A Reading from the Second Book of Samuel (18:5-9, 15, 31-33)
The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.” The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
1 Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
2 If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?
3 For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.
4 I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.
5 My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.
6 O Israel, wait for the Lord, *
for with the Lord there is mercy;
7 With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (4:25-5:2)
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (6:35, 41-51)
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. 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.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“You are what you eat.” It’s an old saying, going back at least to the 1930s, with roots extending back a long time before that. Its use experienced a resurgence during the 1960s as an informal motto for the organic food movement.
Contemporary medical research focuses more and more on the way that what we eat becomes who we are, and it highlights the major effects that our diet has on our health. Our choice of foods impacts, among other things, the health of our digestive system and our cardiovascular system, the chances that we will develop certain kinds of cancers and other diseases, and even our cognitive health.
“You are what you eat.” That slogan could very well serve as the caption for a significant part of the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John, including the portion that we heard as today’s gospel reading. In last week’s passage, continued today, Jesus’ critics hold up as an ideal food the manna that their ancestors had eaten in the wilderness. Jesus concedes that they ate that food, but then he adds bluntly: “And see where it got them? They all died.”
In contrast to the manna, Jesus speaks to them about the bread, the food, that he offers to everyone. He does so building up to the statement that he is the bread, he is the food, that God gives them so that they might live the fullness of life, both now and forever.
As those who participate in our Adult Forum already know, this chapter from John’s gospel seems to have a complex history. The later part, beginning with the last verse of today’s reading and continuing in next week’s reading, reflects the early church’s practice of and belief about the Eucharist. But the first two-thirds or so of the chapter portrays Jesus as the bread given to the world in the sense of Jesus being God’s Word, God’s revelation to the world. In the familiar threefold temptation narrative at the beginning of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 in insisting to the tempter that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The Old Testament often portrays the word of God as the food which addresses our deepest hungers. And now John portrays Jesus as that word of God who comes to feed the world.
But in order to be fed by Jesus, we have to come to know Jesus and to listen to Jesus without trying to remake him to be something that he is not. That’s not an easy thing to do. From almost the very beginning, Christians have created images of Jesus to suit their own particular wants. To use the food analogy, we have flavored him to have the taste that we want him to have, to be what we want him to be.
In the church’s early centuries, for example, some Christians tried to portray Jesus as a purely divine being, with his humanity being only a façade. The result was that he began to be seen as someone distant from the experiences and sufferings and limitations that are an integral part of our lives – not at all the fully human Jesus portrayed in the New Testament.
In the Middle Ages, Jesus came to be portrayed as someone to be feared: the all-powerful judge on whom our eternal future depends. As a result, people began to keep their distance from him and to pray to Mary and the other saints to intercede for them with Jesus so that he would not condemn them in his wrath. This was hardly a figure whom any person of good-will would want to follow or emulate.
By the nineteenth century, the pendulum, at least for many Christians in the West, had swung to the opposite extreme. Prayers and hymns and popular devotions and religious images came to portray him as the “sweet Jesus,” whose only concern was for me and making sure that my life was free from sufferings and difficulties. Church music reversed direction from picturing Jesus as the formidable judge of the medieval “Dies irae” to imagining him as a totally innocuous and sickeningly saccharine figure who would challenge no one and who asked nothing difficult of us as his followers.
If we really want to allow Jesus to be our “living bread,” revealing God to us and nourishing us with the life of God, then we need to find a way to see him, not as we want him to be, but as he is portrayed for us in the various writings of the New Testament, our standard of faith.
That’s not an easy thing to do. First of all, there are multiple portrayals of Jesus in the New Testament, not just one. Its books view him, and the first Christians’ beliefs about him, from a variety of different perspectives, highlighting first one aspect and then another. Second, while those believers in the three time-periods that I mentioned portrayed him in the culture of their time and in ways that they wanted him to be, so do we. To a certain extent, that is unavoidable. Our understanding and perspective, like that of all human beings, is necessarily colored by our experiences and our culture and our times. The approach of those who claim to interpret the Bible literally, for example, is a creation of a worldview that emerged in the early 20th century; it is not “traditional” in any genuine sense of tradition and would have been incomprehensible to many generations of believers in the past. Despite their claims of being objective, they are just as locked into a narrow perspective as anyone else is, and their claims about Jesus tend to be just as skewed as those whom they criticize.
We all need to avoid the tendency — to adapt Nietzsche’s expression — to create Jesus in our own image and likeness. N.T. Wright, in his commentary on today’s gospel reading, reflects on Jesus’ words about those who “come” to him. He notes (Twelve Months of Sundays, Year B, p 94): “To ‘come’ to Jesus means to approach Jesus himself, not some Jesus-fantasy that could be pulled into new shapes at will.”
That is why we need to return continually to the varying images of Jesus in the scriptures, to take a critical view of all attempts to simplify Jesus, and, especially, to be skeptical of a Jesus who looks and thinks and acts too much like us. That is why we need to return time and time again to our shared hearing of the word, to our shared approach to the sacraments, struggling together with the meaning and implications of our faith and humbly asking that God’s Spirit would, in Jesus’ words (John 16:13), guide us into all truth. For it is there that we will be able to feed on the true bread who comes down from heaven, the bread that feeds us for the fullness of life. For, by God’s grace, we have the opportunity to become what we eat.