John 6:24-35, The Bread of Life

[August 2, 2015] Today is the 9th Sunday after Trinity, during the quiet growing season of the Christian year. During the last two Sundays we heard the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish. The first time, we heard it read from Mark’s gospel, the second time from John’s. Then, last Sunday, we also heard the story of the sea-crossing in the darkness in which the disciples in the boat experienced the chaos of the wind and the waves. Jesus came to them walking on the water and said to them, “I am. Don’t be afraid.” Now Jesus is back in Capernaum with his disciples, and the people who were fed the loaves and fishes follow him there and approach him as he is teaching in the synagogue. Today’s reading, and over the next three Sundays (the 10th, 11th and 12th Sundays after Trinity), we will be considering this dialogue or discourse that takes place in the remainder of the chapter, all of it one piece but paired with the story of the feeding of the multitude on the other side of the story of the sea-crossing.

The presence of God (the “I am”) becoming light to the disciples in the midst of their darkness brings to mind the first day of creation, and now the second day unfolds in this pair of stories—the feeding of the multitude and the teaching on the bread that has come down from heaven to bring life to the world: light and life. What happened on the second day of creation is that God created the expanse of heaven by separating the waters above from the waters below it. One might think of heaven coming into the midst of our chaos (that which the waters represent), or heaven becoming available to us if we would only reach out and take and eat. Eating of the tree of knowledge cut us off from the tree of life, but now, with the gift of light, the tree of life becomes available to us again. Paradise lost becomes paradise regained; only now the life that is offered to us, that indeed saves us, is not merely the life that we lost but the life of God, the gift of eternal life, that for which we were originally intended but never had. It is that which the Lord, Jesus, the Word become flesh, possesses in himself. He is this openness of heaven to us, offering to us his very life, his divine life, the same life which brought him through death into resurrection. That life, when it becomes communicable to us by his death and resurrection, is none other than the divine Lady, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us in hiddenness during the pilgrimage of this life, and divinizing us in the resurrection of our flesh.

Here, with this inner story of light and outer story of life, of passing through the water on the one hand, and the eating of the body and drinking of the blood of Christ on the other, we are obviously reminded of the two sacraments of the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, neither of which are explicitly mentioned in this gospel but often alluded to. It is true that John’s baptism is spoken of, but Jesus’ own baptism by John is only artfully alluded to in 1:32. It is also true that Jesus’ last Seder is referred to in chapter 13 but never the institution of the Lord’s Supper (as we call it). Yet the allusion to the Lord’s Supper is unavoidable in chapter 6. John always wants to look at the meaning of things, their inner significance, rather than the outer act, the “rite” itself. So my Franciscan sister Elisa told me today that “Quakers are charged to experience the sacramental in every moment, to experience the sacramental in an interior way.” This seems to be what John was getting at, though I think, in the background of his design, was the actual physical sacrament: one does not exclude the other but rather—and I think this is what John was getting at—the exterior is only meaningful if the interior is real (albeit, for most of us that interior is something that grows alongside the constant repetition of the exterior; not mature at first but getting bigger and bigger day by day). The exterior is an act, an act of loving obedience. Nevertheless, it is not an empty act but one full of meaning, a meaning that dawns on us slowly unto that perfect day.

(This difference in my mind is what justifies the practice of infant baptism. There is no separate “covenant” that God has with our children; there is only the one covenant, the covenant of our baptism, which our children are included in until that interior reality becomes their own. The problem is that we like to use this word “covenant”—of which the Calvinists are so fond—but which is misleading. It tends to make it become about us. What the Scriptures says, however, is that our children are sanctified, that is, set apart by God for God’s self. Baptism is as much God’s own act (though we perform it) as it is something that we perform, and this “setting apart” puts the individual in the sphere of God’s grace—theologians use the word prevenient grace—for the infant’s own understanding is yet undeveloped. It is nevertheless real. We can discuss this another time. It is not, however, what this post is about.)

