This week several of my friends are away on service trips. I wrote the following reflection on chapter six in the Gospel of John for some of them, to guide their devotional times for the day. I'm posting it here as an act of solidarity.
Abide is not as common a word as come or follow. As a verb we hardly ever hear it; the closest we come is the noun abode, which describes where we live, where we move—where we have our being, so to speak. But even old-fashioned words can be handled without too much inconvenience. We Google it or we phone a friend, and we figure it out and move on. It’s what tags alongside abide in Jesus’ words that starts to get a little freaky.
Christianity has occasionally been accused of cannibalism, for the most part due to a misunderstanding of communion: when we “eat his flesh and drink his blood” during a church service, we’re really eating bread and drinking juice, no matter what the eavesdroppers might think. But then we find Jesus saying these words and pointing not to bread and juice but to himself. If we want to be with Jesus—and that’s the only goal of coming and following him—then, he tells us, we’re going to have to consume him.
Jesus says these shocking things because he wants people to get what it means to have him among them. It’s not like having a dinner guest, who we make idle conversation with and treat politely before eventually dismissing them into the night and reclaiming sovereignty over our lives. It’s not even like having a family member who eventually grows up and moves out or who watches you grow up and move out or who eventually is parted from you by death. Jesus is, he’s saying here, more than all that. He’s our sustenance; he’s all we can truly, finally count on. Jesus is life. Jesus is it.
“What is it?” That’s what the Israelites said when they first found manna in the desert. That is, in fact, what manna is said to mean. God dropped manna on the Israelites—just enough every day—to sustain their years of wandering in the desert. Manna was God’s response to the Israelites’ paralyzing fear that they would die and disappear and be forgotten forever. That wasn’t what God wanted for them, and so every day they would wake up and find manna on the ground—just enough to get them through that day. Each night’s anxiety was replaced with each morning’s manna.
We are to consume Jesus in the way the Israelites consumed manna—in desperate faith that without Jesus we will come to nothing. We learn later in the Gospels that Jesus’ body is in fact broken like bread at a table—casually, almost unconsciously by people who don’t even know what they’ve got. His blood will be poured out like juice from a bottle by children who don’t even notice the mess they’ve made of things. And we find out later in the Gospels that no sooner has the world consumed Jesus, dispensed with him, than he shows up again, ready to sustain us for another day of our journey.
When we abide in Jesus, he also abides in us. We consume Jesus—he becomes the totality of our living, our moving, our being—but in a sense he consumes us as well, so that we become other than what we once were. It’s a little freaky, if you think about it, but it’s how—and where—we were meant to live. So when Jesus tells us to abide in him, he’s really saying what the God of the Israelites, who sustained them in the desert, said to them: “Choose life!” That’s it.