John 6:35, 41-51: Fried Chicken & the Bread of Life

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the sone of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me, and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written by the prophets,

‘And they shall all be taught by God.’

Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Fried Chicken & the Bread of Life

There are a few things that just about every Southerner, of which I am one, holds sacred. The first is food. We’re food folk. Fried food. Bacon-fat food. Greens and breads and cakes you can’t imagine. The second, perhaps equally important, is kinfolk. Who you come from matters, your house, your people, your name, they say something about you—or at least they’re supposed to.

Before we begin, grant me, if you would, a digression (or two): 

When I was a little girl I spent a lot of time on my grandfather’s farm in small town Due West, South Carolina. Now Due West has a small college, a main street and two stop signs. My grandfather was a bit of a personality in the town—not only did he own one of hte larger cattle farms, he owned the town hardware store. The store was a community hub and just about everyone in town knew just about everything about every member of our family. Every Sunday it would take us a good hour to leave church because everyone in town was reciting back to me everything the knew about my life based on what they knew of my folk. Now, this did provide me some indispensable stories about my mother that came in handy in adolescence. But more than anything else it baffled me—these people knew me, or it least they knew every incidental detail of my life. But at the end of the day they knew nothing about the awkward 12-year old pining after tickets to an Alanis Morisette concert and a pair of red Chuck Taylors.

I was home recently—12 days—and, hold your judgment here for a second, I had fried chicken four times—Fast food fried chicken (Give Thanks, O Lord, for Bojangles), gourmet Fried Chicken—it is the breading of my life. I could happily die, likely a few years ahead of schedule, eaten nothing but fried chicken, greens and biscuits for the rest of my life.

Our text today is likely quite familiar. In it we have one of Jesus’ most familiar “I AM” statements—those direct, revelatory addresses around which John organizes his gospel. No where else in the gospels, not in Matthew, Mark, Luke, does Jesus speak more plainly: this is who I am. Bread. But Jesus’ directness does not ease our understanding. At least it does not ease mine. It does, however, like many things God created, remind me of the South.

Turns out Jesus’ story, too, revolves around food and kinfolk. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For the most part Jesus’ “I AM” statements follow a miracle, a sign, that’s meant to demonstrate something about the reality of Jesus. This proclamation of Jesus follows the multiplication of loaves and fishes. The people have been satisfied by earthly food, satisfied like their fore-bearers were in the dessert. From that satisfaction they’re meant to draw a conclusion about Jesus’ ultimate reality.

To be fair, the Jews almost have it. They’re not bothered by Jesus being the bread of life (after all, Moses aided in the provision of manna in the wilderness and worked miracles a’plenty), they’re bothered by Jesus’ claim that he is the bread of life sent down from heaven, that he can give and take away life and death

I’m sympathetic to the Jews here, because I, like them, want only to understand. I want to see behind this mystery, to make sense of this outlandish claim. The world “complain” here (the Jews are said to “complain”) is better translated “murmur” or “grumble”, it’s meant to evoke the Jews murmuring in the desert against Moses, and it’s less a complaint and more a sense of utter bewilderment. How can he claim to have come from heaven? His parents live just around the corner.

He didn’t come down from heaven—he came over from a stable.

They knew the boy, they watched him grow up. But, standing before them was a man who multiplied loaves and fishes, who declared himself living bread from the father. This they could not understand. Jesus, his reality, his proclamation, it was too much—too transgressive, too impossible. Bread? From heaven? 

These were church folk…church folk like you and me. They know God. They know their Scriptures, their signs and revelations. And this Jesus boy, he doesn’t quite fit the description.

We live in a world that longs for understanding. And enlightened, we, even more-so than the Jews of Jesus’ day, have peeked behind the veil: landed rovers on Mars, read the works of Hegel and Kant and spent hours watching Gossip Girl on Netflix (I’ve done one of the three, I’ll leave you to guess which it may be).

We’ve seen the guts of this world. And we, like the Jews, demand to know: what is this bread from heaven?

And Jesus, God help him, doesn’t care to answer our questions. To our demands for proof he gives us this: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me […]” We are not given an apology, a defense, a reasoned argument for belief.

We are given the Bread of Life who defies reason, who explodes paradigms and boxes and systems. Who lives and moves outside of anything we can imagine. Whose incarnational reality is uncomfortable precisely because it is uncontainable. Precisely because we can never fully know it. We can never predict it or wield it.

The bread of life is like no other bread we know. Fried chicken four times over may satisfy temporarily, but this bread, this breading, is about substance and sustenance on the level of eternity. This is the bread that is life and gives life, the revealer who reveals himself. This is the bread who enlightens beyond our dull enlightened age. This is God.

I love fried chicken. But Jesus isn’t just the thing that holds my hunger from one day to the next. When Jesus proclaims that he is the bread he challenges us to transform our understanding of the very stuff of life. The bread of life can’t be cobbled together from earthly grain, he can’t be bought or transacted or domesticated. The bread of life can’t be thought up in a system or contained in simple syllogisms. The bread of life come down from heaven is upside-down logic-defying stuff of the true Kingdom of God.

We can’t awaken ourselves to it. We can’t think ourselves to it. We can’t buy ourselves to it. We can’t American dream ourselves to it. The bread of life awakens us, thinks us, buys us, dreams us. The bread of life enlivens us and bids us come to the feast.

“Christianity,” said the great Anglican Samuel Coleridge, “is not a Theory, or a Speculation; but a Life. Not a Philosophy of Life, but a Life and a living Process.” Jesus isn’t just another boy on the church steps. He isn’t another teacher, another spiritual leader. He wasn’t simply a good man. Jesus Christ is the one who leads us down the rabbit-hole into the entirely new living. It’s not about negating knowledge, prioritizing foolishness, it’s about the reality beyond the reality we inhabit, the reality among the reality we see. It’s about the impossible call of God and the sustinence that leads to life eternal. Not a speculation. Not a philosophy. Not enlightenment. Life. In all of its sorrow, all of its joy. All of its abundance.

It’s the bread of life better than fried chicken. And it’s here, now, present to our time from eternity. Calling us deeper up, deeper in to the mysteries of life and time that are ours to behold.

Fried Chicken & the Bread of LIfe by A. A. Stuckey / May 2012 / for The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, Lawrenceville, New Jersey

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