The context for this week’s Gospel reading is Jesus’ claim to be the ‘Bread of Life’. Our first impulse is to hear him promise to be the food we need to make it through our day. We assume Jesus is talking about our daily needs, the basics of life. That’s what a lot of people expect from God. We practice religion so we can stay healthy, wealthy and wise. We read our bibles and pray and go to Church and give so God will keep us in the black and on our feet and emotionally stable.
Scholars of religion have a term for that kind of religious practice: magical thinking.
Magic is using supernatural forces to change things in the world. Magical religion treats God essentially like a vending machine, where faith is the dollar. We go through our religious rituals so that God will do things in our world – from little things like less traffic when we’re running late to big things like healing relationships and bodies.
That’s magical thinking. We’re not the first to think that way about God, but Jesus wants us to know that he’s not a magical Messiah. He didn’t come to change a bunch of stuff in the world around us, to be our wish-granter on command.
In John 6, Jesus has just done a magic trick – he fed 5,000 people using only a few loaves of bread and some fish. Then, that night, he sent his disciples across the sea of Galilee and he walked on water. Two amazing signs of Jesus’ power. The crowd couldn’t get enough, so they crossed the sea and found Jesus on the other side. Guess what they wanted?
More food. More magic tricks. They even try to manipulate Jesus with religion – pointing out that when Moses led people into the desert, he gave them bread. It’s easy to picture them gesturing to the wilderness around them and shrugging: How ‘bout it, Jesus? Aren’t you at least going to imitate Moses? Make with the magic bread!
Their demand reveals that they don’t actually get Jesus at all. They want a messiah who’s going to do magic tricks for them. Give them bread. Heal them when they’re hurt. And, eventually, go to Rome and overthrow their oppressors. They want someone who’s going to do what they can’t. A supernatural savior.
Jesus warns them they’re asking for the wrong thing, that the true bread of God is Jesus himself. The Greek words at play here are helpful: the crowd is talking about physical food – the stuff that sustains our biological life. The Greek word Jesus should be using if he were talking about body fuel is bios – it’s the word that refers to the functioning of our body (and where we get our word ‘biology’). But the word Jesus keeps using is zoe. It’s a word that has a deeper and broader meaning. It’s the essence of life itself. It’s what Red means in the Shawshank Redemption when he says we either get busy living or get busy dying. It’s more than just breathing, eating, sleeping. It’s how we press into the purpose for which we were created, when we’re in our sweet spot, when our life is full to the point of overflowing. That is zoe life.
Jesus points out that they’re focused on bios life, when he’s trying to invite them into zoe life. But in order to do so, they must feast on the Bread of Zoe Life, which is Jesus himself. If you’re a little confused, don’t worry. So is the crowd. But rather than clarify, Jesus doubles down, which is where our Gospel text picks up. Jesus claims they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Why would he be so difficult? This rubs us the wrong way. We want to say, “Jesus, whoa! If you keep talking like this, people are going to leave! You should make it easy for them to stick around! Maybe pass out one more round of bread?”
But here’s what Jesus knows: the path he’s walking isn’t going to the mountain top. It doesn’t end with him kicking out Rome and setting up his throne in Jerusalem. That’s what the crowd wants. That’s what everyone expects from a magic trick messiah. But Jesus’ road ends in a Cross. (In John’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to the Cross as the hour of his glory.) And if you’re only following him for the magic tricks, you’re never going to make it to a Cross. If you want a genie God, you’re going to bail sooner or later. So Jesus decides it might as well be now. He says, “Does this offend you? Guess what? It’s only going to get worse from here.”
That’s why he talks about eating his flesh, drinking his blood. On this side of the Cross, we recognize that Jesus is pointing to the Communion Meal, when we eat bread as his body and drink wine as his blood. The Communion meal is how we join with Jesus in his death, that we might also share in his new life.
Not bios life, but zoe life. We confess that by following Jesus in his death, he makes us new. In other words, the Cross isn’t so much about Jesus fixing all the stuff outside our lives. It’s about healing what’s dying in us. Jesus doesn’t change our situations. Jesus changes us so we can change our circumstances.
If you’re only following God for the bios life stuff – a better job, a stable family, peace of mind – if what you really want from God is to fix all your problems, you’re not going to like the God who insists you pick up your Cross and follow him. Like the crowds, you’ll leave sooner or later.
On the other hand, maybe you find yourself in the company of the Twelve (who are, let’s note, just as confused as the crowd). Despite all the confusion faith can bring, you’ve found something beautiful and true and deeper than understanding in the person of Jesus. Maybe you’re ready to do the hard work of facing down your shadow self, of overcoming the lies we all believe about ourselves so your true self, the one hidden in God with Christ, can be known. That life, that self is available, but we have to feast on Jesus, to remain connected to him, united with him in death so that we can share in his zoe life.