John 6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
This is the second last Sunday when we read from John 6 and this time the “cutting” of the text is not quite so bad. The excerpt should run really from v. 48 onwards and v. 59 is a very important confirmation that this is a homily.
Even though this text is very focused on Jesus and may seem distant from ordinary life, nevertheless, the starting point has to be something within our lived experience, thus providing a foothold in the familiar to open up the gospel passage. At the same time, it is impossible not to think of the Eucharist, even though the text is really about the death of Jesus. Nevertheless, perhaps the best way to reflect on it would be to think of the Eucharist as offering participation in, a communion in Jesus’ journey to the Father, through death and resurrection. As one Eucharistic Prayer expresses it, “we join our life to his, a perfect prayer of boundless love.”
Kind of writing
As before, this is an early Christian sermon. We are in the second part of a reflection on a biblical text. The main text is a version of Exodus 16:4: ‘He gave them (i) bread from heaven (ii) to eat.’ The first part of the homily reflected on “bread from heaven” and this, the second part, reflects on “to eat.” See again the chart on the next page.
Old Testament background
The background continues to be the story of the Manna in the desert. According to the biblical narrative, God sent the Israelites manna for forty years in the desert (see Exodus 16 and Numbers 11). The manna gained an extra significance in Judaism at the time of Jesus, as we see from Philo of Alexandria, who writes:
Again this heavenly food of the soul which Moses calls manna, the word of God divides in equal portions among all who are to use it; taking care of equality in an extraordinary degree. And Moses bears witness to this where he says, “He who had much had not too much, and he who had but little was in no want;” since they all used that wonderful and most desirable of proportion. On which account it happened to the Israelites to learn that each of them was collecting not more for the men who were related to him than for the reasonings and manners which were akin to him. For as much as was sufficient for each man, that he was allotted in a prudent manner, so as neither to feel any want or any superfluity. (Philo, Who is the Heir of Divine Things § 19)
New Testament Foreground
“To eat” needs careful understanding. In John’s Gospel, frequently a first level of understanding is offered, usually a crass misunderstanding, which is then used to lead the reader (and perhaps the protagonists within the narrative) to a deeper understanding. Three examples may suffice:
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:15)
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life (John 6:52-53)
Clearly, rebirth is not physical – it comes from the Holy Spirit, from above. Clearly, the water Jesus is offering is not physical, but a spring of life from within. Equally clearly the word about eating the flesh of the Son of Man is not meant physically. The meaning lies on another level: allowing yourself to be nourished by the self-gift of Jesus and in that sense “eating.” Several reasons can be given for this reading: (a) it is this faith in Jesus which is the real problem addressed in John 6:52-53, echoing the problems of Jews and some disciples about the incarnation; (b) the key moment in this Gospel is the lifting up of the Son of Man, when he gives himself; (c) the climactic question of John 6 is found in v. 68 “To whom shall we go?”; (d) flesh means the whole humanity of Jesus, as we see from “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Galatians 2:19–21)
Verse 48 This opening sentence (not in the lectionary reading) resumes the heading of the second part of the sermon. I am = God’s name in the Old Testament and a very important component of the theology of the Fourth Gospel. Verse 49 Notice: your ancestors—i.e. the Jews are being addressed here. The contrast is established between the transient nourishment offered in the time of Moses and the lasting nourishment offered by Jesus. Verse 50 A positive statement contrasting with v. 49. It introduces the second part of the homily reflecting on “eat”. We are dealing here with the “fleshly” self-giving of Jesus on the cross. Verse 51 I am forms part of a list of such sayings: the resurrection and the life; the true vine; the good shepherd and so on. It reflects the high Christology of the writer which caused problems not only for Jews, in the synagogue “across the road”, but also for some disciples within the community. The flesh means the self of Jesus, underlining his human condition. Verse 52 The symbolic language is open to misinterpretation and this is what happens, in a typically Johannine way: is this cannibalism? The reader is meant to react something like this: “If this is not the meaning, what is the message?” Verse 53 The Johannine Jesus compounds the shock and paradox. The difficulty being faced by the writer could well be that there are people taking part in the Eucharist who have not faced the saving reality of his humanity and death. Verse 54 The real shock and paradox are constituted by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Verse 55 “True”: Jesus is also the true light and the true vine. True in this sense is a relational term—in the way that lovers are “true” to each other. Verse 56 Abiding in Jesus, i.e. having his relationship with God within the heart of each believer is a key to John’s Gospel (John 1:32-33, 38-39; 2:12; 3:36; 4:40; 5:38; 6:27, 56; 7:9; 8:31, 35; 9:41; 10:40; 11:6, 54; 12:24, 34, 46; 14:10, 17, 25; 15:4-7, 9-10, 16). It is translated by different words in English. Verse 57 I.e. the one who has faith in me lives because of me or from me. Verse 58 As summary statement, as usual at the end of a homily, repeating the descent of the “bread from heaven” and the need “to eat” of it. Verse 59 The writer reveals the homiletic context of this material. Capernaum was mentioned earlier, though not the synagogue (John 6:17, 24).
Pointers for prayer
1. In John’s Gospel, the author frequently presents people as misunderstanding what Jesus says. Jesus then uses the mistake to lead his hearers to a deeper understanding of his teaching. When have you found that clarification of a misunderstanding helped you to greater wisdom or deeper faith? 2. Recall some treasured gifts that you have received. Then think of people who gave you something of themselves. Is it not true that such a gift outweighs any material present? When have you received such a gift? To whom have you given this gift? 3. In this gospel faith is not a concept but a relationship. Faith leads us to believe in Jesus and to trust him who gave his life for us. As you look back on the development of your faith, what has helped to increase your trust in Jesus so that you believe that you are never on your own no matter what difficulties arise in your life? 4. Jesus promises that those who come to him will have life. In what ways have you found that believing in God’s love, and believing that Jesus came to tell us about that love has been life-giving for you?
Wise and gracious God, you spread a table before us and nourish your people with the word of life and the bread from heaven. In our sharing of these holy gifts, show us our unity in you and give us a taste of the life to come.
We make our prayer through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day and prayer
One could launch the reflection by recalling significant situations in which the costly gift of self nourished others, leading perhaps to the gift of new courage and new life. Christians believe that Jesus gives life by giving himself. This is also the path of discipleship—the believer also gives life by the gift of self. Such memories may lead to the real heart of what is being said here: faith in Jesus and the meaning of his death and resurrection. At this point, questions arise such as, what is at the centre of my life? What give me nourishment and energy? How has that actually taken place in my own, quite personal journey? It might even help to come up with a personal faith statement at this point. Above all, this is an invitation to faith, understood as deep, deep trust. In the words of another text, we believe God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Prayer You are the mystery at the heart of it all and at the heart of your mystery we find self-giving, sacrificing love.
Help us to know you as you truly are and as you have shown yourself to be in Jesus your Son.
We ask your blessing as we follow your Son Jesus, our bread of life. May we in turn be able to nourish others.