In a recent study included in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children were shown to overwhelmingly prefer the taste of food that comes in McDonald’s wrappers. In the study, preschool children sampled identical foods in packaging from McDonald’s and in matched but unbranded packaging. The children were then asked if the food tasted the same or if one tasted better. The unmarked foods lost the taste test every time. Even apple juice, carrots, and milk tasted better to the kids when taken from the familiar wrappings of the Golden Arches. One physician from Yale’s School of Medicine remarked, “This study demonstrates…that advertising literally brainwashes young children into a baseless preference for certain food products. Children, it seems, literally do judge a food by its cover. And they prefer the cover they know.”
“Judging a food by its cover.” Our culture is proficient in teaching our children to think of themselves as consumers. But we should ask ourselves, “What exactly are we consuming?” Not just products, it seems, but brands themselves. It’s what’s on the outside – the wrapper – that sells, more so than what’s on the inside. It would seem that we’re often more interested in the external wrapper rather than true sustenance.
John 6 begins with the feeding of the 5,000. V2 indicates that the crowd followed him because he was healing the sick – not out of a deep faith commitment, the “trusting obedience” we’ve been talking about. But Jesus performs a miracle in their sight – he feeds the crowd with only five loaves of bread and two small fish. And the people declare in v14, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world,” alluding to the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18.
But the next verse is revealing. V15, Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. Scholars have speculated that these 5,000 men didn’t come out into the wilderness to hear Jesus make a speech. No, they came to crown Jesus as king, to begin a new revolt against Roman occupation. His healing of the sick already caught their attention. Now that he’s fed the masses of Israel, his approval rating soars into the stratosphere.
But Jesus slips away from them. Jesus will indeed be crowned king, but not this way. He will reject the wrapper that the crowd seeks to envelope him in – that of the military zealot marching to Jerusalem – opting instead to sacrifice himself as the Passover Lamb, given for the sins of the world.
The feeding of the 5,000 is an entrée to one of Christ’s great teachings. But as the disciples themselves will attest, it is a hard saying, difficult to accept.
Read John 6:25-29
In the middle of John 6, we can read about Jesus walking on water. We don’t have time to work through that together this morning, but when the crowd sees Jesus with his disciples the next day, they’re curious as to how he got there. He responds by saying, “You’re looking for me because I fed you, but you should be looking for the food that endures, the sustenance of eternal life.” And the crowd is intrigued by this, so Jesus tells them, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” And this is how the crowd responds:
Read John 6:30-34
The crowd asks a question that is indicative of their true motive. “What miraculous sign will you give us?” This is a strange question for people who just witnessed a miracle the day before. They’re saying, “Moses gave us manna. What will you do?” Not only are they diminishing the present by alluding to the past – Jesus just gave them their last meal! – but this also proves that they’re only interested in Jesus because of what he can provide for them. They see Jesus as merely a service provider, but his true identity is so much more.
Jesus corrects them – “It was actually my Father who gave you manna, not Moses,” – and redirects the crowd back to himself. He says in v33, For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. True manna is found in God’s Messiah, the One sent from the Father to give life. And as we’ve seen already, in John’s Gospel, “life” always means “eternal life.”
Just as the Samaritan woman desired Christ’s offer of living water, so too does the crowd express their interest in the kind of bread Jesus is offering. V34, “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”
Read John 6:35, 40-42
We’ve been saying it for several weeks now: in John’s Gospel, there are no parables. Instead, Jesus offers himself as the “living parable.” Jesus tells the crowd that he is the bread of life, sent from heaven like true manna for the world. To eat of this bread is to have eternal life. And the crowd begins to question this teaching. They say, “Wait a minute. This is Joseph and Mary’s boy. How can he claim that he came from heaven?” And things begin to turn here.
Read John 6:47-52
Jesus pushes the metaphor further. He notes that the miracle of manna in Exodus 16 was only a sign; those who ate of it still hungered, and eventually they died. But Jesus offers his own flesh as “new manna” for a new covenant. He offers eternal sustenance to those who would eat his flesh.
But at this, the Jews began to argue sharply (v52). How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Try and hear those words for the first time. It sounds cannibalistic, doesn’t it? But Jesus isn’t done yet with this teaching.
Read John 6:53-60, 66
Not only does Jesus teach his followers to eat his flesh, but he adds another element: drink my blood. At this point, the crowd probably realizes that no miraculous feeding is forthcoming. They’re left with a puzzling word from Jesus. And one of the most tragic verses in the Scriptures is v66, From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
Two thousand years of Christian tradition conditions us to read this as a communion teaching. And there are certainly some direct connections to our observance of communion, which will take place in just a moment. But this teaching is about so much more than just observance. To eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood is about consuming Jesus, about finding true sustenance in our relationship with him. As we noted several weeks ago, when we talk about biblical faith, we’re talking about “trusting obedience.” And our communion observance is a declaration that we live in trusting obedience to Jesus. It is a declaration of his lordship, not merely over these next few moments, but over our entire lives.
I appreciate these reflections from biblical scholar David Stern:
“To eat the flesh of the Son of Man is to absorb his entire way of being and living. Likewise, to drink his blood is to absorb his very life, since ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood,’ (Lev. 17:11).”
We often look to our kings and rulers to provide bread for us. Sure, we might counter by talking about the importance of accountability and responsibility, that we have a responsibility to work and provide for our loved ones as well as ourselves. But we also look to those “in charge” to enact policies that yield bread – that ensure greater prosperity, provision, and sustenance. We want our kings to provide us with bread, or at least better opportunities to provide it for ourselves.
And yet Jesus isn’t King because he provides bread for us. In fact, when the crowd comes back the next day demanding yet another miraculous sign, he refuses. No, in the meal we are about to observe, we declare Jesus as King because he is the one who became bread for us. And to Jesus, this seems to be an important distinction.
Today, we eat his flesh and drink his blood. Because He is the bread of life.
May we dare to be consumers of Jesus. Sometimes I think we’d rather be consumers of Christian culture rather than consumers of Christ. 20 years ago, it was cross necklaces and W.W.J.D. bracelets; today it’s WAAY-FM and Jesus Calling. Which is all well and good, but I wonder: what would happen if you stripped all of that away? Would we even know what it means to be a Christian if you threw away those wrappers? If we didn’t have a youth group, or if Chris Tomlin had never written a single song, or if this building didn’t exist, would we still know what it means to be a Christian?
Are we consumers of Christian culture? Or of Christ?
If you’ve ever been in my office, you know that I have a lot of books. So I’m the world’s worst at this. I spend a lot of time reading words about Jesus – words from some of my favorite authors like N.T. Wright or Tim Keller or Andy Crouch. But if I’m not careful, I’ll spend more time reading words about Jesus (written by someone else) than reading words by Jesus, words directly from the Lord himself. I need the reminder that Simon Peter provides here in John 6:68, You have the words of eternal life.
Are we consumers of the Christian brand? Or are we consuming Christ himself?
Today, may His words call us to recognize the all-sufficient nature of Christ alone. He has become bread and drink for us. And he is all we truly need.