Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 17
by Reta Halteman Finger
As I write this, it is New Year’s Eve, 2013. Americans around the country are stocking up on snacks and drinks for a rousing party to welcome in a new year as yet unsullied by human foibles. Ironically, despite many resolutions to live a more disciplined life, people commonly use New Year’s Eve for one final fling of holiday overeating and drinking. How appropriate—and ironic—that this lesson should center around food and drink!
Before the previous Christmas lesson, we already had Lessons 14 and 15 from John 6. We ate with the crowd of 5000 that Jesus fed on the mountain (6:1-15); we sailed with them back to Capernaum as they hunted for this generous miracle-worker they wished to hail as their king (6:16-29). But instead of accepting royal honors, Jesus challenges them to a debate. In true Johannine fashion, yesterday’s simple supper of bread and fish now becomes a means to probe for the hidden, spiritual hunger of the human heart.
But the crowd seems to have forgotten the meal Jesus had fed them. “What sign are you going to give us so that we may believe in you?” They then suggest he’s not up to par with Moses, who provided manna—“bread from heaven”—for the people in the desert (6:30-31; see Ex 16:1-21; Num 11:7-9). What we see here is the typical public honor challenge characteristic of ancient Mediterranean people (and American political campaigns). Two men, or groups of men, challenge each other publicly for dominance. The one who can top the other with a clever verbal retort gains public honor, while the loser is shamed.
Verbal sparring with mixed messages
But in this narrative Jesus is always in control; he never loses. “Moses did not give you this bread; it came from my Father who gives the true bread from heaven, the kind that gives life to the world” (John 6:32-33). Just like the Samaritan woman who said, “Give me this water” (John 4:15), the crowd responds, “Give us this bread always” (6:34). As with Nicodemus and this woman, Jesus speaks on two levels, the Below and the Above. Just as he was the Water of Life in chapter 4, here in chapter 6, he is the Bread of Life. Those who believe in him will never again be hungry or thirsty.
Jesus continues, pursuing the image of bread coming down from heaven. Just as manna came from heaven, so he has come from above to bring life to the world. This discourse on the bread of life is one of the clearest examples of the “descent of the Word/Sophia,” discussed in Lessons 1 and 2. It is a reminder of incarnation, the Word who descends to human level and lives among us (1:14). It echoes the “turkey theology” of the previous lesson, where a human becomes a wild turkey mother to provide life to chicks which otherwise would die.
Alas, this crowd of local Jews doesn’t get it. They begin to complain, reacting on an earthly level as Nicodemus had in chapter 3. “You didn’t come down from above! We know where you grew up. You’re the son of Joseph and Mary. You’re speaking nonsense!” (41-42).
Jesus continues to call himself the Bread of Life, further taunting the crowd with a statement so outrageous on a literal level that no Jew could accept it: “The bread I’m talking about is my flesh, my body” (51). Falling into the literal trap, the Jews ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”(52). “Truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you!” (53). Conversely, if you do eat and drink, you will have eternal life (53-58).
Is this Gospel anti-sacramental?
It is hard to imagine an actual conversation and discourse like this one. Even on a spiritual level, drinking Jesus’ blood would have made no sense until after his bloody death. Remember from Lesson One that our author is less interested in what actually happened, and more concerned with the meaning of what happened. Not only does s/he write in an ironic mode throughout, quite different from the Synoptic Gospels, but s/he conveys theological truth through different stories. Just as the author moves Jesus’ desert temptation (i.e., Mt 4:8-10) to the feeding story (Lesson 15), so also s/he omits the Last Supper, the Passover meal where Jesus takes bread and wine and tells the disciples to eat and drink it as his body and blood (Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:15-20).
Instead, John re-interprets the Synoptic account of the “feeding of the 5000.” Here it becomes a sign pointing to Jesus himself as the Bread of Life. The true believer “eats” Jesus’ flesh and “drinks” his blood. As the mystic, Julian of Norwich, put it, Mother Jesus feeds her children from her own body.
Questions for reflection:
1. Since John’s Gospel has no Last Supper, do you think the author intends to bypass the need for any meal ritual?
2. How do you relate to the “Above” and “Below” personally and in your faith community (if you are part of one)? What meaning does the Lord’s Supper/eucharist/communion have for you? Does participation make you “religious” or right with God? Or is it a sign pointing to something beyond? If so, what is that “something”?