2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a; Psalm 51.1-13; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6.24-35
Almighty God, who sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your Church: open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
DURING a brief visit to Milan several years ago, I set off one morning to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Visitors without advance tickets find themselves at the back of a long queue. I abandoned this, deeply disappointed, and went into the next door church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Mass was just about to start. Joining the elderly priest and congregation of devout women turned out to be one of the most joyful events of the trip. I had gone to see a representation of the institution of the eucharist with the tourist’s mixed motives of reverence, curiosity, self-improvement, and determination not to miss something important, and accidentally stumbled into the real and living continuity of what the fresco recorded.
John’s extended treatment of the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand is a far more dramatic story of seeking one thing and finding another. The crowd, puzzled that Jesus has disappeared (John 6.15), set off in search of him, boarding the boats that have conveniently arrived from Tiberias (John 6.24).
If it seems odd that people who have been “satisfied” by the food they have been given (John 6.12) should feel the need to pursue Jesus across the lake, nevertheless that becomes the narrative’s central point. Jesus dispenses with pleasantries and charges the people immediately with seeking him for the wrong reason (John 6.26). They have seen the sign, yet missed its meaning. He is offering them something that will endure; they are thinking of short-term needs that must be regularly replenished. If they had thought about the 12 baskets of food remaining after all had eaten enough, they might have recalled the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16.1-27). Only on the sixth day could extra provisions be collected and stored, to be eaten on the sabbath when no work was done (Exodus 16.26). Jesus has shown them a vision of the great sabbath which will be the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. That should be the goal of all their efforts.
Work is a recurrent theme in this chapter. It is implied in Philip’s estimate of the cost of bread for the crowd — the NRSV translates 200 denarii into “six months’ wages” (John 6.7) — and Jesus distinguishes between working for perishable bread and working for “the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6.27). Like Nicodemus (John 3) and the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4), the people are at a loss to know how to do the “work of God” that will secure this different food.
Fulfilling the law imposed demands, but also offered a programme. Nicodemus was living by the Mosaic law; the Samaritan woman was living in defiance of the conventions of respectability. Jesus offers each of them something they must work for in a new and challenging way. For the crowd who had crossed the lake, the new working conditions sound too good to be true: “believe in him whom [God] has sent” (John 6.29). Again, they want a sign.
This is Jesus’s opportunity to reveal his identity. The people have misunderstood him, as an earlier generation had misunderstood Moses. Neither Jesus nor Moses was the giver of bread. Both acted as channels for the gift of God which “gives life to the world” (John 6.30-33). With Jesus, it goes further: he is both the channel and the gift itself (John 1.1-14). Their request, “Sir, give us this bread always,” again misses the meaning (John 6.34). Jesus explains: the bread he is talking about is himself (John 6.35).
Sudden recognition in a narrative has startling impact. It is the device that Nathan uses to make David see the wickedness in his greedy appropriation of Bathsheba, when, having told the story of the poor man’s ewe lamb, he says to the righteously angry king: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12.7). The Letter to the Ephesians offers its recipients another kind of self-recognition. Now part of the great humanity born in Christ’s crucified body, they must recognise what they have accepted.
The first reading that morning in Milan was Ephesians 4.1-16. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” is a powerful proclamation in English, and even more so in Italian: “un solo Signore, una sola fede, un solo battesimo, un solo Dio e Padre di tutti” (Ephesians 14.5).