Life as Descent: Homily on John 6:41-51

“‘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’” (John 6:51).

I stood cloaked in white alb, wearing a red deacon’s stole. I held the plate of Eucharistic wafers, nervous. I had just been ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and this was my first time participating in the distribution of the Eucharistic elements. With some apprehension and a whole bunch of “Just don’t drop the plate, Lauren,” I approached the first person kneeling at the railing. “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” I said as I held up and then handed the wafer to the adult kneeling in front of me. And then I did it again, and again, and again.

By my fourth pass by my half of the rail, I’d grown quite composed and quite confident. I grew comfortable with the eye contact and the pastoral moment that was this brief encounter with the individual congregants at the Cathedral. “Huh…” I thought, kind of surprised. “This isn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be.”

The last group of individuals knelt at the rail, and I started the last distribution of the bread. “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…The body of Christ the bread of heaven…” I rounded the corner of the rail and continued, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…”

And then my eyes landed square on the big blues of a small child; his chin just cleared the rail. I stood looking down at him; actually, I was looming over him—I rarely loom over anyone. I paused while I held his eager gaze and watched him grip the railing with his hands, pull himself forward, and open his mouth for me to place the wafer in it, as he had watched me do with his mother a few minutes before him.

I couldn’t reach him from my position looming over him. I took the plate in one hand, grabbed my alb with the other, and brought my self all the way down to eye level with him; my right knee had to rest on the floor. I held up the wafer and made eye contact with him again, his big blues locked on me. “The body of Christ…” I said looking at him, holding his gaze, “…the bread of heaven.” And fed him.

“‘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’” (John 6:51).

The Word of God, the word made flesh, the living bread of life, Jesus Christ, descends to us. The manna Jesus refers to in our passage (6:49) is mentioned in Exodus 16. This “manna”—a fine, flaky, white-like-dew substance that appeared on the ground for Israelite consumption—was the bread of heaven that God promised to send in Exodus 16:4[1] to satiate the starving people. They were in the throws of sever hunger pangs and cried out. And God heard; God acted. His word descended and fed the people; in this event, the Israelites were to encounter the power of God and see, hear, and to have faith. Jesus is clearly referring back to that part of Israel’s history with God, pointing the Israelites to recall God’s divine activity for them. Make no mistake about it; in correlating himself to the manna descended from heaven, Jesus intentionally proclaims that that historical event is happening at that very moment, in him, with him, and by him.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-14 it is written,

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Christ—who is the bread of heaven—descends to us so that we do not have to ascend to heaven to search for it. It is Christ who comes walking across the sea to us so that we do not have to cross over the sea to get it. Jesus is the word made flesh and is the bread of life, the true bread of heaven that has come down into the world so (the word is near) so that we hear (deeply, inwardly digest the word) and have faith in him. In Christ we see that God has heard and that God acts.

Christ, who is God of very God, not only descended in casting off his own divine royalty, humbling himself in being born in human likeness and form (Phil. 2:6-8),[2] but he descended to us and for us. The divine activity in Christ is the event encounter of God and humanity. The word made flesh descends low to be the lamb of God to redeem the world (John 1:29), descends low to demonstrate his glory in making the mundane (water) grace filled (wine) (John 2:1-12), descends low to be the event of love of God for the whole world to bring life abundant (John 3:16ff), descends low to recline against a well to encounter an ostracized Samaritan woman (John 4), descends low to heal those who are seemingly incurable, defies the existing authority structures, and is the apocalyptic event of God’s power in the world (John 5).

This proclamation of the gospel in the gospel of John (John 6:41-51) is the recounting and retelling of the descent Christ—the bread from heaven and the word made flesh—who is the divine once-and-for-all, established-forever divine activity of God for God’s people and the world. And in this recounting and retelling of Christ’s descent from heaven and the corresponding event encounter between God and the world, we—we—are pulled into the story and become the object in the encounter of that event—just as we are the objects of the gift of Grace by faith in Christ apart from works by the power of the holy spirit, so, too, are we the object of the divine revelation of God in Christ.[3] We, by hearing the proclamation of Christ, are pointed to Christ, to God, and, thus, we are encountered by God who has descended to us.[4] Jesus is the bread of life descended from heaven not only for his immediate disciples or his historic community. But in that he is such for them and that the proclamation of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension has moved from generation to generation for the past 2000 + years means he is also for us, for all, for the world. [5]

Christ came to you to give you life abundant. And this life that is given to you is life that is marked not by ascent upward out of the earthly realm or fleeing the brokenness of the world by crossing the sea, but by descent. As we have seen Christ do and as we’ve experienced in event encounter with God in Christ by faith, our lives are marked by the same deep descent by transcending society’s boundaries[6] to those who are oppressed, to those who are burdened, to those who are seeking refuge, to the voiceless. As we have been nourished, so we nourish. As we have been provided for, we provide. As we have been clothed, we clothe. As we have been encountered, we encounter. We are commissioned by Christ to be the preachers sent into the world to descend low, bringing our knees to the ground to give the bread of life to the least of us scattered all through out our society and the world (Matt 25:31ff). [7]

[1] “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.’”

[2] “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

[3] Dr. W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017): “Dialectical theology’s enduring contribution, then, is affirming that Protestant theological epistemology must be decisively shaped by protestant soteriology so that just as Christians can in no way merit saving grace, theologians can in no way merit revelation by finding it already embedded in the structures of human intellect or creation as a whole…Just as saving grace is an alien grace that comes to sinners from outside of themselves, knowledge of God is likewise an alien knowledge that comes to sinners from outside of themselves. Salvation and revelation thereby become two sides of the same event of God’s gracious activity” 55. To purchase this book, which I highly recommend you do, click here. To follow Dr. McMaken on Twitter: @WTravisMcMaken.

[4] Ibid, 72n61: McMaken quoting Helmut Gollwitzer, “‘there is no way to the event, to the act of God which is called Jesus, that circumvents the word of proclamation with its corresponding answer of faith.’ The kerygma ‘points beyond itself to the living God who encounters us in the proclamation but is more than a title for the word-event itself’…”

[5] Karl Barth, “What Jesus is ‘for us’ or ‘for you’ in the narrower circle of the disciples and the community He is obviously, through the ministry of this narrower circle, ‘for all’ or ‘for the world’ in the wider or widest circle. And in the majority of the relevant passages this action of Jesus for others (His disciples, His community, the many, all, the world) is His death and passion.” CD III.2.45.213-15.

[6] McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, 77: Explaining how Gollwitzer develops the concepts of “Brotherhood” (and “Sonship) found in the New Testament, McMaken writes, “Brotherhood designates a new Spirit-empowered sociality that ‘transcend[s] race and class.’ And this transcending cannot be limited to the realm of personal feeling, for that only serves to insulate the powers that be from the transformative power of the gospel Rather, ‘brotherhood transcending race and class in the New Testament means: actual life together in actual equality, that is, in a new classless society. A system of injustice legitimated as a system of justice is being abolished.’”

[7] ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”

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