of God as the person who is the resemblance of God in human form in the New Testament? We learned of God’s love for the poor, sick, and outcasts through Jesus.
Chewing involves more than just hearing words from the Bible in a church service, more than reading and talking about the Bible in group study. It involves a more personal practice. We begin digesting the sustenance of life (bread) when we sit down, open the Bible up for ourselves, and think about it so it can be absorbed and become the energy driving the actions of our flesh.
Chewing is the hard work of breaking down larger and more complex teachings and is used for building us, for repairing and healing us, for nourishing us, for strengthening us, and to give us energy to live full and productive lives. We bite off pieces only as large as we can take in at one time. If we take in too much, it’s likely to be rejected.
Some people only want the milk of the gospel. They don’t have time to chew solid food. That’s okay. They can still have life drinking the surface level meanings of the stories of Jesus’ life and actions.
But to meditate upon him, to give the Spirit time to speak to you, and to ask personal questions – what is this saying to me? takes you to a completely different level of maturity. When you have broken small parts of scripture down by munching on it, and have found out how it applies to you, then the Logos/God awakens within you and Christ lives through you again.
Yes, you do fago the body of Christ in the bread and wine of holy communion. But you progone the body and blood of the Logos made flesh when you commune with God in your personal reading of the Bible, taking the time to chew it and incorporate it into your own life and actions.