We’re continuing today our series of sermons on Jesus as the Bread of Life. We examined the Eucharist as provision our first week, and as strengthening our second week, next week we’ll look at the Eucharist as covenant, and today we’re considering the Eucharist as Wisdom. Wisdom is a fascinating concept in Scripture for many reasons, but one of them is that Wisdom gets consistently personified. If you look at the little passage we have today from Proverbs, on the front of your insert, you can see that personification at work. Lady Wisdom is calling out, trying to invite as many people as possible to her banquet. Hebrew literature comes very close at times to identifying this woman Wisdom with God, and then in turn, once or twice in the New Testament Jesus comes close to identifying himself with this figure of Wisdom.
When Wisdom is invoked, then, we’re not merely thinking about human intelligence. We’re thinking about something pretty lofty, some kind of expression of God’s being. Proverbs says that Wisdom was present before the world began, for example, that she was alongside God, acting as a “master worker” during creation. In many of these passages Wisdom is up on the divine level, participating in the kinds of things people naturally associate with God: creating, purposing, setting the universe in order.
But take a look at what Lady Wisdom is doing in this reading: She’s throwing a dinner party. The preparations were extensive, it says, and she has been directly involved in all of them: “She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.” And now Lady Wisdom is issuing invitations: she sends out servant girls, as a dignitary would, but then she decides to make it more personal. She herself goes out into the town and calls, “Turn in here! Eat of my bread and drink of my wine! Lay aside immaturity and live!”
As lofty and divine as Wisdom is, then, the text suddenly brings us to a very concrete level: somehow if you want to encounter the expression of this lofty and divine thing, you do it at a meal. You do it with the grilled meat and the bread and wine she has prepared. Something cosmic suddenly becomes something very ordinary and physical. So wisdom is offering a feast that she has prepared, that has something to do with how we live, and she’s offering it with an urgency that tells us it’s very important. Let’s compare that picture, now, to what Jesus is doing in the Gospel. Where is the Wisdom and the feast here?
John tells us in Chapter 6 that the more Jesus unpacks what he is getting at when he talks about himself as the Bread of Life, the more angry and upset people get with him. We’ll see that even more next week, but we begin to see it now. What is Jesus proclaiming, that is so hard for people to hear? Well, he says, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, whoever eats me will live because of me.” If you’ve heard these words frequently, you may have become numbed to them, so that they just sound kind of generally religious. But if this text is less familiar, as it is to many people, you will immediately see how shocking it is. "Eat" him? What on earth can he possibly be talking about? To borrow a line from the old British comedy team Flanders and Swann, “We don’t eat people. Eating people is wrong.”
However, eating him is what Jesus says we must do. And frankly, he needs an image that shocking to make his point. To understand why, maybe we can look at the next sentence, where Jesus makes a contrast. He says he is “the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate and they died." He is bread, but he contrasts that with what he calls “the bread your ancestors ate and died.”
First, let’s take the kind of bread he is. What does he say happens if we feed on him? Well, just trace the verbs down the passage. If you eat him, you "live," you "have life," you "abide in" him, you "live because of" him. Second, then let’s make the contrast. What do we eat instead of him and die? Instead of Jesus’ being, what instead do people "live because of"? What instead do we "abide in"? If you answer those questions, you’ll know what “the bread your ancestors ate and died” is for you, and then you’ll be on the way to understanding how different it is to eat the Bread of Life. You’ll have the answer to what your substitutes for the bread of life are, that you’re trying to live because of, or trying to abide in.
The more obvious substitutes are the things most people default to going after: success, personal balance, a fulfilling romance, a happy family. Not bad things, but not the Bread of Life. Or more and more in our disposable society, we also try to abide in a succession of new pieces of know-how. Thing after thing seems to promise that if we just have it we’ll become a new person: our FitBit, say, or that book everyone is reading on The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. We can skim from one of those promises to another for years, but we won’t ever become the person they made us half-think we would when we bought them.
There are also wilier imitations of the bread that Jesus gives, ones that have a veneer of spirituality: trying to live a moral life, or getting really good at mediation or yoga, or participating in a religious institution. Or some of us would have to describe a mix of several; we might have to say “What I do is try to abide in my family while being fed by my church involvement and living for my career.” And of course some of us haven’t asked the question. We’re not encouraged in this society to even think about life on that level; we mostly just react to the next thing.
All of those alternatives to the Bread of Life work, in a way, sort of; they’re not junk food. But none of them actually feed the thing that Jesus is talking about, or give us what he gives. They only enhance ordinary life, which is not what Jesus is talking about. And that's why he says (why in order to tell the truth he has to say), that challenging sentence "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." He's not talking about nourishing ourselves with various things that may enhance ordinary life, he’s talking about something different. He’s trying to shock us into imagining a qualitatively different life, one that requires God both to spring up in the first place, and to stay alive. The human spirit, the central and deepest reality that lies in each of us, isn't made to feed on the life-changing magic of tidying up or career or church. It isn’t made to flit from one consumer promise to another. That part of us is made to be filled with God, to feed on him, and to stay right there in him, to abide, drinking deeply of his very being, no matter what happens, no matter what sufferings we go through, no matter what successes come to us, starting now and lasting for all eternity.
If you’re trying to address that aspect of the way human beings are designed, anything other than God is inadequate. This is why Jesus' offering of himself as the Bread of Life is the clincher. Back in the Proverbs reading, Wisdom was feeding us something wholesome and nourishing, yes. She worked so hard on that superb banquet; surely it was a good thing. And yes, it was, but she wasn’t feeding us herself. She couldn’t, even if she wanted to, because she was a purely spiritual concept, a lofty image of God.
But Jesus isn’t. He isn’t purely spiritual. He is God in the flesh. He is human and divine. He is the place where our finite touches the divine infinite. Nobody but him in history has claimed that, and that’s why nobody but him in history has said or can say “eat my flesh and drink my blood and just as I live because of God the Father, you will live because of me.” Jesus is the locus where the intimacy with God we’re made for can actually happen. He is the meeting point. He can feed us God -- because he is us, and he is God.
And so that’s what he does. That’s how he fulfills the hints and the promises Lady Wisdom was dropping in our Proverbs reading. That’s how this abstract divine wisdom can, not just be symbolized by a banquet, but become a banquet right in front of us, in the bread and wine that are Jesus himself. It’s that immediate. It’s that physical. It’s that specific. So it’s no wonder, as shocking as they are, that Jesus has no choice but to use these metaphors of eating, drinking, consuming him. Nothing else is intimate enough to convey what he’s talking about. We can’t eat spirit, but we can eat flesh. We can’t eat wisdom, but we can eat bread. But if wisdom becomes flesh, if God becomes bread, we can eat him and live because of him. You see how it works? Isn’t Jesus brilliant? And can you believe he does it every week?