Communion: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Thirteenth Week after Pentecost
Thirteenth Week after Pentecost (Year B): John 6:51-58
1) This is the fourth of a five-week series of readings walking through a single chapter in John. Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd five thousand people, challenges them to move beyond the need for “signs and wonders” and step toward an even deeper trust in God, and then declares, “I am the bread of life,” the one who has come to provide the nourishment of living wisdom, the teachings that lead toward true life. In this week’s passage, it comes clear where all this is headed: John’s version of Communion.
2) In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus establishes the Last Supper at a Passover meal on the eve of his crucifixion - but John includes no such meal in his passion narrative. Here in John 6, though the Passover is “near” (John 6:4), this is the second Passover in John, not the third; thus we are pretty much in the middle of Jesus’ three-year ministry. In this way, John lays out his own distinct vision of the Eucharist - and it’s an equally “biblical” vision to the one found in the other three Gospels.
3) There’s a lot in this passage about Jesus’ “flesh” - and so it’s worth bearing in mind that for John, this “flesh” is exactly what the Word of God, the divine Logos, comes and incarnates in the first place (John 1:14). In other words, when Jesus says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” in the context of John’s Gospel, he’s effectively saying, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is the divine Logos, the Word made flesh."
4) As we saw last week, John uses the phrase “the Jews” as a shorthand for those in the Jewish community who didn’t embrace the Jesus movement (as opposed to those in the Jewish community who did). Thus John’s shorthand should never be understood as referring to the Jewish people as a whole. The sad and appalling history of Christian anti-Judaism since John’s day obligates us to continuously remember and emphasize this, and to maintain a sharp focus on the Jewish foundations and substance of the Gospel of John: the emphasis on Passover, the reliance on stories and motifs from Hebrew scripture, the fact that the disciples call Jesus “Rabbi,” and so on. Examples abound, including in this week’s passage: this is a discourse, after all, that the rabbi Jesus delivers “while he was teaching in the synagogue” (John 6:59)!
5) The objection of Jesus’ opponents (“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”) is part of a larger pattern in John in which people - both Jews and Gentiles - misunderstand Jesus because they are thinking too literally, prosaically, or conventionally. Think of Nicodemus (“How can anyone be born after growing old?” (John 3:4)); the Samaritan woman at the well (“Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11)); and indeed Jesus' opponents just a few verses ago (“Isn’t this Jesus, whose parents we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42)). Narrow-minded misunderstanding is a recurring motif in John, and accordingly, it should function for us as an important cautionary signal: don’t take things too literally! Open your minds to “higher” or “deeper” or more "poetic" forms of understanding, modes of thought more fitting for what Jesus himself calls “heavenly things” (John 3:12).
1) Jesus has fed the crowd of five thousand with just a few loaves and fish, with twelve baskets left over - establishing himself as a shepherd who provides abundantly for his flock. “I came that they may have life,” he will later go on to say, “and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And then he turns around and says to the crowds, in effect, Listen - there is an even more wonderful, even more nourishing abundance, an abundance for which this hillside meal of barley loaves and fish is only an icon, a foretaste, a sacramental sign. I’m talking about a meal that will feed your deepest hunger and thirst, the hunger and thirst for wisdom, for true life. For that you need “true food” and “true drink” (John 6:55). And I am that food and drink. I am the embodiment of that wisdom, that life. I am the divine Logos made flesh. To the extent that you are alive, you draw your life from me, as branches draw from their vine (John 15:1-11). So: take your sustenance from me; take me in; drink me in; let me abide in you, and I will let you abide in me.
2) Alright - but how? How do we commune with the Logos? How is this intimate, symbiotic relationship actually carried out? Jesus replies, Think of it as a kind of meal - not a conventional meal, but a heavenly one. Open your imagination to higher things. For true life you need true food and true drink - and I am that food and drink. Communing with me, you commune with the Logos, the source and pattern of all life and all that exists in the cosmos (John 1:1-3). Like the loaves and fishes, this meal will start with what appears to be a paltry portion, only a bite and a sip - but in fact this is an abundant feast! And like my ministry as a whole, and the cross toward which I now walk, I will give myself to you and for you, my body and my blood for your sake, 'for the life of the world' (John 6:51). I am the Logos made flesh - and I give my flesh to you. My flesh, the Logos, is the bread of life. Take and eat.
3) The end result of all this is the teaching that the Eucharistic meal is indeed a meal of communing together with God, of mutually abiding within one another, and most importantly, of sharing a symbiotic, common life with and in God. But not just the ceremonial meal in the context of formal Christian worship! After all, this whole chain of reasoning is set in motion by the feeding of the five thousand on the hillside: for John, that meal is eucharistic too, which is to say, it’s a meal that opens up and out into the heavenly meal of communing with Jesus. Indeed, if we have eyes to see, every one of our meals has this character: it's a gift of God that can remind us, even as it satisfies physical hunger and thirst, that God also satisfies our deeper hungers for wisdom, for true life, for the intimacy with God we are made for. Humanity does not live on physical bread alone. We live on both physical bread and the true bread of wisdom, of life together with and in God.
1) This is a perfect week for exploring the meanings of the Communion meal, and in particular for considering that meal through John’s eyes. For John, Communion is an experience of God’s abundance and care, physical, spiritual, and otherwise. And it’s a tangible entryway into an even wider and deeper reality, itself both physical and also more-than-physical, of how God provides us with multiple forms of nourishment for our multiple forms of hunger and thirst. At the most basic level, God gives us life, true life, abundant life - so much so that our life participates in God’s life. As Paul puts it in Acts, “in God we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Communion meal - experienced in a church sanctuary or out on a hillside or on a stool at a lunch counter - is a way of feeling and cultivating this great mystery.
2) In fact, this passage opens up an avenue that few Christians have experienced, but which is as thoroughly “biblical” as more conventional Communion meals in services of worship. Imagine celebrating Communion by retelling not the well-known story grounded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (“On the night of his arrest…”), but rather this story from John. Imagine the congregation standing, and the celebrant standing before them at the table, paraphrasing John 6:1-14, saying, “After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover festival was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to one of his disciples, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ The disciple answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ Then another disciple said, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ (Here the celebrant raises the bread and cup.) Jesus said, 'Have the people sit down.’ (Here the congregation sits.) Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that Jesus had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ Let us pray…” (And here the meal begins.)