When we talk about Jesus being the bread of heaven, the metaphor can easily be misinterpreted as soft and nice, a phrase suitable for shiny church banners decorated with loaves and stalks of wheat.
When we delve into today’s text, however, we hear Jesus use the phrase in a gruesome, unrelenting way. His words continue to remind us that the saving grace God offers us so freely was purchased on the cross at a very high price. Jesus’ metaphor is an antidote to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” which is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
When Jesus called himself the bread of heaven, bread was very much on the minds of the crowds following him. A day earlier, he had used five barley loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people all they wanted. The fragments of leftovers filled 12 baskets at the end of this vast picnic, and the people sought him, wanting more.
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you,” Jesus told them. This triggered a conversation that eventually led Jesus to startle them: To find eternal life, the people must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Jesus of course was symbolically using “eating” to stand for belief in his work to come on the cross. The idea that the cross can save us would have to be swallowed whole by those who seek salvation. The metaphor was too difficult, however—it smelled of cannibalism.
The conflict became even worse as Jesus switched verbs for what is usually translated as “eat” in English. As the Jewish leaders began to question what Jesus said, he began to use a verb that had connotations of “chewing” or “feeding on” his body, creating imagery akin to a wild animal working on its kill. (This change in verbs happens in verse 54.)
Later, his disappointed disciples told Jesus, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
Even today, we can struggle with the connection Jesus was making between bread and body, a connection now best expressed as the link between communion and Christ’s crucifixion. His unrelenting metaphor draws us into the deepest mysteries surrounding how we are saved.
Some preachers will try to tell you that how we are saved by the cross is easy to understand, usually pointing to a model known as “penal substitutionary atonement.” This is the notion that God the Father simply vented his wrath on God the Son, rather than on us. I’m not very comfortable with this easy answer, however, particularly when I consider the varying explanations found in Scripture.
To me, the workings of the cross are mysteries to be embraced and then wrestled with all of our lives, accepting that we will not fully comprehend how God has saved us until we stand before our Savior in the resurrection. We are to chew on the idea, employing discipleship and in particular, the taking of communion, to meditate on this supreme event in history.
Being raised in a different denomination, one where communion was not treated as the gateway to mystery, my understanding took awhile to develop. Let me share some stories of moments that enlightened me.
While serving as an associate pastor in Lexington, Ky., I helped with communion on a regular basis. One Sunday, I carried the juice, trailing another pastor who offered the bread as people lined up at the prayer rail.
A lady I recognized was there with twin 4-year-old granddaughters who apparently were new to church. She had dressed them in identical purple velvet dresses, the kind of dresses grandmothers tend to pick out for their granddaughters when showing them off to friends for the first time.
When the pastor ahead of me offered them the bread, saying, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” they looked startled and a bit perplexed. They could see it was bread, though, and took it.
And then I came along with cups of a red liquid, saying, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Twin Girl Number 1 took one step back; Twin Girl Number 2 formed a perfect “O” with her mouth as she inhaled to scream.
I quickly dropped to my knees, saying, “No, no, it’s okay, it’s just grape juice. See?” Number 2 didn’t scream, but both girls maintained their looks of horror as they walked away. (I’ve since learned an alternate liturgy to use where children are involved.)
I was reminded: This is powerful stuff, not to be taken lightly. It was too much for these little girls, but as adults, should our response be at least a little more like theirs? After all, communion should make us very mindful of a broken, bleeding body and our dependence on that suffering.
I also took communion to our shut-ins in Kentucky, and had two thought-provoking experiences in those settings.
One came very early in my ministry. I had been an associate pastor in Kentucky for only a few weeks when it was suggested that I take communion to some of our church members in nursing homes. I dutifully set out on my mission, my portable communion kit loaded with juice, thimble-sized cups, tiny squares of bread and a miniature plate.
All went smoothly until I reached one elderly lady whose mind had been described to me as “pretty far gone.” She was sitting up in her wheelchair, her head slumped to her chest. I spoke to her. No response. I set communion up on a table in front of her. No response.
I went through the words of a simple liturgy, one employing words familiar to anyone raised Methodist. I then touched the bread and juice to her lips, which she slowly tried to taste with her tongue.
I packed up my kit, thinking, “Well, I guess that was a waste of time.”
Just as I turned to leave, her hand shot out, grabbing my forearm with surprising strength. I jumped like I had been bitten.
She looked up at me and slowly said three clear words: “I appreciate this.” She then slumped back into her previous position and remained unresponsive.
My other key communion experience happened late in my ministry in Kentucky. I took communion to Arthur and Edna, a husband and wife, both suffering from dementia. Edna had contracted it first; Arthur developed his disorder about a year later but declined more quickly.
By the time of my last visit, the two shared a nursing home room but didn’t know each other’s names, sleeping on separate mats. I went to Edna’s mat first. She seemed uninterested in my presence until I brought out the same little kit with juice cups and bread plate. She took communion eagerly.
When I went to Arthur’s mat, Edna sat up, her eyes following everything. Arthur also clearly wanted communion. I went through the brief liturgy again, giving him the juice and bread.
As I did so, I heard Edna’s voice saying softly, again and again, “Hallelujah. Hallelujah.” She was still saying it when I left in tears.
God’s grace, particularly as it is expressed in the bread-body and juice-blood of communion, has the power to sustain us in all the phases of our lives. Take what is offered so freely whenever you can, knowing God’s grace will remain with you even when all else of value has fled.