Bread of life: context

bread-of-life-tabernacle41 The Jews murmured about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” 42 and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered and said to them, “Stop murmuring among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; 50 this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:41-51)

For five Sundays here in the middle of Year B, our gospel is taken from John 6. So, perhaps it is best to see where this reading fits in. John 6 follows the same basic pattern noted in chapter 5: miracle / dialogue / discourse. This pattern is more intricate in John 6 because the chapter narrates Jesus’ self-revelation to two groups: the crowd and his disciples. As such John 6 contains two miracles: one performed before the crowd and the disciples (6:1–15) and one performed in front of the disciples alone (6:16–21). This dual focus is reflected in the discourse material as well. John 6 can be outlined as follows:

      Verses        Sunday    Content

  • 6:1–15            17th     Miracle of feeding 5,000 (with crowd and disciples)
  • 6:16–21                     Miracle (disciples alone) –Jesus walks on the water
  • 6:22–24                     Transition
  • 6:25–34          18th     Dialogue (crowd)
  • 6:41–59    19th / 20th  Discourse (crowd and disciples)
  • 6:60–71          21st      Conclusion (disciples alone)

The sacred author intended that John 6 be read as a whole, but given then exigencies of Sunday celebrations the continuity might well suffer unless we are attentive to the on-going message and dialogue in what has come before. It will be important to see the movement between dialogues as we move from Sunday to Sunday. To that end, let me provide an overview of the coming weeks of Sunday gospels.

The best way to understand, in a sense, is that the whole discourse begins on one verse, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (v. 31) – what follows from that verse forward is a teasing out of the deeper meaning of all that happens from the miracle feeding of the 5,000 to the conclusion. It is good to remember that John has a different intention than the other gospel writers. While they have recorded the event, it is John who seeks to explain the event through the dialogue and discourse. It is also good to remember that John frequently has dual layers of meaning that are woven in the dialogues with people – e.g., Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman at the well – and the dialogue is marked by misunderstanding. In Nicodemus’ case as the dialogue continue the misunderstanding only grows. But not so with the woman at the well. Each exchange leads to a deeper understanding of who Jesus truly is. Consider how she refers to Jesus as “man,” “Jew,” “rabbi,” “prophet,” and finally “messiah.” Expect to find those same features in this dialogue: Jesus will increasingly reveal more and listeners will increasingly understand and come closer to Jesus or will increasingly misunderstand and walk away.

Many scholars cite the work of Peder Borgen whose extensive work on this chapter makes a good case that this shows many of the features of a Jewish midrash which follows a phrase-by-phrase order on the following key phrases: He gave; bread from heaven; to eat.

  • He gave (vv.26–34). In this first section, the emphasis lies on the giving. Jesus will give (vv.27, 34), not as Moses gave (v.32) a perishable manna food of mortality, but as the Father, source of eternal life, gives (v.32). Thus far, Jesus appears as the giver of bread and therefore as the new and superior Moses.
  • Bread from heaven (vv.35–47). The insistence now shifts to the bread from heaven that Jesus not only gives but actually is (vv.35, 38, 41, 42). It is important to note here that the operative verb is “believe.” Jesus as bread from heaven is accepted and consumed through the belief required in verses 35, 36, 40, 47. What this means is that this is a faith nourishment. Jesus is bread from heaven, feeding all believers, in the same sense that Old Testament wisdom nourished all who accepted it (Prov 9:1–5). We might call this type of feeding “sapiential.”
  • To eat (vv.48–59). In this final section, the vocabulary changes radically. The significant words are “flesh,” “blood,” “eat, ” “drink.” Note the constant repetition of “eat” in verses 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 58. “Feed on” (an even more physical verb in the Greek than “eat”) occurs in v.57. These verbs become overwhelmingly insistent, as does the constant reference to flesh and blood, food and drink. The meaning of the discourse has changed. Where in the preceding section Jesus nourished through wisdom-revelation those who believed, the verb “believe” has now completely disappeared and is replaced by “eat,” “feed on.” Our homilist is clearly speaking now of sacramental nourishment, of the food and drink that one eats and feeds upon, of the Eucharistic nourishment provided by the flesh and blood of the Son of Man (v.53). The “Son of Man” phraseology tells us that this is not the physical flesh and blood of the earthly Jesus and that we are asked to eat and drink but the spiritual, Spirit-filled flesh and blood of the heavenly Son of Man. Verse 58 ties the homily together by referring back to the central phrase of v.31. [Flanagan, 991-92]

Where the other gospel writers have told the story, John delivers a rich exposition of the meaning of Jesus-as-Bread-of-Life theme. Jesus is first of all the giver of the bread, a new Moses. He is also the bread of wisdom and revelation who nourishes all who come to him in faith. He is, finally, the Eucharistic source of eternal life for all who eat and drink the flesh and blood of the heavenly and glorified Son of Man. This is John’s explanation of the meaning of Jesus’ person and the gift of the Eucharist. For his reader, already familiar with the other narratives of the Last Supper, the celebration there is the actualization of what John 6 described. What John achieves by this narrative is to unite in this one chapter the essentials of Christian Eucharist, the word and the bread — the revealing word of verses 35–47 and the sacramental bread of verses 48–59.

That is the “big picture.” Tomorrow let us turn to the details of the text.

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