We also noticed that while the feeding of the multitude takes place near the time of Passover (John 6:4), which therefore connects this to the liberating meal of the people of Israel on the eve of their Passover from Egypt, the crossing of the sea can allude to the Israelites crossing the Red (or Reed) Sea. If that is so, the “sermon” in the synagogue that follows also connects the miracle of the feeding with the miracle of the manna that fed the Israelites in their wilderness sojourn in the Sinai. This allusion to the wilderness sojourn prepares us for the Feast of Booths (Succoth) that follows in the next several chapters (possibly from chapter 7 all the way to 10:21). Thematically it practically puts us there.

Taking all that into account, let us consider this discourse for a few minutes. Unsurprisingly for this gospel, it has a chiastic structure. 6:22-35 and its parallel 6:66-71 form the outer layer. We notice the repetition of words like “one,” “his disciples,” “to depart or go away” (in Greek, apēlthon), “Lord,” “eternal life,” and “believe.” The intermediate circle is formed by 6:36-47 and 6:60-65. The core of the passage then is 6:48-59. Remember, though, that a chiasm is not simply a matter of concentric circles, the innermost being the most meaningful. Rather there is a development in the parallel passages between the before and the after. The second of the pair takes things further, perhaps by fulfillment, or escalation or by antithesis. What comes after the core raises the significance of the issue that was raised before. Today we are only considering the initial block of verses, 6:22-35.

There is another development to which it might be worth our while to pay attention in this discourse. A problem that needs resolution is set up in verses 22-31. Then beginning in verse 32 Jesus starts to speak about his incarnation: “My Father gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world … I am the bread of life.” Some resolution begins to be given in the words that follow: “Whoever comes to me shall by no means hunger, and the one who believes into me shall by no means ever thirst.” This is expanded in the verses that follow. These verses address the issue of hunger. Then in verses 51b to 55 Jesus refers to his being slain: his flesh is “given” for the life of the world; you must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Next, in verses 56-58 Jesus might be speaking of his resurrection when he says, “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in her [or him]. As the living Father has sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who eats me shall also live because of me.” Then in verses 62 Jesus refers to his ascension: “What if you saw the Son of Man ascending to where he was before.” In this gospel the ascension takes place after the resurrected Jesus sees Mary of Magdala and before he appears in the upper room to the gathered disciples where he breathes into them the Holy Spirit, his abiding presence. In verse 63 Jesus finally refers to the Holy Spirit who was given to the disciples in that upper room: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Finally, in verses 68-69 Peter confesses: “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus is embodied in the word and by believing we come to know and receive eternal life, which is the indwelling Holy Spirit, by whom Jesus himself—Jesus and the Holy Spirit co-inhering—now dwells in us. This progression seems unmistakable in view of the flow of the entire gospel, and I think we would do well to keep it in mind as we proceed.

Today, reading only up to verse 35, Jesus only introduces his incarnation, his coming as the bread from heaven to be for us the bread of life, giving us, if we would “eat” him, the gift of his own divine (eternal) life. Jesus gives us himself (verse 27), but the Father also gives him to us (verse 32). It is the Father’s will that sends and seals him for our sake, and having come, he gives himself to us, offering (and revealing) himself so that we might “believe into him.” He thus “comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world.” In parallel lines, Jesus says, “He who comes to me shall by no means hunger, and he who believes into me shall by no means ever thirst.” Coming to him and believing into him are parallel and refer to the same thing, but believing into him is the full meaning of coming to him. We have not really come to him if we do not believe into him. Likewise, thirst is more intense than hunger. One can live for weeks without food but only days without water. Water is far more essential. Yet both metaphors refer to the same thing, our deprivation and longing for relief and fullness.

Let us return, however, to the beginning of this passage. Verses 22-25 speak of the crowd looking for Jesus, a sub-unit that has its own chiastic structure. They are hungering and thirsting, and seeing that “Jesus was not there” (the chiastic center of the passage) they go to look for him until they find him. And then they ask, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” The meaning of this question is obvious: they could not figure out how he got to the other side when he did not climb aboard the boat with his disciples. Jesus does not answer this question however. The question he answers is about his coming into the world. Verses 26-35 is the substance of this answer, and the most interesting part of today’s passage.

