We are in the fourth of five weeks in the lectionary winding our way slowly through the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6 and the following discourse, in which Jesus declares he is the bread of life, and that he will feed all who come to him. The reading for Trinity 11 in this Year B is John 6.51–58, and Jesus’ teaching, mixed with brief interrogations from ‘the Jews’, continues to circle around, both repeating previous ideas and adding in new ones, whilst intensifying the claims.
I would really love to know what the lectionary compilers thought they were doing by offering us this series of quite short readings, with much repetition, dragging out this episode over five weeks! Did they assume that most people would be on holiday so that you could, in effect, preach the same sermon every week and no-one would notice? I am in the odd position of covering for different churches, so am preaching in four different places in August. I might well find myself making use of some insights in more than one place!
But the real problem we have in reading these verses, extracted from their context, is that we end up removing them from the things that come before and after, which seems to me to be essential in making sense of them. In terms of what we have already read:
- The wider context is the feeding of the 5,000. People have actually just eaten bread and fish, so, as is characteristic of this gospel, a ‘spiritual’, metaphorical meaning is attached to a real and physical event.
- In the light of this, Jesus then makes the core distinction between food which ‘perishes’, and food which ‘abides to eternal life’. We noted that the destiny of the food is linked to the destiny of people in their response to Jesus, and the division between those who ‘perish’ and those who, ‘abiding’ in Jesus, inherit ‘eternal life’, so that ‘you are what you eat’
- There is a repeated and emphatic parallel between ‘believing in the one who the Father has sent’ and ‘eating the bread of life’. So ‘eating Jesus’ appears rather strongly to be a metaphor for ‘believing in’ and ‘abiding in’ him. Indeed, the later discussion about ‘abiding’ includes language of mutual indwelling; those who abide in Jesus, Jesus will abide in them.
In terms of what follows in next week’s reading:
- ‘Jesus said these things in the synagogue as he taught in Capernaum’. In other words, Jesus is offering this teaching about himself in the place that would normally be used for the reading and exposition of the Torah. If ‘people do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Deut 8.3), then Jesus is now claiming to be this word which we should eat.
- When some of his followers take offence in John 6.61, Jesus responds with a prediction of his ascension to the throne of God. In other words, their grumbling appears to be at the exalted claim that Jesus is making, rather than at the offence of the (if taken literally, rather revolting) nature of the metaphor of ‘eating Jesus’.
- Jesus goes on to comment that his words are ‘[S]pirit and life’, and that ‘the flesh has no value’; in other words, we should not take his words literally! He is not talking about actual eating and drinking, but about his death that gives life.
- Peter’s response in contrast to those who are leaving is not ‘I don’t mind eating your flesh!’ but ‘We have come to believe and know…’
With these elements framing our reading, let’s turn to the text itself.
Having described himself several times as ‘the bread of life’, Jesus now reframes the expression to describe himself as ‘living bread’. At one level this is not much of a change, but it makes the claim more relational. ‘Bread of life’ has the sense of ‘bread that gives [eternal] life’, but now it is clear that the life that this ‘bread’ brings is the life that the ‘bread’ itself, Jesus himself, has. So the metaphor of ‘eating Jesus’ means taking in the life of Jesus for ourselves, which is the same kind of idea that Paul deploys when he talks of being ‘baptised into Christ’ (Gal 3.27, Rom 6.3).
The phrase also draws our attention to the parallel discussion in John 4.13–14 with the Samaritan woman at the well. Whoever eats physical bread will be hungry again and will eventually die, but whoever eats the ‘living bread’ will never hunger and will live. Whoever drinks the water from the well will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the ‘living water’ that Jesus gives will have within them a ‘spring welling up to eternal life’.
We saw last week how the circling argument built cumulatively: first, Jesus is the bread of life; then Jesus has ‘come down from heaven’; then, in the words of ‘the Jews’, Jesus is the ‘bread that has come down from heaven’; and finally (v 51) Jesus is ‘the living bread that came down from heaven’. Now Jesus adds a further layer by explaining that this bread ‘is my flesh that I will give for the life of the world’.
The term ‘flesh’ (σάρξ) is not common in the Synoptics, occurring only incidentally in three or four sayings (Matt 16.17, 19.5, 24.22, 26.41 and parallels, plus Luke 24.39). It occurs in 12 verses in the Fourth Gospel, and does much more theological work here, though in quite a different sense from Paul’s use of it as ‘sinful humanity’ in contrast to the work of the Spirit (see Gal 5.16).
- In John 1.13, 3.6, 6.63, 8.15 and 17.2 is means ‘humanity’ or ‘the (merely) human’. Where there is a contrast with the Spirit, it is not in the Pauline sense, but distinctively Johannine, meaning ‘mundane’ as opposed to ‘spiritual’.
- In John 1.14, it signifies humanity, but now making the theological claim that the divine Word has become fully human.
- The remaining occurrences are all in this passage.
The language of ‘giving’ of his ‘flesh’ is an unmistakable reference to Jesus offering himself in his death on the cross. It runs parallel with the idea of God ‘giving his only Son’ (John 3.16) and giving the true bread (6.32), and is developed in the ‘shepherd’ discourse in John 10.11, 15, 18, where Jesus is clear that his death comes about because he chooses to lay down his own life, rather than it being taken from him against his will. Elsewhere in the New Testament, there is a connection made between the breaking of bread in the Lord’s supper and the body of Jesus—but the term ‘flesh’ is never used.
