By Paul Koch –
Our lives are full of words. They are as constant as the air we breathe and as persistent as the steps we take. Words shape our thoughts and fashion our dreams. They enable us to engage the world in meaningful and powerful ways. Now words can be tender and comforting but they can also be harsh and painful. Sometimes the toughness of the words comes from the situation in which they are spoken. Have you ever been caught doing something you knew was wrong? Ever had that moment when you were confronted with the truth about something you did that you knew you shouldn’t have done? The words spoken to you don’t have to go into detail about your actions, they don’t have to speak harshly about ramifications. They can simply allude to the reality that someone else knows what you did, and those words can make us shrink and hide.
However, our society has developed a sharp reaction to words that hurt or make us feel bad. Political correctness and the label of “hate speech” have caused many to hesitate in their speaking. But the reality is not all hard words are bad words. In fact, some tough words are a necessity if we are to learn and grow. Like telling our children “no” when they want cake for lunch or watch TV all night long. Tough words can be spoken in love for our benefit, to guide and strengthen us. We can even learn to appreciate hard words when they are words of honest critique from someone we respect and trust.
But perhaps the most profound and difficult words we hear, words that don’t just catch us in the act or make us conscientious of our mistakes, are the words that are spoken which actually redefine how we see ourselves and the world. This is a special class of speech, I think, where the words spoken can change our reality. 17 years ago yesterday, Cindy and I were joined in holy matrimony. But it was the word she spoke to me before the “I Do” that changed my life. It was the moment when I opened the ring box and got down on one knee and asked her to be my bride. When she said “yes,” she changed my world. But this type of speech isn’t always joyful, sometimes it is really hard. Sometimes the words spoken into our ears cause us to question everything we know. Such, I believe, are the words of Christ in John chapter 6.
In this chapter we hear what has been called the Bread of Life discourse. You see, our Lord’s popularity has been growing. He has just fed over 5000 people with just five barley loaves and two fish. And when they gathered up the fragments left over there were 12 baskets full. The people were amazed saying, “This indeed is the Prophet who is to come into the world!” They even desired to make him their king right then and there. And if that wasn’t enough, the very same night as his disciples were making their way across the sea to Capernaum, Jesus came to them because they were struggling in a storm. But he came walking on the water. Due to all of this, the crowd continues to grow. They seek him out and follows where he goes. Everything seems to be going really well, that is, until the Bread of Life discourse.
He begins to direct all his followers to one focused reality; he alone is the bread of life. He says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Beyond the manna given in the desert, greater than Moses and all the patriarchs of the faithful is Christ alone. Now the crowd begins to grumble when they hear his lofty claims of being the bread that has come down out of heaven. I mean, sure, they like it when he is feeding the hungry and walking on water and healing the sick, but he seems to be asserting that he is something more – that life itself rests in him alone.
When our Lord hears their complaints he doesn’t begin to pull it back. He doesn’t find another metaphor to express himself or apologize because his words are too difficult to hear. No, he goes full steam ahead, making it very clear that he is the only source of life and salvation. And he doesn’t mean some personal version of him, some appropriation that we are comfortable with. No, he means him – in his flesh and blood. He means the one born of Mary who lived, died and rose for our salvation. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you unless you eat the flesh of the Son and Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Now this really begins to rile them up. In order to live, to possess eternal life, you must consume the Son of God. You must eat his flesh and drink his blood. At this point, more and more of those followers who loved him for his miracles began to turn aside. You see, Jesus isn’t something added to life to make it more complete. He isn’t the icing on the cake. There is Jesus and then there is everything else. He alone is the way, the truth and life. The crowd begins to leave because these words attack everything else that we have. Everything else that we want to hold on to is reduced to nothing by his hard words.
We would agree in our flesh that we cannot live on a diet of brokenness and shame and expect to enter into eternal life. We see clearly the sin that has entangled the world in which we live, and we strive to follow our Lord, and so we rise above the squalor. We know that we must improve our diet if we are to enter into eternal life. And so we work diligently to do just that, though we may not want to, we add some healthy options. We seek to do good things: to serve others and try to be better parents and honorable children and faithful spouses. We can become quite proud of our new diets. We feel better, healthier, able to live longer.
But our Lord will not allow us to choose our own meal plan. “The flesh,” he says, “is no help at all.” It is only the words of Christ that are spirit and life. Salvation does not rest in our good deeds, hope is not found in our effort, life is absent in us. The Bread of Life discourse not only attacks our worst sins but even our best works. These are hard words because they redefine our existence. If we are to live, if we are to enter eternal life then there is only one diet to follow. We must feed upon the body and blood of Christ. He alone is the beginning and the end, he is our hope, he is our comfort, he is our confidence.
His followers quickly abandon him leaving the 12 apostles still hanging on. And to them Jesus says, “Do you want to go away as well?” We hear the voice of faith speaking clearly in response, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
And so our Lord speaks his hard words even now. He speaks of life and salvation in him alone. Your flesh is of no help at all; to live you must feed upon the life giving words of Christ. And so the question is still asked of his 12. The question is still standing before the church. Do you want to go away, as well? Do you want to make your own meal plan? And by faith we declare, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” And so the hard words empty us of our own pride and fill us with the gifts of Christ. And to his faithful Christ says, “Come and eat, take and drink, for in me alone you now live forever.”