Click here for the sermon video (it begins at the 28:40 mark)
I wonder if you’ve ever had this experience? You spend time with family, and you come home thinking, “Have I turned into my parents?” Like, despite your best attempts to grow up, get your own career, become your own person, you somehow wind up being just like them?
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is talking to his disciples about family resemblance. Jewish scholars call it “the parent tradition”. It’s where Jesus pulls up a piece of the family history and says something along the lines of, “Oh, you are so much like your forefathers.”
There is a line about half way down the first paragraph of our gospel reading. Jesus says, “This is the bread which came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.” He’s reminding his disciples, who are acting just like their parents, of this story about their ancestors.
The story goes that the ancestors are wandering the land in exile. Doubt and fatigue and hunger start to creep in. They became so desperate they beg God to feed them at least what they were fed when they were in captivity. So God sends them bread, which they call ‘manna’ (it’s like a wafer that tastes like honey with bits of coriander seeds in it). At first, the ancestors hoard and ration manna, because this is what they used to do, this is what they had to do when they were in captivity. But God reminds them that God’s provision is not like the provision of their captors, which ultimately brought about death. God’s provision is just and brings life. “Do not be afraid,” God says, “the manna which comes from heaven is food enough for everyone.”
Jesus reminds the disciples of this story, pulling on the wisdom (and the humour) of their ancestors, because despite the disciples’ best attempts to grow up, get their own careers, and become their own people, they have somehow wound up just like their parents. They are living under Roman rule, they are rationing food and taking prices for their fish way below market value. They are desperately trying to rely on their captors’ provision. So Jesus says to them, verse 63 of the gospel, “Listen, it’s the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” Or, to put it another way: “Remember the story of your forefathers: God’s provision is not the provision of your captors.”
Jesus goes on to paint this really provocative picture for his disciples, so much so that some of them find it just way too offensive and they leave. He tells them that no one can come to him unless it is granted by the Father. We’ve sometimes heard this phrase used to form a kind of exclusive club, where the “real Christians” are divided out and siphoned off from everyone else. But that’s not what’s going on here. Jesus is effectively remixing the Jewish parent tradition, saying, if you decide to follow me, if you really are as much like your parents as you’re acting, then, like them, you’ll have to leave captivity and the habits you picked up while under its rule.
When Jesus says, no one can come to him unless it is granted by the Father, he is saying that his provision is not the provision of the Roman Empire. He is distinguishing himself from the rulers of his day; this is Jesus being very clear that his disciples will not find him among their captors. Of course, this is an incredibly scandalous and dangerous thing to say. He is basically pitting himself against the Roman Emperor, saying that those who live under Roman rule ought to pack up their labour and their homes and follow him instead. Remember that Jesus is saying these things in a synagogue in Capernaum, a fishing village that holds considerable ties to commerce and industry. And because there are now crowds who are gathering around him, and because the people who are captured by his teaching are increasingly not only Jewish but Gentile, too, Jesus is starting to be seen as a real political and even a military threat.
His disciples are starting to get a little freaked out, so Jesus does what Jesus does best and talks about bread. He says, “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not like the bread which your ancestors ate and died [I’m not sending you back into captivity]. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
He is saying that just as God once sent manna from heaven as provision, so now God continues, upholds, honours the teaching of the ancestors and sends Jesus, the Christ. For the disciples and any who wish to follow him, Jesus is manna.
Again, to claim any kind of heavenly authority is to put oneself in competition with the rulers of the day. And many of Jesus’ disciples say, “I’m out.” But some stick around and complain and say, “This is a difficult teaching!” (Isn’t it safer to go back? Can’t you promise us at least what the Romans promise?)
The Greek word for “teaching” here is logos, the same word we see in the opening to John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the logos . . . and the logos became flesh and dwelt among us.” When the disciples say “this is a difficult teaching” what they’re really saying is, “This is logos. This here in front of us is God in heaven who has become human and is hanging out with us and saying that we can’t have both our captivity and our liberation!”
Those who follow Jesus recognize what God has provided: love so abundant, love so extravagant, that any notion of power and authority is given up for the sake of revelling, not in human exploitation, but in human flourishing. Accepting Jesus's teaching means relying on God who provides through abundant care---for all of humanity. “Do not be afraid,” I can imagine Jesus saying, “When you pattern your life after God all powerful, God almighty, who so delights in the human journey they are willing to humble themselves and become human, there is food enough for everyone.”