It too has a chiastic structure, framed by the words, “Truly, truly, I say to you …” in verse 26 and 32: verse 26 speaking of the bread they ate that filled them and verses 32-35 speaking in contrast to this and elaborating on the true bread that they need to eat.

In verse 27 Jesus speaks about their work and about the Father who has sealed the Son and the Son who will give them eternal life. In verses 30-31 they ask Jesus about what he will “work,” for their fathers ate the manna in the wilderness which God gave them. Literal manna stands in contrast to eternal life, but it also provides the metaphor which Jesus will take up and use in verses 32-35. Notice the way that the nouns “work” and “works” and the verb “working” (of both God and humans) are playing-out alongside of God’s “giving.”

The centerpiece then (verses 28-29) is when they ask him, “What should we be doing that we may be working the works [plural] of God?” and Jesus says, “This is the work [singular] of God, that you believe into him whom he has sent.” There is considerable ambiguity here, probably intentional, so that both meanings apply. For us to work the works of God is to believe into the One whom God has sent. That is, the work is our own. Jesus’ words could also be read as referring to the work that God does in or upon us, working with us that we may believe into the one whom God has sent. We are working the works of God when God is working with us (upon us, within us) causing us to believe into the One whom God has sent.

We must not lose sight in all this zigzagging of words that they are all talking about food. They are talking about having their hunger satisfied and Jesus is talking about himself as the bread that they need to eat. So while we think of believing into Jesus as an act, a decision as it were, Jesus is talking about something continuous. We must eat him and keep eating him, and he will always be there and be enough for us. So while eternal life is something given, it is also something that we must continually imbibe and partake in.

(Obviously no one should be reading the references to eternal life in the Gospel according to John as referring to the hereafter, life after death, and so on, something that we will enter into when we die or at the resurrection. Nor does it mean some sort of immortality. Eternal life is God’s own uncreated life which has neither beginning nor end, in which time as we know it does not exist but all time is present. It is something given to us now, in the present, when we believe. It is the beginning of our divinization, our becoming what Jesus is in reverse (he is God, as such, participating fully in humanity or created being; we are human or creatures of earth and, as such, can participate one day fully in divinity). In the other gospels Jesus speaks of eternal life as something we enjoy in the age of the kingdom, that is, in relation to the government of God during that interim time. He is speaking of the conditional enjoyment of eternal life. In John Jesus speaks of our possessing it now purely as a consequence of believing. The possession of something and the enjoyment of that which we possess are two different things. One is the gift of grace, the other has to do with God’s government over us, the judgment, that is, of the divine holiness.)

We have uncovered a lot here and it may seem like too many pieces to get a coherent look. The crowd that ate the miraculous meal of loaves and fishes find that Jesus is missing and unaccounted for. They go to Capernaum and find him. On finding him (in the synagogue) they want to know, “When did you get here?” Literally, when did you come-to-be here?

Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are seeking me not because you have seen signs, but because you ate of the bread and were filled.” I think we can understand this in this way: You are seeking me, and will keep seeking me, not because of the theological significance of what you have witnessed, but because you are existentially hungry—your souls and spirits are starving—and I fed and filled you.

“Well,” Jesus says, “stop wrecking yourselves over food that perishes, but work for the food which “abides unto eternal life,” the food that I will give you as the One who bears God’s stamp of approval (that is, God has anointed me with the Holy Spirit). What does “abide unto eternal life” mean? We will try to find out.

“How do we do that?” they ask. “How do we work for this miraculous food?” That would be doing God’s work—doing something that would work the works of God—right? “What would that something that we need to do be?”

How do you work for the food that abides unto eternal life? By believing into the One whom God has sent. That would be how you can do God’s work but it would also be how God works in you.

