Proper 14(B): The Cosmic Jesus
By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
This is the passage that’s turned more than one Baptist I know into Catholics. If you’re inclined toward the more literal end of scriptural interpretation, it’s a little hard to ignore Jesus’ words about his flesh actually being the bread that will save you from death. For many people, my friends included, these words translate directly to “transubstantiation.”
It’s true that the author of the Gospel of John often comes across as significantly more literal than the other Gospel writers, perhaps because the goal is to convince us that Jesus isn’t simply God-like, but one with God—the pre-existent, cosmic Logos. (See verse 45a, “They shall all be taught by God.”) But even for those of us who tend toward the metaphorical in our interpretations, this passage yields some really good stuff.
First up, there is verse 35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Bread was it in the ancient world—if you were a poor peasant with nothing else between you and starvation, you’d still eat bread. (See the widow of Zarephath, 1 Kings 17:7-16.) The symbolic centrality of bread is reflected today by phrases such as “breadwinner,” “bread and butter,” and “breadbasket;” as Christians we double down on this imagery during communion.
So despite the fraught nature of our modern Western attitudes toward carbs, the phrase “I am the bread of life” still resonates deeply with the basic longings we as humans have for relationship with something (or rather someone) that gives us sustenance. Who among us—who in our congregations—hasn’t yearned for a greater sense of meaning in our lives, for freedom from our past mistakes and healing for our wounds, for assurance that we are loved just as we are? In short, who hasn’t hungered for a relationship that feeds us?
Despite John’s affection for stating things directly, Jesus is obviously not saying he is a loaf to be sliced up and made into sandwiches; rather, the very figurativeness of Jesus’ words here reminds us that connection with God nurtures us in a more profound way than any physical manna we might eat, any worldly pleasure or status we might seek.
Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, a great introduction to the Ignatian Examen, explores this spiritual sustenance more fully. The book gets its title from a story about traumatized children in World War II refugee camps who were finally able to sleep by holding a piece of bread in their hands—a powerful reminder that they would go hungry no more. The authors’ approach to the Examen invites us to see what gives us life during the day—how God is feeding us—and to hold on to that bread through all the things that might distract or drain us.
Or, as Blaise Pascal put it (rather more dramatically): “What else does this craving…proclaim but that there was once in [humanity] a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?” This so-called “God-shaped hole” we humans try “in vain to fill with everything around [us],” only to find that nothing quite satisfies, “since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God[’s own self].” –Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)
Really, there’s a whole sermon in just that one verse!
Some of what’s there to unpack gets Jesus in trouble with the religious establishment—they hear in Jesus’ words an audacious claim to divinity (vv. 41-42), and, no doubt, blasphemous echoes of the Creator’s “I AM” statements (e.g. Exodus 3:14).
But Jesus declares it all a wash: whether God is drawing interested followers closer to the Divine through Jesus (v. 44), or they are being drawn to Jesus because they are already close to God (v. 45), the end result is the same—people are being fed spiritually in a way that gives life, beyond even death.
Plenty of early Christians had already indeed eaten of this bread and died—see 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff—so it’s likely that despite the tendency to interpret John literally, the gospel writer is speaking figuratively of life after death; or, if we want to get even more metaphorical, of avoiding spiritual death in the here and now.
Which means it’s time for a little biblical Greek. The NRSV’s “forever” in verse 51 – “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever”—is the Greek phrase eis ton aiōna, or “to/in/towards/for/among the age.” Aiōn, from whence we get the English word “eon,” is often translated as “forever” or “eternal,” but as Rob Bell so elegantly explains in his book “Love Wins,” that gives a false sense of how it was used in other Greek sources from the time. Rather than being chronological in nature, aiōn was qualitative in nature—meaning not so much time-without-end as “timeless.” The English phrase “for the ages” captures part of it—something recognized as having value long past the current moment, something that lasts.
So we might think of Jesus’ words as more along the lines of “Whoever eats this bread will live with meaning far beyond the current moment; they will live a life of eternal value instead of one full of spiritual deadness.”
A little more biblical Greek: the “flesh” Jesus asks us to eat, sarx, can literally mean body; or it can mean human nature. I love thinking about verse 51c this way: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my humanness.” It turns the traditional sense of this verse as a reference to the cross (complete with morbid overtones of cannibalism!) into an invitation to embrace Jesus as the incarnation of a God who knows our human experience intimately; a God who has taken on such experience precisely to nourish us, to help us know how deeply we are loved.
(Just to make it a biblical Greek trinity, remember that pisteuōn, so often translated as “believe,” is much closer to our word “trust.” I find that a really helpful insight for parishioners who get caught up in what they think they have to believe about Jesus rather than how to trust in Jesus.)
We’ve gone from the mystic transubstantiation of eating the literal flesh of divinity so we’ll live forever to the ordinary humanness of eating bread so we’ll remember what’s of sustaining, eternal value in the here and now. Perhaps this thoroughly metaphorical interpretation is a sign that the cosmic weight of John’s gospel is just as well understood symbolically as literally. Perhaps it’s a reminder that, just as in communion—no matter how you view it—ordinary words and symbols are God’s invitation to access the spiritual sustenance we all crave.
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves a run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 4-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.