Real Life: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Fourteenth Week after Pentecost
Fourteenth Week after Pentecost (Year B): John 6:56-69
1) This is the fifth and final week of a five-week series of readings walking through a single chapter in John. Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of five thousand people; challenges them to move beyond the need for “signs and wonders;” declares, “I am the bread of life,” the one who has come to provide the nourishment of living wisdom; and points toward the Eucharist as a meal of intimate communion with God. In this week’s passage, Jesus underlines that the point of all this - from the miraculous abundance to the intimate communion - is finally to lead us toward genuine, vibrant, courageous life, true life, real life.
2) We might expect this culminating passage to end the chapter in triumph and illumination, with the amazed crowds lining up to join the Jesus movement. But John’s story is moving in the opposite direction. Hearing Jesus’ words, the crowds turn away, confused and disappointed, and many of Jesus’ disciples join them. The throng of five thousand now dwindles, just 69 verses later, down to the original twelve. The atmosphere is at once charged with awe and overcast with dismay. Just a few verses later, John adds, “not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5).
3) As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, part of what is going on here is John’s evocation of the ancient story of the Israelites and the manna in the wilderness. For John, Jesus is God’s new life-giving manna - and precisely by “complaining” and disbelieving, the crowds and disciples unwittingly confirm that Jesus is in fact manna, since the Israelites, too, greeted the ancient manna with complaints and distrust (John 6:61; Exodus 15:24, 16:2). This kind of dramatic irony (a storytelling technique by which the audience is let in on things that characters in the story don't realize) is one of John’s signature moves. Remember, the big story in John is that the Word became flesh for the sake of the world, but “the world did not know him” (John 1:10) - and yet the audience of John’s Gospel (including us!) may come to know Jesus by listening carefully to the story of how so many turn away. Thus John’s entire Gospel is an exercise in dramatic irony. John aims to help the world get to know Jesus by telling the story of how the world turned away.
4) As we saw last week, another of John’s favorite themes is that many of Jesus’ listeners misunderstand him 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...where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11)); or Jesus’ opponents (“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52)). This motif emerges again in this week’s passage - and it should function for us as a warning: don’t take things too literally! Open your minds to “higher” or “deeper” or more "poetic" forms of understanding, what Jesus himself calls "heavenly things" (John 3:12).
1) Teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, a prosperous city on the north side of the Sea of Galilee that serves as a key center of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus puts forward a provocative, enigmatic teaching: his flesh and blood, he says, are “true food” and “true drink” (John 6:55), the bread of heaven that makes for intimate communion with God, a mutual indwelling by which those who eat “abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56). Many of his disciples are taken aback, scratching their heads and whispering to one another, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” (John 6:60).
2) On its face, the teaching seems to be, at worst, cannibalistic, and at best, bizarre nonsense. What’s more, Jesus seems to imply that he is not just a prophet of God, but somehow himself divine, the source of “life” and “eternal life,” claims that would have struck many of this listeners as outlandish and presumptuous (John 6:54,57). John has already revealed to his readers that Jesus is indeed the divine Logos through whom all things came into being, including and especially “life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4) - but now this aspect of his identity comes out into the open for the first time. Jesus is the Logos incarnate. Logos is the source of all life. And so, for our part, to be truly alive, we have to commune with the Logos - and here Jesus invites us to do just that.
3) Jesus underscores these ideas in his response to the perplexed disciples. Does this offend you? he asks. How much more will you be offended when I ascend to heaven! And then comes the crucial sentences, reminiscent of the earlier episode when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:12). Here Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life… The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life. But among you there are some who do not believe” (John 6:63-4). It’s as if he’s saying, You are hearing my words in a mundane way - listen instead in a heavenly way, a spirited way, a life-giving way. You are thinking too literally, too prosaically. This isn’t cannibalism - but the language of eating is the best language available to express this heavenly mystery, this mutual indwelling and communion that is for you the source of real life. Open your mind to the spirit of what I am teaching. I know it sounds outlandish and incredible - but listen in a deeper way. I am the Word, the Logos, the Life - and communing with me, you truly live. Abide in me, as I abide in you. Take and eat. Open your mind, and open your heart, and trust (the word pisteuo, translated “believe” in this passage, can also be translated, “trust”).
4) But they do not trust. They do not open up their minds and hearts to unconventionally “higher” or “deeper” forms of understanding. They do not feast on Life. Like some of those ancient Israelites in the wilderness, many of Jesus’ disciples turn away - a turn of events John sums up with one of the most devastating verses in the New Testament: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). The twelve remain, represented by Peter’s confession, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life… You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-9). But we know that soon enough Peter will desert Jesus, too - and Jesus, for his part, seems little comforted by Peter's insistence, changing the subject instead to Judas’ upcoming betrayal. Thus the story’s choreography drastically drops from 5000 to 12 - and then anticipates the abandonment to come, the final subtraction down to only one, Jesus alone on the cross.
1) This is a perfect week for exploring - and normalizing - the reality of doubt, confusion, skepticism, and distrust in the life of faith. When the disciples whisper, “This teaching is difficult” - we all can relate! The mysteries are many along the way of Christian discipleship, and passages like this one can come across as odd, inaccessible enigmas.
2) At the same time, John seems unabashed about conveying these difficult teachings, presenting them as if they are difficult by design. That is, John presents them as though they are meant to provoke and challenge, to reshape our typical ways of thinking about things, to encourage us to wrestle and ruminate, and ultimately to help us cross over into new territory. Is a teaching off-putting at first, unclear, or bizarre? Good, John seems to say. Hang in there. Abide with it. Let it shift your mind up into a higher gear, a gear more suited to “heavenly things” and “the spirit that gives life” (John 3:12; 6:63). After all, Jesus means to introduce us to deep, hidden dimensions of reality - and it stands to reason that the most fruitful way to do that is to stretch conventional words in unconventional directions, to speak in parables, to poetically prod and push and provoke.
3) Finally, the dynamics of John 6 can seem pretty bleak: a crowd of 5000 reduced to 12, and then Jesus looking ahead ominously to his betrayal and abandonment by those same 12. But remember, John is a master of dramatic irony. He’s telling us the story of those who misunderstand and “turn back” from Jesus precisely so we might better understand and abide with him. How? With the benefit of the perspective afforded by the whole Gospel and the support of the church community through the ages, we’re invited to see more than those crowds and disciples could see. We’re invited to avoid traps of narrow-minded, literal, prosaic thinking and feeling - and embrace open-minded, adventurous, poetic thinking and feeling. We’re invited to trust in Jesus, not only as a prophet and teacher, but also as the Logos made flesh, the pattern and source of Life, real life, eternal life that begins right here and now! Most of all, we’re invited to a great, ongoing Communion feast, a feast on the Word, a feast, as Peter puts it, on “the words of eternal life” given by “the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-9). Taste and see that God is good!