“You claim to be the One whom God has sent, right? How are we supposed to believe you? What sign can you work for us so that when we can see it we can believe that you are the One? After all, our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. That was not like the loaves and fish that you gave us. Moses gave them bread out of heaven. What can you do?”

“So, you think Moses gave you bread out of heaven? Actually, it was God, not Moses. Well, my Father—God—is giving you right now the real bread from heaven. For the bread that God is giving you is me, the One who is comes down out of heaven and who is offering, nay, giving life to the world. God gave your ancestors manna, mere food for the body; now God is giving you me, the one who is giving life to the world, the divine life. I am the one who will be causing the entire creation to be reborn as created but as also participating in the divine life of God and radiating with the divine glory.

“In that case,” they responded, “give us this bread and give it to us always. We want this bread you speak of that “abides unto eternal life.”

“Weren’t you paying attention? I am this bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall by no means hunger anymore; whoever believes into me shall by no means ever thirst. I will satisfy them completely. Even though you are sojourning now in the wilderness of Sinai (metaphorically speaking), subsisting under the judgment of God because of your unbelief in solidarity with every other suffering human being, I am the bread that will sustain you and more than sustain you. I will satisfy you.”

So what does it mean that this bread of (eternal) life “abides unto eternal life”? It abides the wilderness sojourn. Except for two individuals, Joshua and Caleb, no Israelite survived the wilderness journey to make it from Egypt to the Promised Land. This manna keeps us through to the Promised Land. It keeps us through this time of testing and trial and suffering. It is a taste of that eschatological food, and already partakes of it. For it is indelible and stays and keeps us. It is not something temporary or even temporal but rather something eternal intersecting with time, carrying us through to the other side of our sojourn into the resurrection of the dead.

And so Jesus introduced himself as the one who is coming down out of heaven, sent when he came into the world, when the Word became flesh, but also continually being sent by the Father, at every point of time the Incarnation being the eternal divine will choosing that the Son would partake of time in our human nature, yet that choosing also being eternal, before the worlds even came into being. When they came into being, indeed, the Word that formed them made them in such a way—at the Father’s command and through the immanent Spirit—that the Incarnation would be their potential, and in such a way that they would have the possibility of glorification. No other universe (or multiverse) ever came into being but this one, a universe suited and ready for the Incarnation and suited for its own glorification.

Now the water imagery with the boat in its midst, in the central story of the sea crossing, also evokes another image. Here at the chiasmic center of the gospel is the image of a sea (6:16-21) with hills on either side (on one side is 6:1-15 and on the other 6:22-71) providing fish and grain for the people who live around it. It evokes the nurturing image of a mother, the lake suggesting our oceanic union with her (its waters symbolizing the amniotic fluid of the womb), and the fruitful hills her breasts, as frequently in the Song of Solomon (2:8, 17; 4:6; 8:14). The labyrinth of John’s gospel has been taking us closer and closer to this center, inviting us in, and now, as we cross the sea we “pass over” (6:4) into a new life.

However, patriarchal culture urges us to separate from the mother and become “individuated,” not by a continuum of growth but by a violent rupture, for it is premised on hatred of the mother and the hatred of all that is feminine except for what can be exploited by men. This is suggested by the people’s attempt to control Jesus, even if they need to take him by force, and make him into a patriarchal leader, a king (6:15); Jesus rejects them and instead turns to the hills (see above). This “condition” suggests humanity’s radical alienation from God (the “fall” of Adam) and the condition of the “world” through which we must now pass if we are to reach the other side. It describes the condition of our sojourn—our earthly life—under the divine wrath.

 So, we have eaten the Passover meal and crossed the Red Sea, and now we face the Sinai Desert, the desert where we enter into open conflict with our demons and are tested. The breaking of the waters by which we are reborn (see 19:34 in which the hole in his side opened by the phallic spear becomes a divine vulva from which we are born, as it were) begin to frighten us: can we make it through the aridity of life under patriarchy? The chaos of the waves and the fury of the winds represent our fears, the fright of birth. We know that we cannot make it alone.

