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John 6:35, 41-51

“Say it! No ideas but in things.”

In this line from his epic poem Patterson, William Carlos Williams sums up his poetic method. In his work on Williams, Wendell Berry observes that “Williams is speaking… of embodied ideas. He could have invoked in hi support John 1:14 (‘and the Word was made flesh and, and dwelt among us…’).”[1] The poetry of Williams, much like the Gospel of John, resists abstract thoughts (or theology) that are not bound intimately with the particular concrete things. It’s tempting to think of John as the most abstract of the gospels until the careful reader realizes the gospel of John would be incomprehensible without these particular things: flesh, light, sheep, father, and bread, to name a few. The Word of God comes to us not as an abstract idea or disembodied theology but as the particular, historical person named Jesus of Nazareth.

This passage, and the larger discourse of John 6, provides a number of avenues for sermons. I will sketch our two sermon ideas that hold in mind “no ideas but in things.” But first, a brief note on “the Jews” in the gospel of John. It is incumbent upon preachers to avoid if not denounce anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, Christians have a deeply shameful history of anti-Semitism and poor readings of the gospel of John help to fuel it. Remember that Jesus and his followers are themselves Jews. In John, “the Jews” often means something like “the religious leaders” or, in other cases, “the crowd.” In today’s reading, there are resonances and allusions to God feeding mana to the Israelites in the wilderness as observed by Gail R. O’Day.[2] “The Jews” of our story with their complaining are echoing their complaining ancestors in the wilderness during the Exodus. It is vital that at some point in your sermon that you help your congregation understand what John means when he says “the Jews”.

The first avenue is a sermon that proclaims the scandalous particularity of Jesus Christ. Jesus makes bold theological claim about himself, including in the verses the lectionary omits. He makes his very first “I am statement in the gospel of John: “I am the bread of life”. The “I am” statements of John are likely echoing the Divine Name found in Exodus 3:14. While Jesus saying “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) may be more familiar and often quoted, it is interesting that Jesus’ first “I am” statement is refers to something so ordinary and concrete, particularly for 1st century Palestinian peasants: bread (no ideas but in things!).  Jesus uses this image because this crowd has gathered around him wanting food to eat after Jesus has fed the 5000. Jesus instead says that he, himself is the food (the life!) that they are looking for. He has come from heaven to show them God and to give them life.

It is at this moment that his audience is scandalized by the particularity of Jesus. He, like bread, is known to them. They know his mother and his father.  They’ve watched him grow up. How on earth can he make this claim of coming from heaven? How bizarre would it be to discover that the former snot-nosed kid from youth group is the unique revelation of God? Yet Jesus stands firm in his claim that he himself is revealing God and carrying out the will of God in a unique way. 

His audience’s preference (and perhaps our own) is for God and God’s will to be something more abstract, something we can keep at arm’s length. God is safely quarantined to the stories of the past, so that we can have lovely thoughts and vigorous debates about God, but never have to be transformed by a living God at work in today’s world. But then God shows up in the flesh demanding our allegiance to a new way of life when all we wanted was some free bread. We as Christians have no ideas about God apart from the particular history of God’s revelation through God’s covenant with the people of Israel, the person of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. A sermon about this text would call people’s faith life back to the scandalous particularity of Jesus Christ. We cannot know God or come to God apart from Jesus, his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Another possible sermon mines the depths of image of “bread of life.” In claiming to be the bread of life, Jesus make a deep theological claim about himself: he is the life of the world. He anchors this claim in a powerful, concrete image from his culture: bread. It is nearly impossible for 21st century Western readers to conceive of the power and place of bread in the cultural imagination of Jesus’ audience. Bread is the product of human labor joined to mysterious natural processes of agricultural growth and yeast. It is common and ubiquitous. It is daily food that rich and poor alike subsist on. Bread is life. But in 21st century America, our neurosis and disordered desires have transformed bread into a health problem and an evil in the forms of carbs and gluten.

Jesus comes to us in the midst of one of our most primal desires: hunger. Hunger is part of how God made us and called it “good.” Remember, Adam and Eve had food in the Garden of Eden! In For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann observes, “In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. … It is divine love made food, made life for man.”[3] The tragedy is that we human beings rejected using God’s gifts rightly. We chose to use them selfishly for our own ends, rather than receive them as blessings with thanksgiving. In the verses leading up to today’s reading, we see a crowd formed after the feeding of the 5000. Instead of receiving the bread as a gift with thanksgiving, they come to Jesus with their insatiable appetite clamoring for more. They are like the Israelites in the wilderness after Egypt. God had fed manna to the Israelites in the wilderness to teach them their dependence on God. This lesson was met mostly with complaining and clamoring for meat!

Jesus is the bread of life for he comes to teach us again that the world is given to us as communion with God. Even food is meant to be communion with God, a place where God meets us in our primal desire. That is why Jesus gives us the sacrament of communion. For in communion, we learn to use the gifts of God’s creation rightly. Wine and bread—these wonderous things born of human labor wed to mysterious natural processes of growth, leaven, and yeast—are gifts of God’s good creation, lifted back to the Creator in an act of Eucharist, of thanksgiving. (The Greek eucharistia means “thanksgiving”) And through the sacrament of the Eucharist we encounter the risen Christ, who has given us the bread of life that is his flesh. Through the Eucharist, we receive the world as God’s gift as a means of communion with God through Christ. 

The beauty of the Eucharist is that it is an excellent example of “no ideas but in things.” In concrete acts with particular bread and wine (or juice), we come to know thanksgiving and communion with God in a direct way, rather than abstract. We’re not primarily trying to cultivate some vague feeling of gratitude. We are expressing gratitude by lifting bread and cup to God and saying, “Thank you.” Or, to put it another way, I’m sure I’m not the only pastor who has heard from children the part of worship they are most thankful for is the Eucharist. They’re hungry, and this is the part of church where God meets them where they are in a thing they understand: food. As I heard a kid once say, “I hope we do the God, bread, juice thing.” So as you proclaim Jesus as the bread of life, as the scandalous particular person who is the Word made flesh: Say it! No ideas but in things. Make sure your word has flesh on it.

[1] Wendell Berry, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford (Berkeley: Counterpoint: 2011): 48.

[2] See Gail R. O’Day. “The Gospel of John.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995): 601.

[3] Alexander Schmemann. For the Life of the World (Crestwood: St Vlandimir’s Seminary Press, 1982): 14.