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Out of the question

05 October 2012

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Is it really a good idea to take five weeks of Gospel readings to cover the single chapter of John 6? And what about the chapters of St Mark's Gospel that we are missing while we read that one chapter from St John?

John 6, with 71 verses, is the Gospel's longest chapter. But dividing it into five breaks up its coherence - and particularly that of the Bread of Life discourse, vv. 31-59.

Raymond Brown, in his commentary on the Fourth Gospel, shows how this discourse follows the homiletic pattern common in Jewish preaching in Jesus's day. It is an exposition of the texts in Exodus 16.4,15 relating to the manna in the wilderness. The initial citation is in v. 31, followed by the discourse contrasting the heavenly bread with the wilderness bread.

The homily ends with the Old Testament text cited again in v. 58. The word "fathers" in v. 31 forms an inclusio with "fathers" in v. 58. This discourse, in which there is much repetition, should form one reading. It would be 28 verses, but the lectionary gives us a reading of 41 verses, not split up, on Lent 4 in Year A (the healing of the blind man), and one of 45 verses on Lent 5 in Year A (the story of Lazarus).

It makes more sense to divide chapter 6 into three readings: vv. 1-21 (the feeding and the walking on the water); vv. 31-59 (the Bread of Life discourse); and vv. 60-71 (the reaction of the disciples to Jesus's words). In the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), John is primarily a supplement to, or infilling of, the Synoptic accounts. This is not ideal. Arguably, it would be better if John were read semi-continuously, as the other Gospels are.

The Upper Room discourses (John 13-17) are already appropriately assigned to Eastertide, but split between Years A, B, and C. In any revision of the lectionary, consideration might be given to a continuous reading of chapters 2-11 (the so-called Book of Signs) in the Sundays after Epiphany and in Lent.

The Joint Liturgical Group published a lectionary in 1990 suggesting a semi-continuous reading of the Fourth Gospel in a fourth year. But the C of E and other denominations adopted the RCL.

Of course, the preacher does not have to preach on John 6 on all or, indeed, any of these five Sundays, but can preach on Ephesians (the epistles) or the semi-continous or related Old Testament readings.

(The Revd) Tony Moore

Address for questions and more answers: Out of the Question, Church Times, 3rd floor, Invicta House, 108-114 Golden Lane, London EC1Y 0TG. questions@churchtimes.co.uk


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