Thought for the day
For us eternal life usually means the next life and it can sound remote and unreal. The Fourth Gospel, where the expression occurs seventeen times, can be of help. The last occurrence (17:2) teaches that eternal life is a quality of relationship which begins now in the present moment and which is indestructible (Heb 7:16).
Lord, we struggle to believe at all and we struggle to hold on to eternal life. Help us to hear your call in the present moment. Help to know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Help us to respond with full and trusting hearts, now and into the future. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
John 6:31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
John 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
John 6:41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
The Sunday divisions are a bit awkward here, thus making the commentary a bit difficult—see below. Sunday 18B gives us 6:24-35 and Sunday 19B offers 6:41-51. A more intelligent division of the material would be 6:31-48 followed by 6:49-59. It is really a homily, in two parts as indicated above. The lectionary cuts across the natural divisions. The text above gives the context in italics. The actual appointed reading is boxed on the PDF.
Kind of writing
The speech in chapter 6 is a homily and gives us a good glimpse of what preaching was like towards the end of the first century. Research has shown that rabbinic homilies of the period showed these characteristics:
(i) Homilies are in a midrashic style (ruminating, paraphrasing, updating). In verses 31-59, we have an early Christian homily, in a recognisably midrashic form, combining text, paraphrase and story material: John 6:33, 50, 41, 51, 58, 38, 42.
(ii) Rabbinic homilies use a main quotation in two parts; these are dealt with in sequence, with the first part of the quotation under consideration in the first part of the homily and the second part of the quotation in the second part of the homily. The main quotation is taken from Exodus 16:4, with echoes of Ex 16:15 and 16:2 (below)
(iii) As is often the case, the beginnings and the endings of homilies resemble each other. The beginning and the end do, in fact, echo each other: 6:31-33 and 58.
(iv) In this style of homily, a further perspective is given by the use of subsidiary quotation from elsewhere in the Bible. The subsidiary citation, in 6:45, is from Is 54:13.
Finally, the suspicion that here we have a homily is surely confirmed by v. 59: He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. (John 6:59) The awkwardness in the lectionary is that it splits up the homily incorrectly. For instance, the second part of the homily begins in v. 48 and continues until v. 59. In these notes the whole homily is given for the sake of clarity. Notice that Part I deals with Jesus as the bread of life and Part II deals with eating the bread of life, that is, with having faith in Jesus.
Old Testament background
Some key Old Testament texts stand behind the long speech here.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. (Exod 16:4)
When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. (Exod 16:15)
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. (Exod 16:2)
All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the prosperity of your children. (Isa 54:13)
New Testament foreground
The real issue is who is Jesus and how do we have faith in him. This comes out very clearly at the end of the chapter, where we read:
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)
We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. But if while seeking to be justified in Christ we ourselves have also been found to be sinners, is Christ then one who encourages sin? Absolutely not! But if I build up again those things I once destroyed, I demonstrate that I am one who breaks God’s law. For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside God’s grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:15–21 NET)
Verse 41 “Complaining” is an echo of the complaints against Moses in the desert.
Verse 42 The “whence” of Jesus is very important in this Gospel. Those who know where he is “from” in fact know nothing. Intriguingly, Pilate (!) asks the right question: He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. (John 19:9)
Verse 43 The Jesus of this Gospel (i.e. the Risen Lord) always knows what people are thinking.
Verse 44 A mysterious, apparently tangential answer, which paradoxically goes to the heart of the matter.
Verse 45 The citation and expectation from Isaiah are applied to Jesus. Compare: As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him. (1 John 2:27)
Verse 46 An echo of the Prologue. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)
Verse 47 Eternal life is faith in Jesus and is for the present moment.
Verse 48 Part II of the homily starts here with a repetition. The text goes on to reflect on “eating” that is, being nourished by Jesus through faith in his gift of himself on the cross.
Verse 49 In contrasting the old and the new, the Gospel proposes life in abundance through Jesus (Jn 10:10)
Verse 50 Eating is a metaphor for ingesting by faith in Jesus.
Verse 51 This points to the death of Jesus, the (only) moment in which he “gives his flesh” for the life of the world.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus gave the disciples a share in his Faith is reasonable but we cannot reason our way into faith. We have to be ‘drawn by the Father’. We have to be ‘taught by God’. What opens your mind and heart to God’s message?
2. One thing which closes our minds to what another is saying is when we label them disparagingly, as the Jews did to Jesus. Have you ever had the experience of being surprised by the wisdom of another when you laid aside your prejudices about her/him to listen to what s/he was saying?
3. ‘No one has ever seen the Father except the one who is from God’. As Jesus put a human face on God and God’s love, so God’s love for us today is mediated through one another. How have other people been sacraments of God’s love for you?
4. The way in which Jesus became a source of life for us was by giving himself. It is when we truly give ourselves that we can be life-giving to one another. If we do not give of ourselves, what do we have to offer? How have you discovered the importance of self-giving, in yourself or in others?
God our Father and provider, whose Son has given his flesh for the life of the world, sustain your pilgrim Church on its journey with the word of life and the bread of heaven. Draw us nearer to him in whose name we gather, that, following his way of sacrificial love, we may come to the banquet of eternal life. Grant this through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.