Commentary by the Rev. Linnea K. Clark
In last week’s commentary, I wrote about the weird and wonderful way that homemade sourdough bread seems alive. The last time I preached the Bread of Life series, I used my sermon to wax poetic about the beautiful, amazing aliveness of bread. I brought a freshly baked loaf of my bread to church, and we used it for communion.
In that congregation, our weekly eucharistic celebration was blessed by the joyful service of six-year-old twins. They would stand next to me as I served the bread or wafers. One of them would hand each person a communion cup from a neatly organized tray and the other would collect the used cups. When it was their turn to receive communion, they would set down the tray and the basket and come running and skipping back. (May we all run and skip toward God’s table with such excitement!)
The day I brought my bread to communion, though, the twins were oddly subdued. They distributed and collected the cups, but without their usual enthusiasm. When it was time for them to receive communion, one twin ducked behind his mom, lingered for a moment, and fled back to his pew.
“Is everything okay?” I asked the twins and their mom after worship.
“Everything’s fine,” their mom said. “But E heard you say in your sermon that the bread was alive, so he didn’t want to eat it!”
Totally understandable. I don’t want to eat sentient bread, either.
Whenever I read this week’s gospel text, I think of E, who didn’t want to eat the bread that had a life of its own, and I smile. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” says the crowd in the synagogue as they disperse, leaving Jesus alone. When I remember E’s reaction to the bread, I have more sympathy for Jesus’ listeners. He has just told them that 1) there’s a bread that will give them eternal life, 2) he may be the son of Joseph and Mary but he’s also the Bread of Life that Came Down from Heaven, and 3) if they want to share in eternal life, they’re going to have to chew on his flesh and drink his blood. Words fall short; only the experience will do.
Everyone is confused (even the original twelve disciples). The synagogue empties. This wandering rabbi, who started Chapter 6 by feeding five thousand people and walking on water in the middle of a storm, is too good to be true after all. Jesus is painfully aware of the plot against him already gaining momentum in Jerusalem, and right now, his future betrayer is also one of his closest friends. “Does this offend you?” he asks the twelve. “You don’t know the half of it yet.”
When the Barn Geese met to plan this worship series, we joked that we should call it How to Kill Your Congregation in Five Weeks, Just Like Jesus. At the beginning of John 6, thousands of people surround Jesus, and they want to make him king. By the end, he has permanently lost a not-insignificant number of them. Metaphorically and literally, the bread of life is more than the crowd of followers can stomach, from the twelve baskets of leftovers to the unacceptably difficult teaching.
During these five weeks of preaching John 6, it’s easy to lose track of where we started: a miraculous feeding, an experience of God’s amazing abundance, overwhelming grace, and bewildering eternal life. Regardless of how many people Jesus loses during his subsequent teachings about the bread of life from heaven and eating flesh and blood, everyone leaves with a powerful story to tell. The thing about stories is that they short-circuit the human impulse to move directly to explanations and understanding. They have the power to root us in experience: in what we have lived rather than how we have thought.
In today’s text, no one really understands Jesus’ teaching except for Jesus. Even the twelve are at a loss. Most of the crowd chooses to respond to their discomfort by leaving, but Simon Peter speaks for the twelve when he throws up his hands and says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” We don’t understand any of this, Jesus, but we’ll keep walking with you. You satisfy our hunger, even if you feed us with discomfort.
Few of us are much good at living with discomfort, especially the kind Jesus serves. It’s easy for our churches to collect items for food pantries but controversial when we consider pressing our local governments to enact more just legislation for people experiencing poverty, food insecurity, or the legacy of racist housing policy. We’re on board with antiracist work until we come face-to-face with the racism in which we are complicit. We overlook conflicts in our families or our congregations instead of addressing them, fearful of driving people away. This isn’t an unreasonable fear. But it can demand an unreasonable cost: our calling to follow Jesus.
Jesus the Bread of Life invites us into discomfort. He asks us to join him in the weirder, deeper waters of our faith. Our feet don’t touch the bottom out here, but beneath the discomfort is trust. We’re floating. The confusion is holy as it draws us in, revealing more of who God is and who God has created us to be. Where else are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life. Trusting that Jesus has the words of eternal life isn’t always palatable, but Jesus the bread of life feeds everyone first with the experience of grace, then gives us all an opportunity to go deeper.
Our faith is a mystery. Sometimes it’s too much for us, but we don’t have to understand it all at once. We collect it in baskets full of leftovers and take some time to breathe as our heads spin. It will still be there when we’re hungry again.