No matter what we say about the spiritual and theological depth and complexity of John 6, the story begins with a large crowd of hungry people and real bread.
Like so many other people during Covid-tide, we got into the production and consumption of sourdough bread, biscuits, and muffins. My spouse set aside a jar, put in the appropriate ingredients, and waited for the yeasty magic to happen. We must have a good sourdough environment because the process took off almost immediately. The starter was so active that it seemed like another family member. We named it “Elsie” in honor of Brenda’s bread-making grandmother.
We all discovered two things. Sourdough is a committed personal relationship – not merely a mechanical transaction. The starter requires care and feeding. It can get sick and even die. We’ve had to begin again a few times for reasons that remain mysterious.
Yet, when the relationship is right, a second reality becomes apparent. Sourdough gives more than it takes. The terminology is fascinating to me. We use the “discard,” the excess from the growing process in order to make our lovely bread, biscuits, and muffins. In fact, our food comes from the leftovers, the excess, the leavings of the process.
If that creates reverberations with the story in John 6, then we’re thinking along the same lines.
Is John 6 the “missing” meditation on the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Gospel of John? Or is it another kind of discourse? This is a subject of ongoing debate in the literature. I will operate on the assumption that John 6 is indeed the eucharistic meditation in this gospel account and is, therefore, one of the most extensive such meditations in the Christian scriptures. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10-13 are certainly in this league but have a different character.
The eucharistic overtones begin, of course, in the act of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Jesus takes the loaves. He gives thanks (eucharisteo) and distributes the bread to the people as they are seated. Likewise, he distributes the fish. It is impossible for me, as a person formed by eucharistic liturgy and piety, to hear this as anything other than a “Lord’s Supper.”
Of course, the question is which came first – the piety or the practice? Is it the case that we have John’s meditation on the Eucharist here? Or has John’s text been used – regardless of the author’s intention – to form eucharistic piety for so long and so well that we see what perhaps was not there? Certainly, this text forms the eucharistic practice and piety of many Christians. But the eucharistic vibrations just seem too strong in the text for me to believe that we have imposed a meaning that the author did not intend.
There is that little note at the end of verse eleven – “just as much as they wanted.” The emphasis on abundance continues at every stage of the conversation.
In his 1997 article, David Fredrickson challenges the notion that the Feeding of the Five Thousand leads to a metaphorical feeding in John’s understanding. “At stake in the eucharistic interpretation of John 6,” he writes, “are the following items: the relation between Jesus’ divinity and his ability to impart himself to others; Christ’s redemptive work as communication of divinity; and, finally, the meaning for God of the mutuality of Christ and the church” (page 41). He pursues this argument first by examining the leftovers from lunch, the twelve baskets of fragments.
Fredrickson argues that the report in verses 12-13 “is an anticipation of the true bread, Jesus, who is not diminished as he is consumed” (page 41). This is a point that is worth some reflection. Regular food decreases as it is eaten. While the laws of matter and energy conservation are not violated, the actual food doesn’t, in our regular experience, increase as we eat. Fredrickson argues that this increase is a sign of Jesus’ divinity. “Jesus can give his flesh to be eaten and yet continue to exist,” Fredrickson concludes, “because he is God” (page 41).
The problem was scarcity – not enough. It seems there was not enough bread to feed the large crowds. There was not enough money to buy more bread. There was not enough of the small boy’s lunch to even make a start at the banquet. There was not enough vision on the part of the disciples to see what Jesus might do (have they forgotten the water into wine?). In the face of such massive need, what is the use of our meager resources?
“Lack of food was a dominant concern in Jesus’ day,” Bryce Johnson writes. “Sufficient grain was raised in Jesus’ day, but people did not have access to enough grain or bread,” he continues. “Rome took 25 percent of the crop because there were more important mouths to feed elsewhere in the empire,” he notes. In an era of increasing wealth disparity and food insecurity, this stress about scarcity in John 6 is a place where we must begin our reflections.
“Jesus’s earthly ministry explicitly recognizes the potentially corrupting power of our desire to control the bread supply,” Judge and Taliaferro argue. “In calling himself the ‘bread of life,’ Jesus deliberately confronts this desire to control access to and supply of the source of human sustenance, and in doing so, he sets himself up as a target of the secular authorities whose power is in part derived from their ability to control the bread supply” (page 371).
For most of us white, affluent, North Americans, however, scarcity may not be the issue facing us. In his article entitled “Enough is Enough,” William Cavanaugh helps us see that the issue for most of us in a consumerist society is not about having too little but rather about knowing when we have enough.
“Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else. It is not buying,” he argues, “but shopping that captures the spirit of consumerism. Buying is certainly an important part of consumerism, but buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies it. It is this restlessness,” he proposes, “the moving on to shopping for something else no matter what one has just purchased—that sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.”
The contemporary issue with stuff, Cavanaugh argues, is not that we neoliberal, individualist, consumers think we have too little. The contemporary issue with stuff is that we worship the “churn,” the turnover of stuff from what we have to what we want. He names it “the satisfying nature of dissatisfaction.” We are less in bondage to things themselves than we are to the stimulus of disordered desire.
“What has happened in consumer society is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction have ceased to be opposites,” Cavanaugh contends. “Pleasure resides not in having but in wanting. Insofar as an item obtained brings a temporary halt to desire, it becomes undesirable. This is why shopping, not buying, captures the spirit of consumerism, and why shopaholism is being treated as an addiction. Consumerism,” Cavanaugh concludes, “is a restless spirit, constantly in search of something new.”
All that being said, even though the mechanism is different in a consumer economy, Cavanaugh asserts that the issue remains scarcity. It is, however, not a scarcity of stuff in the consumer economy. Rather, it is a scarcity of new stuff, different stuff. “Consumerism is typified by detachment, not attachment, for desire must be kept on the move. Consumerism is also typified by scarcity,” Cavanaugh argues, “not abundance, for as long as desire is endless, there will never be enough stuff to go around.”
The solution to this contemporary consumerist condition is, as it was in the beginning, properly ordered desire. “True abundance is never realized by the competition of insatiable desires for scarce goods,” Cavanaugh suggests. “It is realized by emptying the small self into the larger reality,” he continues, “of God’s superabundant life.” That framework will be expanded in the balance of the Discourse.
Every Christian congregation should be engaged in a physical feeding ministry of some sort. Many, many congregations are engaged in precisely such ministries. If, however, that feeding ministry is separated from and in the absence of advocacy for the hungry and critique of the systems that make people hungry, then those feeding ministries are deficient and one-dimensional.
If physical feeding and political advocacy are cut off from a community of eucharistic piety, then the deficiency remains. Our text grounds our local serving and our systemic advocacy in the mission of God to a hungry cosmos.
I will confess to have succumbed to the temptation of drifting into the ether of dualistic eucharistic piety as the weeks of this stretch of John’s gospel wear on. The text we have this week anchors to both dimensions of the Feeding. On the one hand, Jesus feeds real people with real bread. On the other, he is the one who commands the wind and the waves to be calm. The challenge in our preaching this week and in the weeks to come is to hold those dimensions together and make them stick to our contemporary moment.
References and Resources
Cavanaugh, William T. “The Body of Christ: The Eucharist and Politics.” Word and World, Volume 22, Number 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 170-177. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/22-2_Body_of_Christ/22-2_Cavanaugh.pdf.
Cavanaugh, William T. “When Enough is Enough.” https://biblestudy.definingterms.com/Readings/Cavanaugh_When_Enough_Is_Enough.pdf.
Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85
Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.
Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.