Then Jesus comes to us walking on these waters of new birth and speaks to us, assuring us by his words, “I am. Don’t be afraid.” It is the voice of the original mother and it consoles our souls with the great sense of her presence: she will be with us as we embark on this journey, we will not be alone and we will not be on our own. In the thirteenth century the image of Jesus as Mother became precious to both men and women religious (monks, nuns, beguines and anchoresses).

The manna, while it speaks to us of the providence of an open and generous heaven that provides nourishment for us on our wilderness sojourn, it also evokes a baby’s nourishment at the breasts of its mother. So we come around again to Jesus as bread, the creation of women in the domain of women, and thus Jesus as the milk that consoles and nourishes the infant. Jesus sustains us—who are infants—in this wilderness trial of judgment, becoming for us both the mother’s breasts and the milk that nourishes us. “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good.”

This image is strengthened further in that Jesus tells us that we must also drink his blood. The ancient world thought that milk formed from the blood that ceased to flow in the menses. The mother basically nourished her child with her blood.

This might seem farfetched (though the imagery is primordial) until one recalls that at the chiastic center of the gospel’s prologue (1:12b-13) is also a birth, our own divine birth, again made explicit in chapter 3, followed by the Baptist’s use of a nuptial image in 3:29, which is then followed by the gospel’s allusion to Jacob’s courtship of Rachel in 4:6 as Jesus enters into a playful dialogue with the woman of Samaria—all this on the way toward the gospel’s center. Jesus compares his resurrection to a mother giving birth in 16:21. He later breathes into his disciples, giving them divine life as God gave animal life and breath to the “adam.” The gospel itself becomes a woman’s body giving life and breath to new believers (6:63; 20:31).

The equation of bread and blood with a mother’s milk follows directly from the image of the new birth. The new believer, an infant, needs comfort and sustenance at her mother’s breasts as she begins her journey through life. Jesus feeds us with himself daily, a mother to his believers.

The believer, who is always spiritually as a newborn child in the world, needs to sustain herself (or himself) daily on this manna. It is by communion with Jesus that we are thus fed, communion with his incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, becoming the Holy Spirit, and embodying himself in the Gospel words. This is how we are to live in this world. We do this, as the gospel itself shows, through the words of the gospel—Jesus comes to us through them on account of his becoming the Holy Spirit (through their co-inherence).

Yet the connection of this passage to the practice of the Lord’s Supper is too strong to ignore. I would not equate daily manna with daily mass for the practice of the early church was not daily Holy Communion but rather Holy Communion on the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, what in English we call Sunday. This is not to imply that it is inappropriate other times. Nevertheless, the church lives daily, from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day, on the sustenance which the Lord’s Table provides. The Lord’s Table gives us in the sacramental form of bread and wine what our daily communion also gives, but in a form that reminds us of its concreteness: that our salvation is the glorification of this flesh, not merely the transformation of our minds, and that it is a gift given to us, not something that we obtain by what we believe is the quality of our performance or experience. There is a particular way that Jesus comes to us in the elements of the bread and wine as we partake together in the context of our remembering him—quite apart from our subjective experience—that is real in a way that our daily communion is only drawing from and preparing us for. The reality is the same.

We may conceive of baptism as the boundary of the church, but John seems to place it at the center. It is a onetime event from which we are ever emerging. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is a repeated event that also defines the life of the church: we live from and to it week by week. It is worthwhile remembering, however, that John’s gospel focuses not on the forms but on the reality that they embody. John’s gospel never speaks explicitly of baptism or the Lord’s Supper or even the church. He speaks explicitly of the Jewish forms, not the Christian ones. There are no apostles, no elders, no prophets or teachers in the Christian sense. There is only Jesus and the disciples, Jesus and humanity, Jesus and the witness (the gospel text itself). It is worth remembering so that we too can, by the work of the Holy Spirit, look with the eyes of John.

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