Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51
This week the real challenge of preaching John 6 from the Revised Common Lectionary begins.
We face another Sunday in which the Gospel text focuses on a discussion between Jesus and the crowds about bread which comes from Heaven. To make matters more difficult, we have one more Sunday after this one which seems to be yet another round of the same conversation. A diet of bread, week after week, may get rather tiresome and stale — unless careful attention is paid to the movement of John 6.
Verse 35 is included to make the necessary connection back to Jesus’ claim that he himself is the bread of life. The rest of today’s text acts as an explanation of that claim. In last Sunday’s text, the center of attention was upon Jesus as the gift from the Father for the life of the world. Building on that claim, this Sunday’s text focuses on Jesus as the center of faith to which the Father draws people. The movements within chapter 6 for these two Sundays, and for the one that will follow, are certainly interconnected, but they are not identical. Jesus is not simply repeating himself, and John is not writing in circles.
The conversation is getting more and more difficult. In verse 41, the crowds who had made such efforts to find Jesus after he had crossed the lake begin to grumble (NRSV translates this as “complain”), just as Israel in the wilderness had done (for example, Exodus 17:3). Their complaint in verse 42 focuses on the difficulty caused by their own presumed knowledge of Jesus. They conclude that he has not come from Heaven, because they know his parents. Familiarity is breeding contempt. One who has been among them cannot possibly be what Jesus claims to be.
There is theological irony at play here. The crowd’s professed knowledge of Jesus’ “father and mother” only reveals their complete ignorance of the Father who sent Jesus (verse 44). The truth is not found in knowing the human parents who have nurtured Jesus’ childhood. Rather, the truth is found in knowing that Jesus has come from the Father in Heaven. The crowd’s self-assured “knowledge” stands in their way of seeing the truth. We suffer from the same difficulty of seeing beyond what we “know” to be true (about the poor, about ourselves, about the line separating “the saved” from everyone else, etc.), so that we might see the divine Truth among us.
The only way out of such deadly unbelief is to be drawn into faith by the Father, and this activity of the Father is a major focus of today’s text. Once again, the profound and holy mystery of faith is embraced by this text, and we ought to be careful not to unravel it into bland or moralistic pieties. Faith is not simply a human choice to be made, but is the activity of the Father drawing people to Jesus. The word used in verse 44 is the same word used to describe fishing nets being hauled into the boat (21:6). We must be dragged into faith by God; there is no other way to come. But what does that say about the grumblers in this text? What does it say about those around and among us who, to all appearances, have not been drawn to Jesus? What does it say about ourselves, when we recognize our own resistance to faith to be so deep and persistent?
There are no easy answers to such questions, but there is promise and hope in this text’s declaration that God does in fact draw people to faith in Jesus. God is busy doing that right now (“the work of God”, verse 28) through the words of Jesus read in this text and preached from the pulpit. The paradoxical tension in this text between the call to faith and the declaration that faith can come only from God is not something to be untangled but to be heard and believed, and thereby to be drawn by God. Even to the grumblers, Jesus comes as the bread of life, opening our eyes and hearts to new possibilities.
Jesus is hardly making this any easier on the crowds. He had begun by talking about “bread from heaven,” and he was misunderstood. In response to that misunderstanding, Jesus made the claim both clearer and more offensive: “I am the bread of life.” That claim got the people grumbling and complaining at the beginning of today’s text. When people begin to complain about our own statements, the common response is to try and make this point more gently, more acceptable, less open to objection. Instead, Jesus again makes the claim even more bold and offensive. At the end of our text, Jesus defines the bread that he will give as his own flesh. Such a statement seems designed to make people nervous and worried about just what following Jesus might involve.
L. William Countryman (The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel) has called this sort of repeated pattern in John’s Gospel “obnoxious discourse.” Jesus seems intent on making his claims as difficult and offensive as possible. As conversations go on and objections are raised, Jesus does not seem interested in making it easier to swallow. The point here is not that we can use our own offensive speech as a measure of our faithfulness. Rather, the point is that one must follow Jesus on Jesus’ own terms; that’s what it means to be a disciple.
Though there is significant debate about the meaning of “my flesh” in verse 51, it probably points most directly to Jesus’ death on the cross rather than to the Eucharist as the primary referent. If the crowds have been offended by trying to reconcile Jesus’ heavenly claims with Jesus’ familiar parents, what will happen when they are faced with the brutal reality of the cross? The bread from Heaven will give life to the world, astonishingly, by dying for it. This bread of life from Heaven is no “free lunch;” it will cost Jesus his life. Feeding on this bread will bring us as well to the cross (12:32).