Power and Bread
A sermon on John 6: 35, 41-51; 2 Sam. 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by visuals on Unsplash].
“I am the bread of life…. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jon 6: 35; 51)
Have you ever stopped to consider how strange these claims are?
Having grown up with these phrases, they never really struck me until I came across a reflection written by a young woman with an eating disorder.
Her complicated relationship with food made it nearly impossible for her to participate in the Eucharist, because if you are already struggling to put into your body food that you know is clean, and healthy, and good for you, how do you get yourself to consume the “flesh and blood” of Jesus?
It’s unnerving. It’s certainly counter-cultural. There is a sense of taboo, of violated boundaries and even indecency.
So, it’s not hard to understand why the people to whom Jesus made these declarations would be taken aback.
But what I find intriguing in today’s gospel is that the idea of consuming Jesus’s flesh is not what elicits discontented grumbling from the crowds.
Rather, they are bothered by his claim to have “come down from heaven.”
They compare this claim with what they know of his origins as the son of Joseph, and they are offended at what they see as his self-aggrandizing claim. They never get to the shock of what he is offering them, because they get too affronted by what he says he is giving up to offer it.
Of course, this is part of the irony of the scene. The people interpret Jesus’s words as an attempt to “rise above” them, when what he is actually, literally, saying is that he has “come down” to them… that he is relinquishing the power and privilege he has every right to claim, in order to nourish them with his own life.
But, after all, maybe the crowds are right that this is the most shocking part of Jesus’s declaration: the claim that he is willing to give away power freely, for the good of the other.
It’s so shocking that it’s hard to process, hard to hear it for what it really is.
It’s actually more believable that he is trying to elevate himself, than that he really intends to be our bread… that he really came to nourish us with the fullness of his own life.
It’s more believable because it’s what we humans are used to seeing: the corrupting, self-serving nature of power.
As a matter of fact, we’ve been hearing just such a story over the last 3 weeks in the readings from 2 Samuel, which have chronicled the trauma that David brought on himself and his family after his position of power corrupted a heart once fully devoted to God.
King David rose to the kingship as a great hero of the faith.
Brave and faithful to God in his encounter with the Philistine giant Goliath.
Spirit-led and talented in his composition of the psalms, and his service to King Saul.
Willing to suffer and hide in the wilderness rather than to raise his hand against God’s anointed, when King Saul turned against him and sought his life unjustly.
Laying down his dignity to dance in joy before the Lord when the ark of the covenant is returned to God’s people.
But from these heights David fell far and hard once the power and privilege of the kingship invaded his soul.
We heard the first part of the story two weeks ago, when David used his position to coerce Bathsheba to come to his bed, and then ordered his general Joab to arrange for the killing of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, when she became pregnant by David while Uriah was off fighting the war David should have been fighting.
Last week we heard the response of God’s prophet, Nathan, who confronted David with his sin.
David’s penitence spared his life, but the prophet nevertheless declared the natural consequences of the example David had set for his sons: Nathan declared that the sword would never leave David’s house, and that trouble would come against him from this own family. (2 Sam. 12:10-12).
Today’s reading gives us the final culmination of that prophecy, but it skips over the intervening events that lead to the death of his son, Absalom, events that reveal their clear connection to David’s own sin.
First, David’s oldest son, Amnon, imitates his father’s sexual coercion.
He manipulates David into commanding Tamar, Amnon’s half-sister, to attend Amnon’s feigned sick-bed, and then Amnon uses the situation to rape her.
David is grieved, but he refuses to punish Amnon (perhaps because he knows he himself is at least partly to blame).
This causes deep hatred in another of David’s sons, Absalom, who is Tamar’s full brother, and he schemes to arrange the murder of Amnon (duplicating David’s second crime).
Absalom flees for three years, but he is eventually forgiven by King David and returns to Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, at this point Absalom has no respect for justice, only for power. He steals the hearts of the people and claims the kingship of Israel for himself, forcing David to flee Jerusalem.
In his flight, David is cursed by a relative of Saul’s who proclaims that he is being punished by God because he is a murderer, and David refuses to let his attendants punish the man. He knows the charge is justified.
Finally, when David’s forces engage with Absalom’s, David stays back from the fight (just as he did back when Uriah was on the front lines while David was taking Bathsheba to his bed).
As a result, Absalom (along with 20,000 other men) is killed, despite David’s command.
The lesson we heard today highlighted David’s mourning for his son, but I believe the grief in his cries is for more than the life of one son, devastating as that loss is.
I agree with Pastor Timothy Adkins-Jones, who writes, “I can’t help but think that David’s cries for his son include a recognition of all that his sin and subsequent punishment has put his family and his country through.”
David’s use of power for his own gratification ended in his sorrow.
His use of power for self-protection ended in almost losing him his kingdom and his life.
And his use of power to try to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of his sin, made him responsible for so much more death and grief.
Pastor Adkins-Jones goes on to argue that the pain and collateral damage caused by David’s actions serve “as a grave warning for any that have power and influence. Displaying the kind of self-centeredness that David displayed earlier in his rule is quite the temptation to anyone in power.”
The crowds listening to Jesus’s claim in today’s gospel would certainly have known David’s story, but they don’t seem to have taken the warning to heart.
After all, it was this same crowd that sought to take Jesus to make him king (by force if necessary) after the miraculous feeding at the beginning of the chapter.
They recognize his power, but they don’t understand it.
They can’t comprehend that Jesus has come to use his power in ways that directly oppose David’s example.
Whereas David sought to gratify his own desires, Jesus came to sacrifice for our sakes.
Whereas David used his status to protect himself, Jesus released his status to become vulnerable.
Whereas David tried to use his power to avoid responsibility for his own sins, Jesus came to take responsibility for our lives and to free us from our sins.
That is what he is saying when he claims to be the bread of life.
He is telling us that the way he chooses to use his power over life and death is to nourish life in us: the kind of life that breaks the mold of corrupting power and models for us the way of self-giving love.
And he is inviting us to eat of this bread so that we may live, live here and now with the life of eternity, the kind of life he models for us.
Not that we are called to make our lives into bread that is eaten up by others… only Jesus can be that. But we can learn the lesson about what to do with whatever power we may have.
We can use the power of the information at our fingertips to learn how best to serve our neighbors, rather than reinforcing our own opinions and egos.
We can use the power of modern science to protect our whole community, rather than worrying about protecting our own rights.
We can use the power of our money, and our votes, and our voices, and any other influence we have to live like we truly are responsible for the good of those around us.
That is the abundance of eternal life that Jesus calls us to receive when we receive the bread of life.
Because a life that abuses power only to benefit itself ends in sorrow. But the bread of life nourishes the life of all. Thanks be to God.