On the Strength of This Food
Old Testament Lesson: 1 Kings 19:4-8 Gospel Lesson: John 6:35-51
This past week, I attended Gun Sense University, the annual leadership training event of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The event began with an opportunity for members to enjoy dinner and fellowship with their state chapters. While speaking with Jena, a Mom from California, I asked her how she had enjoyed her chapter dinner and where they had eaten. “Oh, it was good! But I was a little disappointed that we ate at a Mexican restaurant. We’re from California! We get Mexican all the time. I wish they had sent us to a Southern restaurant so we could eat grits and collards and fried chicken.”
One of the joys of attending a nationwide event like Gun Sense University is that you get to meet people from all over the country. You get to see the diversity that makes living in our county such a rich and full and rewarding experience. The reason my new friend was wishing that she could have experienced a Southern meal was that the food we eat says a lot about who we are, where we come from, and what we love and value. She wanted the richness of that experience. So what do grits and collards and fried chicken have to say about who we are as Southerners, where we come from, and what we love and value? We eat butterbeans, corn, beets, and turnips, because we or our ancestors grew up close to the land. We eat corn bread, biscuits, grits, and milk gravy because we or our ancestors sometimes grew up poor, and these foods can stretch and fill and sustain us for long periods of work. We eat collards and sweet potatoes and pumpkin and okra because many of us or our ancestors came from Africa and the Caribbean. We eat things like country ham, fried fatback, and bacon because these kinds of meats can be preserved and kept for a long time. Ad we eat things like fried chicken and barbecue because—well, duh! . . . fried chicken and barbecue!—right?
For the crowds of people whom Jesus fed on that grassy field across the sea of Galilee, bread in the wilderness held powerful symbolism and brought back centuries of corporate memory:
The memory of God providing manna from heaven, water from the rock, and quail during wilderness wanderings of Moses and the Israelites.
The memory of Elijah providing an unending source of flour and oil for the Widow of Zarephath.
God providing bread and water for Elijah when he fled to the wilderness of Beer-Sheba.
The story of feeding the crowd of 5000, takes place just before the Jewish Passover Festival. So for the crowd who gathered to see and hear Jesus and then followed him back to Capernaum, these stories symbolized God’s salvation and provision. God saved the Israelites from slavery and provided food for them as they made their way to the promised land. God saved the widow of Zarephath when the rest of Israel suffered famine. God saved Elijah when Jezebel and Ahab threatened to kill him. And they were willing to accept that maybe Jesus could be the “prophet like me” that Moses promised in his farewell sermon in Deuteronomy. But in providing for the crowd of 5000, Jesus is offering God’s saving grace and provision on a exponentially—even infinitely—larger scale.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. . . . 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.”
Just as the Passover Meal is a remembrance of God’s saving grace in the wilderness, so too is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper a celebration and remembrance of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus bore away our sins, conquered death, and released us from the power of sin and death to distort and control our lives. But this meal is much more than a remembrance. It is a partaking of the very substance of who Christ is.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, [Jesus says,] and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
When we share this bread and drink this cup, Christ abides in us. That word “abide”—meno in Greek—is one of the loveliest words in the NT. It doesn’t mean just to enter into, but to linger, to tarry, to be held continuously, to dwell deeply and lastingly. At the very center of our being Christ lives in us, not just for a moment, but for eternity. Just as bread and water from heaven strengthened Elijah for a 40-day journey in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba, so does this meal—the bread of life and the cup of salvation—shared at the Lord’s Table strengthen us for an eternity of service and praise. Through it, we become like Jesus.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, and it is on the strength of this food that we go out to share that life with others when we leave this place.
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus says, and it is on the strength of this food that we become beacons of hope for others when we leave this place.
“I am the door,” Jesus says, and it is on the strength of this food that we can open the doors of acceptance, of forgiveness, of community, and of love for others when we leave this place.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, and it is on the strength of this food that we can gather in the lost and forsaken and give them safe pasture from things that so often keep us stranded and alone: fear of judgment or rejection, shame for past mistakes or present frailties, uneasiness about fitting in.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says, and it is on the strength of this food that we can proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection until he comes again.
“I am the vine,” Jesus says, and it is on the strength of this food that we can grow and thrive and bear good fruit for the kingdom of God: fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says, and it is on the strength of this food that we can know the truth and be set free.
This meal that we are about to take together is more than a symbol of the community and history we have in Christ. It is the true drink and true food through which Christ dwells in us deeply and for eternity.
To Jesus Christ, who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests of his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.