First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 11

William Loader

Pentecost 11: 12 August John 6:35, 41-51

We begin this week's lesson with 6:35, the final verse from last week's reading ("I am the bread of life ..."). In 6:40-51 John is expanding upon the theme of Jesus as the bread of life. The missing verses, 6:36-40, include Jesus' confrontation of those who refuse to believe him. Most elements return in our passage. John is doing two things: explaining why they do not believe (they have not been "given" him by the Father - 6:37,39) and explaining that Jesus is not setting himself up as God or as a god beside God, but only as one who is totally obedient to God and faithfully represents him (6:38). His authority as envoy is that he is from the Father and has seen him (so 6:46, which echoes 1:18).

Occurring as a refrain throughout this section and into our passage are the words: "and I will raise him up at the last day." (6:39,40,44,54). This reflects the standard belief in resurrection from the dead and appears to be part of John's tradition otherwise not emphasised by him (see 5:25-29). Some have, for this reason, suggested it may be a late addition, but this need not be. The emphasis throughout John is rather on eternal life, which may sound like living forever. 6:50-51 could give this impression and many people assume eternal life means everlasting life, as if its endurance is the main factor. In fact the emphasis in John is much more on quality than on quantity, though the latter is certainly not absent. For eternal life is John's favourite way of describing salvation and it means sharing in God's life, for its benefits both for oneself and for others. This is John's constant theme. Each section of John's gospel is a variation on the single theme that the Son offers this life to all who believe the offer and take it.

The offer is not uncontroversial and dealing with rejection is an important sub theme in John. "The Jews" who, like Israel in the wilderness, murmur or grumble about Jesus are really only certain Jews, for Jesus and the disciples are also Jews. These unbelieving Jews find the claim of Jesus to have come down from heaven hard to swallow. They are probably understanding it in a much more literal sense than John intended. Like Jesus' hometown synagogue in Mark 6:1-6, so these people see only Joe and Mary's boy. How, they ask, can he say he has come down from heaven? Like Nicodemus they are on a different wave length. This is a favourite dramatic ploy in John: Jesus and the Jews are talking past one another.

Mark has Jesus explain opposition by saying that these people are simply blind and not meant to see (4:10-12). Parables, says Mark, have a dual function: they open the eyes of those ready to see and keep the rest in the dark. John has his own version of this kind of explanation. Only those whom the Father draws come to Jesus (6:44; see already 6:37,39). Only they are "taught of God" and therefore come (6:45). 3:19-21 does something similar, claiming that only those who walk in the light accept the light and those walk in darkness refuse it. It sounds like a closed system with no possibility of change.

There are huge problems with these explanations if we read them as indicating a watertight system according to which some are destined to respond and some not. The problems are not only that it makes any judgement upon those not enabled to respond unjust, but also, more historically, because such a system would be in contradiction to other parts of the gospel. For the same gospel which uses this language of those who are "given" or "drawn" by the Father, also assumes that anyone can believe and then proceeds to identify those who choose to believe as the ones who then join the ranks of those who are "given" and "drawn". This is not the language of watertight systems.

It is easier to understand such language if we examine the positive statements. Those who respond positively are special. Part of the language of being special is to say that they are chosen, given, especially drawn. It is doxological language. We see similar language used in romance when people declare that the other is the only possible partner ("you were meant for me"), whereas the chances are that they could have a successful marriage with a number of people. We understand the way such affirmations work. They are not accurate descriptions, but celebratory statements. What they are doing is more important than what they are literally saying. The obverse is true in negative statements. We find such use of language also in some of the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls which speak of a covenant community, when they describe themselves and outsiders. The distinctions seem so absolute as to be permanent and fixed, but the same writings also assume that people can just as easily swap from one category to the other. The system is not closed.

John's gospel comes to terms with the refusal of many Jews ("the Jews") to accept the gospel by employing such categories. It is dangerous language. John uses it often. The most striking use is on the lips of Jesus in John 8, where Jesus declares of "the Jews" that they are the devil's children (8:37-47). The writer of 1 John uses it when coming to terms with fellow Christians who have abandoned his community (2:17-18). Loosed from its context such an approach opens the door to sectarianism and, in the case of the gospel, antisemitism. Even within its context such language is not unproblematic and requires careful and critical exposition. It is easy to bedevil those who disagree with us, effectively declaring them hopeless cases and writing them off. The good news in the gospel is that this is precisely not God's approach to humankind, but the presence of such language in biblical texts has been the warrant for some of Christianity's worst abuses and they are usually to be found in one form or other in every Christian community where the issue is not dealt with.

In 6:51 our passage ends with a new variation on the theme of Jesus as the bread of life, but one already hinted at in 6:27. In a manner typical of such communication in the ancient world John returns to themes with which the speech began. Thus 6:48 echoes 6:35 ("I am the bread of life") and 6:49 echoes 6:31 (the fathers eating manna in the wilderness). 6:51 echoes 6:27 where Jesus spoke of himself as Son of Man who would give the gift of bread. This is a slightly different use of the image of bread, but it is closely linked to what precedes. Jesus is the bread of life and will give this bread in the form of his flesh and blood which represent his death and are present in the eucharist. That will be the theme of next week's passage. He gave his life in life and in death to bear the offer of life to all, that all may choose to be "chosen", that all may accept God's choice to love and accept them.

Epistle: Pentecost 11: 12 August Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2