Reflection on Jn 6.25-59

What do you think when you hear the word "bread"? I think there are probably as many images of bread as there are people to hear the word. I always think not of some particular loaf of bread but of an incident at my mother's church in San Antonio, Texas, where I was brought up. I was visiting her and it was communion Sunday; in her church, communion was passed around on trays that held both wafers and little glasses (that I thought irreverently looked like shot glasses) holding wine or grape juice. The pastor had preached about this very passage from John and about the living Bread. When the time came to pass the communion elements around, a little boy in the pew in front of me, who was at his first communion service, was very eager for the tray to reach him. But when he saw the wafers he looked stricken and said very audibly to his mother, "Where's the bread? That's not bread! He (indicating the pastor) said there was going to be bread!" His mother shushed him before he could elaborate any further. But I never think of bread, or of this section of John's Gospel without thinking of that disappointed kid.....

The people at the synagogue at Capernaum are in a state very like that kid's. Some of them had come looking for Jesus there after the feeding of the 5000 on the other side of the lake. Others had heard about the miracle and wanted to understand. All were looking for answers. They were looking for a sign.

Jesus began by likening the sign of the miraculous loaves and fish to the sign of manna, the bread of heaven as it is called in the Psalms. So far so good - the audience followed him as he replied to their request for a sign by offering them himself: just as his Father, not Moses, was the one who provided the original sign of manna in the wilderness, so now his Father was providing a sign, which was Jesus himself. I, Jesus told them, am the real bread that comes down from Heaven. He speaks about that bread in ways that recall the bread that Lady Wisdom offers to those who seek her in the book of Proverbs, except that the bread (and wine) that she offers makes those who eat and drink them want more, whereas those who come to Jesus the Living Bread will be satisfied.

This discourse by Jesus here reflects the way that the bread in question stands for so many things! It is the heavenly manna of the Exodus. It is a symbol of the wisdom which is given freely to those who seek Lady Wisdom in her house of Seven Pillars. And it is a symbol of God's Torah, or Instruction, which like the manna, is apparently offered by Moses but actually by God. Some Judaeans present (a puzzle in itself, for why identify these people so?) were disturbed by Jesus' comparison of himself to the Bread that came down from heaven. So Jesus, as was his wont, doubled down on the metaphor and said: "48I am the living bread. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they died; 50this is the bread that has come down from Heaven so that whoever eats of it will not die. 51I am the living bread that has come down from Heaven; if someone eats from this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world."

Jesus doesn't overemphasize the metaphoric eating of the Bread from heaven: it was apparently understood by many of his hearers as a continuation of the idea that Jesus was Wisdom and Instruction from God, which should be (metaphorically) eaten, that is, appropriated to themselves. We coming later also understand this, as the Evangelist undoubtedly intended us to, as a reference to the Eucharist instituted at the last supper. But those Judaeans were not having any of it. Undoubtedly offended by the juxtaposition of the mention of eating and the mention of flesh and ignoring the clarification offered when Jesus referred to his flesh given for the life of the world, that is, to his sacrificial death, they asked in a quarrelsome way how Jesus could give them his flesh to eat.

This was a mistake, as many who had argued with Jesus could testify. For now he doubled down again on the offensive metaphor, speaking of eating his flesh and drinking his blood and of the life that conferred. He brings his discourse back to where it began, with the contrast between the true bread from Heaven, himself, a living flesh-and-blood man, and the manna. The latter came from Heaven by God's gift during the Exodus, but it was not true heavenly bread because it did not confer life. Jesus himself is the true bread from Heaven, because his flesh and blood give eternal life.

These are hard sayings, especially since the Eucharist had not yet been instituted, but they can be disentangled by those of Jesus' listeners who wanted to hear and understand what he had to say - there were clues to what Jesus meant, to what his followers needed to do, as I have indicated. But those who were apparently just there to quarrel over Jesus' words did not bother. Later we are told that even some of his disciples left after this. But many continued, including the Twelve and others like the Beloved Disciple.

One of the many things we learn from this discourse is that Jesus provides us with bread for our journey through this earthly life. Not literal bread, like the manna in the Wilderness, but the sacramental bread of the Eucharist and the symbolic Bread of God's Wisdom and Instruction, that is, God's Word in both the sense of Jesus himself and in the sense of the Scripture. I chose this reading for this evening, despite the fact that it is so dense that I knew we would only have time to scratch the surface, because it shows us Jesus and his Father providing us with that bread for our journey, the bread of Scripture, by which I have been sustained for many years.

Song: Let Us Break Bread Together (Trad.)

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