Pentecost 10: 5 August John 6:24-35
The Lectionary skips two verses, John 6:22-23, beginning today’s passage at 6:24. These two verses serve to enhance the drama of the preceding miracle by underlining that Jesus could not possibly have crossed the sea by boat. 6:23 then makes incidental mention of the place ‘where they ate bread, when the Lord had given thanks’ (eucharistesantos), almost an allusion to the meal as eucharist. The brief introduction leads to the question in 6:25: ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’
This provides the platform for Jesus’ response and the dialogue which follows, which is full of subtle humour and irony. It is as if we are watching a stage play. In 6:26 Jesus makes a major declaration. The crowds were following him because their material needs had been met not because they had understood the miracle as a sign. They were like the crowds in 2:23-35. Their understanding and enjoyment of miracles gave them a kind of Nicodemus faith (see the link between 2:23-25 and 3:1-5) which could satisfy only at a superficial level and did not lead to real change, rebirth. Such religion was popular then as it is now, also among those who love to use the language of being ‘born again’.
In 6:27 Jesus exhorts the crowds to work for the food of eternal life. This is an interesting use of the word, ‘work’, which in some of our traditions is the opposite of ‘faith’. Here, on the contrary, it is a way of talking about faith and means something like: ‘set your heart on, make it your goal, put your effort into, work on acquiring’. 6:29 tells us what this effort entails: believing in the one whom God has sent. 6:28 has the crowd speak of ‘the works of God’. The effect of the dialogue is to address the question of spirituality. Where do we find God? In wonders? In some mighty achievements of our own or of others? John reduces the options to one: we find God in relationship. That relationship is established when we believe that Jesus is the message and messenger from God.
The image of the sent one and of God as the sender is dominant in John. It derives from the world of communication in the ancient world, where, without the advantages we have of electronic telecommunication and fast transport, people were totally dependent on communicating their own messages personally or sending someone as an envoy who could act on their behalf and often carried some written communication together with a letter of introduction or commendation from the sender. John makes extensive use of the image of Jesus as God’s envoy and spokesperson in the world. What Jesus brings is not primarily an array of information so much as the offer of a relationship of love and acceptance. This relationship is the source of life, eternal life. Belief is involved, inasmuch as we need to believe that Jesus really does play that role. Faith is then acting on that belief in trust and becoming part of God’s life in the world.
In 6:30 the dialogue reaches a new height of irony as the crowd asks for a sign. They had earlier witnessed the sign given in Jesus’ feeding of the 5000! As if to prompt Jesus, they recall the manna in the wilderness. Meanwhile John’s hearers are being entertained by the absurd naiveté of the questioners. The dialogue then takes a sharp turn in 6:32. Moses did not give bread from heaven; only God gives it. The effect is to say: eternal life is not to be found in the gift of the Law, which was often described under the image of manna and food. Rather the true food of eternal life comes only through Jesus as the divine envoy. 6:49 returns to the image and underlines the point. John is not disparaging the Law. In 1:17 he describes it as God’s gift, but now it has been replaced by the grace and truth brought by the Word. Its function was not to offer life but to foreshadow and bear witness to the one in whom this life would be available.
The crowds then respond to Jesus’ claim just as the Samaritan woman had done when told about the gift of the water of life. She said, ‘Sir, give me this water’. They say, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Neither she nor they at this point understand its true meaning. Jesus then makes his famous declaration which draws together both stories: ‘I am the bread of life. Anyone coming to me shall not hunger; anyone believing in me shall never thirst.’ (6:35).
In the coming weeks we shall be reading the rest of the chapter. The image of bread is elastic. Sometimes it stands for Jesus, himself. Sometimes it is something which Jesus gives. That is certainly the case when 6:51-59 makes the link with the eucharist. Our passage already hints at that in two ways. 6:23 (the verse which precedes our text) possibly alludes to the eucharist. 6:27 speaks of a gift which the Son of Man will give in the future. John prefers to use ‘Son of Man’ when he is speaking of Jesus’ death, exaltation and glorification and its after effects. One of those after effects is the eucharist.
As often in John, we find the passage serves a single purpose: to point to Jesus as the way to God. That can lead to a myopic view which is rather sectarian: loyalty to the leader is what matters; his is the only way, independent of issues of substance. Everyone else must be wrong - or damned. It need not do so. It can lead to a rich and open spirituality in which the ultimate focus falls on finding the light and life, the water and bread, in God and recognising it wherever we find it and then understanding that life as something to be shared, something to be lived out in love for the world which ‘God so loved’ (3:16) and loves. Then the christ-centredness is released from a narrow exclusive focus, from the cult of the leader, to become the focus of something much more dynamic.
While the repeated melody throughout John sings of the relationship with God and says little of what that means in practice, the music can inspire such involvement, especially within the total setting of the orchestra, as it were, that is, the canon. John is a healthy antidote to activism which, without being rooted in a deep spiritual relationship, has difficulty sustaining itself and becomes in danger of a return to rules and obligations. John refreshingly calls us back to the spirituality of relationship in which love is celebrated and generated. That is profound nourishment.
Epistle: Pentecost 10: 5 August Ephesians 4:1-16