This Sunday’s Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary (Joh 6:24–35) continues where we left off in John. Well, actually it skips a couple verses, but then it continues the story.
Much like in Mark, the crowd figured out where Jesus’ disciples were going and headed to the same place. They were full of questions.
They find Jesus there.
Rabbi, when did you come here?
they ask. We know the answer because we read last week’s text: he walked there across the water during the night.
What we don’t know is why they asked. But that part’s made clear from the bits the RCL skipped: they knew Jesus was left behind when the disciples left. The crowd itself took the next batch of boats.
Jesus seems to be itchin’ for a fight: He accuses them of bad motives for asking. They should be seeking him because they saw his signs. Jesus says they are just coming because they had filled their stomachs with his miraculous bread.
Maybe a certain Savior hadn’t had his coffee.
But he turns it around, and tries to make it a teaching moment. Don’t work for ordinary bread, he says, but for the food that brings eternal life.
Really it is kind of a cryptic statement. What kind of food has the Gospel ever brought up that brings eternal life? They hadn’t said they were there for any bread at all, and now Jesus is turning it into a metaphor…
Clearly he’s trying to get to some particular topic, whether they want to get there or not.
If you’ve been listening closely to John’s telling of the story, he’s actually been hinting at this kind of thing for quite a while.
- There was the Wedding at Cana where Jesus’ first “sign” was to turn water into wine. Not bread, of course, but an evocative image of life—and surely a eucharistic allusion of some kind.
- And there was the Woman at the Well to whom Jesus promised living water, and that once he gave it the water would bubble up inside her “to eternal life.” Again it isn’t bread, and it does’t have that eucharistic connotation of wine, but it has the promise that what Jesus IS and what Jesus GIVES is to be consumed, and it leads to LIFE.
So now, after water and wine, Jesus is talking about some kind of bread leading to eternal life. It is a eucharistic allusion again — and if you don’t believe me, just keep reading the chapter.
Then comes the second question:
What must we do to perform the works of God?
They are sort of on topic, though they moved from the bread Jesus gives to the actions they should be taking. Or maybe it was like one of those press conferences where reporters shout out unrelated questions for their own purposes.
In any case, Jesus answers, nudging the focus back to where he wants it:
This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.
Such an excellent Protestant answer: Just have faith. Faith alone will have you on track, right in the center of God’s will.
Take it as intended and you start with faith and let the implications permeate your living.
Take it the wrong way and you think you really ought not bother with anything but believing — and you end up ignoring a great deal of what Scripture teaches about faithFUL living.
Either way it is a weighty bit of advice, and it prompts the third and fourth questions from the crowd:
What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? …
I suppose this proves that Jesus was right in his first argumentative assertion: They really weren’t coming because they had seen his signs.
(Of course it seems to me that seeing 5000 fed with 5 loaves and 2 fish is a pretty amazing sign. But he didn’t ask me.)
So they want to know about his signs. Note that he does not bother to recite the list for them. Jesus’ signs just stand there, for those who have eyes to see.
But then then the crowd seems to remember how Jesus kept dropping clues (er, breadcrumbs?) about the thing he wanted to talk about: Bread that brings eternal life.
They think of the miracle bread they’ve known about all their lives:
Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness…
And Jesus gets maybe a little testy again:
…it was not Moses
who gave you
the bread from heaven,…
(Well, they hadn’t said anything about Moses giving it.)
…it is my Father
who gives you
the true bread from heaven.
The Bread of Life
Or is he just making a couple key distinctions for them in their search for both bread and eternal life?
- It doesn’t come from Moses. It comes from God.
- It isn’t about something in the past. It is now, in the present.
Those contrasts are what I find most evocative here.
- The gift that matters is not something in human chain of past events.
- The gift that matters is from God, and it comes right now.
There is a metaphor or two in there, something useful for me in my life of faith right now — now, when Jesus says the true bread of heaven comes.
It is so easy to look to the past and see it as better, freer, more full of life. After a few years pass, a period of past struggle is seen in light of its conclusion: Back then I ate manna in the wilderness. Wouldn’t it be great to be back there?
In the present moment it is the struggle that shows most vividly — goals not yet achieved, puzzles of work or parenting not yet solved.
Jesus says that the bread that was GIVEN is far less important than the bread God now GIVES.
No wonder the crowd finally got the point.
Sir, give us this bread always.
And then comes the bit of vintage John:
I am the bread of life.
Whoever comes to me
will never be hungry,
and whoever believes in me
will never be thirsty.
It is one of the great “I Am” sayings. Jesus himself is what God is giving right now.
Come, he says. He’ll satisfy the hunger.
Believe, he says. He’ll satisfy the thirst.
The lectionary is going to spend a good long season in the rest of this chapter of John. Don’t be surprised if it starts to sound like it’s all about the Eucharist…
These Monday Meditations are my own exploration of the Gospel text assigned for the coming Sunday in the Revise Common Lectionary.
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