The giving of ‘life for the world’ repeats the phrase from John 6.33, parallels the language of John 3.16, and draws on the complex of life, light and world from the prologue. Once more, salvation is from the Jews, but it is for the world.
The reaction here is notable. Instead of, as previously, ‘grumbling’ as a group, with the echo of the grumbling to Moses in the desert, now the ‘Jews’ sharply dispute amongst themselves. We need to note this because it points to the much more complex portrayal of ‘the Jews’ in this gospel, where some clearly follow Jesus whilst others reject him. It also shows that the metaphor ‘giving us his flesh to eat’ was not simply dismissed as unavoidably offensive.
What then follows is a series of 9, 10 or 11 successive sayings of Jesus (depending on how you count the combination in v 57), which again circle around, repeat and develop, mostly using language already deployed, but incorporating one or two new ideas that will be picked up later in the gospel. The group is introduced once more by the Johannine version of Jesus’ ‘weighty saying’ introduction, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you…’
Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you will have no life
If you do eat and drink, you will have life—
and I will raise you up on the last day
My flesh and blood are true food and drink
Whoever feeds on my flesh and blood abides in me, and I abide in them
The living Father sent me,
I live because of him,
and whoever feeds on me will live
This bread came down from heaven
not like the manna which the fathers ate and died
Whoever feeds on this will live forever
We begin and end with the connection between eating/drinking and living, and this life is ‘eternal’ in the sense that it belongs to the (imperishable) age to come, so is both realised now and (as in the previous verses) has a distinctive hope for the future, of being ‘raised up’ on the last day.
There is a repeated and distinctive emphasis on both flesh and blood. Elsewhere (Matt 16.17, 1 Cor 15.50, Eph 6.12) the pairing has a proverbial sense, as it has today, meaning ‘humanity’. But given the earlier reference to flesh alone, as representing Jesus’ body as bread, there is surely a more distinct sense here. Jesus has talked about ‘giving his flesh’ to refer to his dying on the cross; the problem of ‘drinking blood’ is that it is clearly prohibited in the OT (Gen 9.4, Lev 17.10–14, Deut 12.23) because ‘the life is in the blood’. In other words, you are not to take the life of an animal to contribute to your own life, though you may live from its death by eating it. With Jesus, we both live because of his death, but also live because he gives us his life poured out by the Spirit as a result of his (death and) resurrection. We might even be tempted, with Paul, to talk of being baptised into his death and into his new resurrection life (Romans 6.3–4).
If the ‘eating and drinking’ were discrete actions which then had consequences, we might think that John 6.56 suggests that eating and drinking lead to the result of ‘abiding’ in Jesus. But the grammar suggests that they are equivalents; eating and drinking is another way of talking about abiding. We remain in his love as long as we receive the benefits of his death for us and live out his resurrection life by the power of the Spirit.
The cascading relationship of life from Father, to Son, to those who believe in him draws two sets of connections from earlier in the gospel. Those who believe in the true light bringing life into the world are born of God (John 1.13); and the Father who has life in himself has granted that the Son has life in himself (John 5.26) so that whoever believes in him will themselves have eternal life.
Additional Note: someone commenting in online discussion, Merrill Nanigian, noted:
“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34) Eating his flesh and drinking his blood = *doing* the will of God in our lives.
The term Jesus uses in his first statement is βρῶσις, and in his response to the disciples’ muttering he uses the synonym βρῶμα—a typical variation of words in this gospel. The only other place where the term βρῶσις occurs is near the beginning and end of the ‘bread of life’ discourse, forming a frame to it:
Do not work for the food (βρῶσις) that perishes, but for the food (βρῶσις) that endures to eternal life… (John 6.27)
For my flesh is true food (βρῶσις), and my blood is true drink. (John 6.55)
I don’t think we can separate these two ideas—so ‘eating Jesus’ or feeding on him is inseparable from doing his will and being obedient to him. Again, we find this integration in the ‘farewell discourse’, where abiding in him means knowing his love and doing his will in obedience to his commandments.
The final cluster of sayings connects back the beginning of this section, but also draws to a close the contrast with the manna in the desert from John 6.32. Jesus, the living bread, does not just contrast with the physical bread [and fish] from the feeding of the 5,000—a sign which pointed to him when received aright—but also with the feeding with the ‘bread’ (manna) in the desert. Where the bread and fish point to the meaning of Jesus, and the manna and quails pointed to the faithfulness of God, both point to Jesus the living bread, who gives the life of the Father to all who receive him by faith.
The saying [‘whoever eats my flesh…drinks my blood…] must be understood as a graphic metaphor meaning to believe in him. When it is unpacked it means that Jesus is the source of eternal life, and belief in him is the only way humans can satisfy the hunger and thirst for God. These sayings may remind modern readers of Jesus’ words of institution of the Lord’s supper, but in their Johannine context they are to be understood as a striking, even a confronting, way of speaking about faith in him (Colin Kruse, TNTC p 204).
The paradox that Jesus will bring life through his death becomes the polemical edge of the discourse (Jo-Ann Brant, Paideia p 129).