Sermon text: John 6: 51-58
A six-inch club sub from Sheetz on white bread with provolone cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, black olives, and pickles. For decades that has been my go-to fast food meal when I am feeling lazy or pinched for time and don’t want to cook. I’ve eaten dozens and dozens of these sandwiches in my life. In fact, I’ve probably added at least five pounds to my waistline and shortened my lifespan by an untold number of years because of it. When I’ve got this sub in my hands it just disappears. Vanishes. It’s easy for me to eat it quickly, without thinking. That’s the problem with fast food—not only is it ready in an instant, but it can also be eaten in the blink on an eye. Our highly refined foods melt in our mouths.
But you know what doesn’t melt in your mouth? Barley bread. That’s a chewy, heavy bread. You need buckets of water to wash that down. You know what REALLY doesn’t melt in your mouth? Dried fish. Dried fish makes beef jerky look tender. Eating dried fish will give you a jaw of steel. These are the foods Jesus multiplied at the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and they are anything but fast food. They are foods that take time and effort to make. They are foods that take time and effort to consume.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is still talking about the meaning of his miracle of multiplication. The Jewish leaders and scholars in the crowd are trying to make sense of Jesus’ words, and there’s a lot of references to eating. Eight times eating is mentioned in our seven verses of text. However, our translation today is rather plain. In fact, the two Greek words that are translated as “eating” have some richer meaning. One word denotes eating or feeding and the other denotes chewing or gnawing.
Take a minute to hear a more descriptive translation:
51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you feed on the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;
54 he who gnaws my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
56 He who chews my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who chews on me will live because of me.
58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who gnaws this bread will live forever.”
The descriptive gap between eat and gnaw or chew is immense. We are truly called to chew on the Body of Christ. I’m reminded of all the giant turkey legs I’ve gnawed on at Renaissance Faires, or chicken wings I’ve scraped clean with my teeth trying to pick the bones clean. And while this imagery is certainly unnerving and cannibalistic, there is something to be said about the idea that Jesus isn’t a Happy Meal that we can down in four bites. He is a meal that takes time and intention to consume. We need to chew, gnaw, nibble, and munch if we are to truly feed on the Bread of Life.
As I was preparing this week I came across an interesting Biblical commentary from a scholar named Robert Hoch, a professor who currently teachings in Sheffield, England. I normally don’t do this, but I want to share two paragraphs of his commentary, verbatim, because I feel they offer unique insight from his lived experience on chewing that I could never replicate. Hoch writes:
“John moves on from the dried fish of John 6:1-11 to focus on Jesus as the bread, but I haven’t. I’m still there with dry fish. As a Native kid in Alaska, that was our candy, and the first thing you need to know is that you don’t “eat” dried fish. Saying that you “eat” dried fish misses a lot of what counts as its physicality. It’s tasty and nutritious, of course, and it’s a convenient source of protein if you’re out hunting or fishing. But a big part of the satisfaction is the jaw-work. You pull on it, you use your molars to grip it, you chew it, you suck its sweet oil from its red flesh, you yank and tug the skin from the flesh as if it were a piece of duct tape. And this says nothing about the process of preparing fish for drying, which of course, must first of all be caught, and then gutted and filleted into strips. Then there’s cutting down alder branches, hanging the flesh to dry in the smokehouse … it is also, for Native people, the way our ancestors lived through the winter.
It brings to mind the work of an Athabascan woman in the interior of Alaska. She makes parkas and jackets and boots from salmon skin. So, in addition to the salmon being a source of nourishment (she uses all of the salmon, except for the guts), she also produces garments made of salmon skin. Her art grows from something like meditation or maybe what the narrator in John means by “abiding” or “remaining” in relationship with Christ through the totality of life, even your ancestor’s life.[i]”
I’ll be honest, I’ve never looked at the Bread of Life/Holy Communion in this way. Sure, I view it as the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, but our wafers, or in the best of times, our fresh baked bread, just seems so sterile and refined compared to the chewy, gnawing nature of Jesus’ words. Here we’re invited to not just feed and ingest, but to abide , to take our time.
I think about the Athabascan woman making clothing from the cured salmon skin. I didn’t even know this was a thing before reading Hoch’s words. A quick Google search revealed that I have seen this style of clothing in photographs, perhaps even in the Smithsonian, but I never knew it was salmon skin. How wonderful is it to think that the very thing that sustains and nourishes these people during the winter can also be a source of protection and comfort? Isn’t that what Jesus invites us to do—eat, chew, be nourished, abide? Is this what Paul means in Romans when we are to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ? What would it look like for us not just to eat Jesus in communion but to wear him as a garment?
If we are to take anything with us today, I pray that we see the intentional, all encompassing, slowly consumed nature of the gifts of Jesus’ flesh, blood, and presence. This is the meal and gift of everlasting life, the sustenance of a life lived in the Holy Spirit, a life set a part from the normal patterns of our natural existence. When this meal nourishes us and equips us, what glimpses of everlasting life do we experience? How do we see ourselves wrapped in the abiding love of the Almighty like a warm salmon skin parka? These provisions—this everlasting life—is what Jesus came on earth to give us…so let us take this invitation to feed, chew, and abide. AMEN
[i] Robert Hoch, Commentary on John 6:51-51, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-20-2/commentary-on-john-651-58-5.