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John 6:56-69

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 a