Commentary by the Rev. Linnea K. Clark
Text: John 6:51-58
To be clear: I grew my own sourdough starter before pandemic lockdowns made it fashionable.
My starter came into existence in early July of 2018. It was Lectionary Year B and I was getting ready to preach the Bread of Life series. Inspired by Barn Goose Victoria Larson, who started baking bread during Year B 2015, I decided that I needed to do some hands-on research. Like many sourdough bakers, Victoria was eager to evangelize me. She sent me a copy of Ken Forkish’s book Flour Water Salt Yeast, taught me how to grow a starter in my hot, un-air-conditioned kitchen, and persuaded me to keep feeding it daily, even when it started smelling like barf outside a French bakery around day four.
On the morning of day seven, I walked into the kitchen to find my bubbly, lively starter overflowing its container, spilling onto the counter with gleeful abandon. It didn’t smell like barf anymore — finally, it was ready to be bread.
Since then, I’ve been maintaining the same sourdough starter. Its name is Belle (as in Beauty and the Yeast). It is generous, abundant, and fragrant when fed with fresh flour and water. It is gracious and tolerant in the face of neglect and user error. Bread dough is tolerant, too: though baking has a reputation for being finicky, I’ve baked dough that was too wet, too dry, overproofed, and underproofed. I’ve measured flour in grams and in handfuls. Every time, I’ve been rewarded with beautiful, rustic loaves, somehow alive in a way I’d forgotten that food could be. Supermarket bread will leave me hungry in an hour. Homemade bread can get me through a long day.
There is a limit to words. I can tell you about the beautiful aliveness of bread, the experience of watching it rise, the way its crust fills the kitchen with the tiny sound of crackling as it cools. I can tell you how it fills me. I can tell you about the gospel according to bread: that life gives life, that it’s full of grace and fully embodied, that God has a perfectly imperfect body like ours and calls our bodies good. But words describing bread and God won’t feed you by themselves.
Here is the most important part of the gospel according to bread: you have to smell it, touch it, taste it, eat it to understand it fully.
In this week’s gospel text, John 6:51-58, Jesus leads his listeners deeper into the strange mystery of the bread of life. He has introduced them to endless bread and physical nourishment by feeding five thousand people with a handful of barley loaves. He has reminded them of their faith tradition: that their ancestors ate manna, another variety of the bread of life, and it helped them survive as they learned how to be the people of God’s promise. Jesus has described himself as the bread of life from heaven, intended to help people live abundantly now and forever.
Today, it gets weirder: Jesus insists that his listeners have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. They have to actually consume the bread of life. Words aren’t enough: they have to encounter it with their own bodies, just like they ate the neverending barley loaves not so long ago.
It’s understandable that Jesus’ listeners are deeply uncomfortable. First, eating flesh and drinking blood sounds like cannibalism. Second, Jewish law prohibited the consumption of blood — blood was the mysterious carrier of life, not a kosher food. Finally, Jesus’ invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood sounds like an allusion to Greco-Roman mystery cult practices of theophagy, in which worshipers would symbolically consume a god in order to acquire some of their power.
But Jesus knows that the experience will transform his listeners despite its weirdness. There is only so much you can tell someone about an experience before you just have to invite them to experience it.
Jesus the Bread of Life does not give us life by arguing theology with us. He’s happy to have a conversation, but rhetoric and argument won’t sustain us. We need the whole messy embodied experience, to τρώγω, chew, the body of Christ (John 6:54). We need to feel the steam rising from the loaf, to feel the texture under our teeth, to appreciate the flavor that changes as we chew, to feel our hunger subside and our bodies strengthen. Embodiment matters — Jesus’ and our own.
Jesus invites his listeners to a direct physical experience. We don’t need to understand in order to participate. We don’t have to make sense of eating flesh, drinking blood, and the bread of life in order to share in the life it offers. Flesh and blood may sound like the stuff of a corpse, but for Jesus, they are the essence of life: one body giving life to nourish another. The life shared by the Bread of Life grows like a flame passed from candle to candle: it does not diminish, it only grows. And when we join this chain of life, passed from candle to candle, body to body, loaf to loaf, we discover eternal life: the liberating power of God to free us from structures of oppression that threaten to constrain our lives here on earth, not just in some remote heaven on the other side of death.
One traditional interpretation of Jesus’ invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood in John 6 is the eucharist. There is no literal institution of the sacrament in John, but Jesus’ insistence that we eat his flesh and drink his blood point us toward the communion table. In our church communities, the eucharist takes many forms: COVID-safe communion kits, cups and pouring chalices, fresh-baked bread, gluten-free crackers, wafers that dissolve on your tongue. The diversity of communion practices during the pandemic have opened our imaginations to what the bread of life can taste like in an emergency: goldfish crackers, cranberry juice, champagne, cupcakes. Christians whose eucharistic theology could not accommodate remote communion learned a new way to hunger for the eucharistic bread of life. While I fasted from eucharistic celebration with my congregation for months as the pandemic surged, I discovered that the longing for communion itself was holy, a bridge between my intellect and my body.
These days, we interpret Jesus’ invitation to eat in ways his first followers might never have imagined. People with dysphagia and people who use feeding tubes for nutrition, who can’t τρώγω and swallow in the way Jesus describes, can still participate with a swab of wine or juice to the lips. Orthodox infants commune with a bit of bread dissolved in a drop of wine. Toddlers reach for wafers with curiosity. Our bodies, varied in age and ability, are all created in God’s image, and they are the lens through which we meet Christ.