Proper 15: 1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5.15-20; John 6.51-58
O God, you declare your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity: mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may receive your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
IF JOHN 6.51-58 is the Fourth Gospel’s counterpart to the narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Synoptics, then it raises a question of chronology. How could this teaching possibly make sense in the narrative sequence? It would be unfair to the listeners, even though they had seen the sign of the multiplied loaves and fish, to expect them to advance to an understanding of an event that had not even happened.
Does that mean that there is another chronology simultaneously at work? The answer is yes, if the writer of John’s Gospel is taken to be addressing a small community of Christians, perhaps in Ephesus, who may first have heard about Jesus from the disciple himself.
For them, linear time is displaced by the fact that Jesus’s divine identity is already known. There is consequently nothing implausible about seeing glimmers of his saving purpose and direct relationship with the Father in every episode of his earthly ministry.
Telling the story like this also co-opts its audience into confirming the writer’s dim view of the Jews who came to listen to Jesus: they had ample opportunity to see, and yet they refused to believe (John 6.26, 36). We need to be aware of this bias, not just as an example of religious and ethnic prejudice, but also as a reminder that the same temptations are there to entrap anyone who communicates the gospel, in any age.
Yet, whatever the writer thought about the Jews, they provide excellent dialogue partners for Jesus, as he develops the language of bread into a rich and profound medium for explaining what he is offering. Each grumble creates an opportunity for a new layer of meaning to be added.
“What sign are you going to give us, then?” the people ask (John 6.30), implying that it will at least have to match Moses’s success in producing manna in the wilderness. Jesus corrects them. It was God, not Moses, who gave the bread from heaven (John 6.32-33). They challenge him to give them this bread always (John 6.34).
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus replies. But is it any use telling this to those who will not believe (John 6.35-36)? Obviously not; for the people object to the very claim that he is the bread from heaven, on the grounds that he belongs to a local family (John 6.41-42).
Jesus counters this by pointing out that he is not claiming to give the bread: he is the life-giving bread that the Father gives, and, lest his hearers dismiss this as a metaphor, he insists that this bread is his own flesh (John 6.43-51).
It is not clear whether the people are offended or simply confused in asking how he could give his flesh, but any ambiguity disappears when Jesus adds that they must not only eat his flesh, but also drink his blood in order to have life (John 6.52-54). This transgresses the repeated prohibition on eating any flesh in its own blood (Genesis 9.4, Leviticus 3.17, Deuteronomy 12.23).
He has gone as far as he dares. It is left to next week’s Gospel reading to offer context and perspective on teaching that even the disciples describe as “difficult” (John 6.60). Jesus will not return to this theme until the focus shifts from his earthly ministry to his final teaching over the table of the Last Supper.
The life that Jesus offers to his own people is being worked out in practical ways by the recipients of the Letter to the Ephesians. The letter’s advice on Christian conduct suggests that even people who have heard of the saving gift of Christ’s body on the cross and believe that it is for them are not immune from the distractions of the world that is still theirs. They must negotiate it with care and alertness, treating time as a valuable commodity not to be wasted, but rather to be given up in praise and singing, which make the Spirit’s activity tangible among them.
Perhaps the writer is more generous to worldliness than we might imagine. He seems to know about the transient euphoria of an inebriated “high”. His skill is to offer something even better, and to promise it for ever. This is a very attractive advertisement for worship.