Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This climatic passage, with its rich metaphor and intense interaction, aims to move us finally to a confession, a claiming, a proclaiming.

August 26, 2012

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Commentary on John 6:56-69

This climatic passage, with its rich metaphor and intense interaction, aims to move us finally to a confession, a claiming, a proclaiming.

It is the revelation that all of the great I AM statements in John deliver: they manifest God-for-us in Christ.

The so-called “Absolute” I-Am statements occur throughout John. In each case Jesus applies the Divine Name to himself to show that he is God. But we see other places where Jesus follows the “I am” with a predicate nominative (6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12; 9:5; 10: 7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5).

The first I AM statement of this sort occurs in our “Bread from Heaven Discourse.” John sets the narrative in the context of Passover to connect it with Moses leading the Israelites toward the Promised Land. Jesus’ skeptical audience grumbles, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? . . . Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat'” (6:30-31). Just the day before Jesus gave bread to 5000 people out of 5 loaves! 

Jesus then tries to re-orient their vision and their passion. They are hung up on the past: Moses gave our ancestors manna. Jesus wants them to focus on the abundant life available right here and now in him:  “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35).

The story proceeds with the pattern of Jesus speaking about his identity, the audience contesting him (cf. 6:41-43), and Jesus trying again. So, again, at 6:51 he presents himself as the Bread of Life and declares, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” As usual, this causes a puzzled response from the auditors: “”How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus then makes his grand six-verse proclamation (verses 53-59); the lectionary picks up on it when he is already halfway through, at verse 56. John 6:56-69 evinces the same pattern mentioned above.

Jesus Speaks: Eating, Drinking and Living: 6:56-59

The scene occurs in a synagogue in Capernaum. As is typical in John, one finds an intra-Jewish, often antagonistic, debate about how Jesus relates to the parent tradition. In this case, the contest is between Moses and Jesus and the subject has to do with who’s eating what and toward what end. Verse 56 uses an unusual word for eating, trogo (the usual word is esthio), whose connotation is crunching or gnawing — the kind of thing one does when eating a turkey leg at the fair, or maybe quail in the wilderness.

In John, the word occurs only in John 6 and at 13:18 when John quotes Psalm 41:9. As is the case throughout John, the primary goal is to abide in Jesus and have him and God abide in and among us; in fact, the word for abide, meno, occurs 40 times in John and in almost every chapter. Abiding in Jesus is synonymous with living, really living; what we call “truly living” John calls “eternal life.” It refers not so much to quantity as to quality.

Response to Jesus, Part I: Verse 60

The audience balks at all this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood and they declare, “This LOGOS is difficult; who can accept it?” Great question! But it is THE question the Gospel puts to every reader. English translations say “teaching” or merely “this,” but logos is a key word in John from the start. From the Prologue on, we know that Jesus is the logos and, crucially, that the logos became flesh (sarx; 1:14). The author expects us to recall what we have heard before chapter 6.

Jesus Speaks Again: The Power of Words: verses 61-65

In verse 61, John uses the word gongyzo to describe the reaction of the disciples. This is the same word used of the Israelites in the wilderness when they grumbled against Moses. He asks them a question: “Does this scandalize you?” Translations often use “offend” but the word is skandalizo and it’s a more powerful word, so why change it? Instead of trying to minimize the scandal of believing Jesus’ testimony about himself, he intensifies it by (a) claiming to be the Son of Man and (b) associating himself with Jacob’s ladder (cf. 1:51), the one through whom heaven and earth are ultimately linked.

The metaphors are piling up: Jesus’ flesh/bread and blood/drink give life (zoe); now we learn that the very words of the Word are not only life, but also spirit. This alludes back to Genesis 1 where God speaks creation into existence and breathes life into people. It also foreshadows 19:30 where Jesus bestows (paradidomi) the Spirit from the cross and 20:22 where he breathes the Spirit on his disciples. 

Jesus wants the hearers to believe (pisteuo occurs 98 times in this Gospel, more than any other). How will they (and we) respond?

Responses, Part II

Choice A, as shown in verse 66, is to bail. Choice B, however, entails abiding (meno) and, therefore, coming to believe and know. Jesus asks if those left also wish to bail. Peter answers for the group; notice that he does not say Yes or No. It’s a moot point — Peter now knows things he can’t pretend he doesn’t know. Oh, he will forget and stumble, but saving, eternal-life-giving knowledge causes us to abide.

It is a compelling knowledge, if only in the long term. The verbs for believe and know here are in the perfect tense in Greek; that tense is what we use to indicate action completed in the past that has continuing effect in the present. THAT’S the kind of believing and knowing Jesus is after. Recognizing Jesus for who he is (be it Son of Man, the Holy One of God, the Word made Flesh, etc.) requires both belief and knowledge; one without the other is useless, if not sinister, as Judas will soon demonstrate.

A few ideas for preachers:
– Preach a series on The I-AM statements in the Gospel of John
– Consider how the passage relates to the Eucharistic practices of your tradition
– Revel in the incarnation with your people