Pentecost 13: 19 August John 6:51-58
The drama continues, as John unfolds the meaning of Jesus as the bread of life. 6:51 concluded last week’s reading and commences this week’s. In this verse the focus shifts from what Jesus offers as a person, in himself, to what he offers through his death. There is fundamentally no difference. It is not as though John would have believed that a relationship with God through Jesus during his ministry would have been in any way deficient, as though real salvation was achieved only through his death. Rather, for John, Jesus’ death is the climax and fulfilment of his life. The whole event is a self giving. The Word became flesh. That is the good news. But, reflecting another aspect of early Christian tradition, John also has Jesus declare that this ‘flesh and blood Jesus’ is our nourishment in a special way.
"The Jews" (i.e. those Jews who opposed the Jew, Jesus, and did not join with the Jews who were his disciples) argue among themselves about how it could be possible that Jesus gives us his flesh to eat (6:52). For the audience, who are hearing the drama of John’s gospel unfold, the answer is obvious and the irony enjoyed. They eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood in their holy meal of bread and wine. This meal will have had a special place in the community as a means of communing with Christ. For those in the drama who think at the level of Nicodemus, such an idea is preposterously cannibalistic.
In developing this link with the eucharist, John is expanding a single motif: Jesus is the bread of life. Some have suggested that John 6 has been composed over a period of time and that the attention to the eucharist came at a secondary stage. This may be so, whether at the hands of the same author or from someone else. As the text stands which has been passed on to us, we see that the eucharist is clearly being understood as a means of opening oneself to this life. It would be a mistake, however, to isolate it as though it were the only means and especially to isolate its elements as having a power which exists independently of the Son and are somehow at our disposal, like medicine. On the contrary, the richness of John 6 is in its variety.
The image of bread has been developed in different ways, but all belong together. Whether it is the "work" of faith in 6:27-29 or the receiving of the eucharist in 6:53,56, the focus is still the person of Jesus and ultimately the relation with God and the result: eternal life. The language of remaining or abiding in another, used in 6:56, is the language of intimacy and shared life. As 6:57 illustrates at every level, from the Father, through the Son, to the believer, the focus is life and the goal is that it be shared.
6:55 asserts that this is the true bread. That is both a strong positive statement and, by implication, a negative one: other bread is not really bread. So 6:58 returns to the image of the manna (see earlier 6:31-32,49). It symbolised the Law and despite being of heavenly origin was not the true bread. It merely foreshadowed it. The development of the theme of bread continues to serve a double purpose: to expound the gift of the gospel and to disqualify all the alternatives.
Preaching from John entails working with John’s constant repetition of primary themes. This is certainly the case over the five Sundays which deal with John 6. It offers the opportunity to develop that one motif in different ways in much the same way as doubtless has happened behind John 6. As John did so using the biblical and early Christian tradition, so we can make similar connections. There is also a sense in which if we cannot connect the motif of Jesus, the bread of life, to contemporary issues of poverty and hunger, something is missing. And, from the other end, perhaps we shall never understand its meaning if we have not experienced or at least sensed what it means to be really hungry.
Ultimately all hunger cries out for satisfaction and the oldest Jesus traditions report the promise and agenda of the kingdom: "Blessed are you who hunger; for you shall be satisfied" (Luke 6:21); so will those "who hunger and thirst for justice" (Matt 5:6). The two must not be divorced, because in the bread of life we are being nourished by the one whose being is love and compassion.
Epistle: Pentecost 13: 19 August Ephesians 5:15-20