We now move into the Bread of Life Discourse proper in John’s account. The discourse runs through the balance of chapter 6. Karoline Lewis suggests that the Gospel of John demonstrates a pattern of sign(s), dialogue, and discourse. In general, that’s a helpful schematic. But it’s clear that the dialogue and discourse elements alternate somewhat here in chapter six. Both the Jerusalem authorities and Jesus’ disciples raise objections to Jesus’ assertions of divinity at various points in the chapter.
Even as we move into the Bread of Life Discourse proper, we dare not lose track of the signs that precede it and which the Discourse unfolds. The Discourse reaches back to the signs for anchoring in concrete reality and forward into the main themes of John’s Gospel. Lewis notes, “the discourse that follows can be recast as not simply an explanation of the sign but an invitation to abiding in the relationship that Jesus is offering” (page 84).
Lewis also reminds us that this grounding of the Discourse in physical bread maintains the incarnational focus of the gospel account. “To stake an entire theology and Christology on God becoming human requires that at every turn the incarnation is completely present,” she writes. “As a result, Jesus as the Bread of Life, first and foremost, before rendering its interpretation through the lens of the Old Testament or eucharistic liturgical practices, must be grounded in bread as a necessity for sustenance as a human being. Anything less,” she argues, “could very well undermine what is at stake in the contention that the Word became flesh” (page 84).
So, the task for the preacher is, perhaps, not to “move on” from the signs in the first part of John 6 but rather to continue to unfold their meanings just as Jesus does in the Dialogue and Discourse. Lewis writes, “no section of the discourse can be understood or interpreted without recognizing its complete reliance on the feeding of the five thousand. The Bread of Life discourse,” she concludes, “is first and foremost Jesus’ interpretation of this sign” (page 86).
This should relieve preachers, Lewis suggests, of the anxiety of having to say something “new” each of the five weeks of this section of the calendar. “For a preacher to approach each pericope, each section of the Bread of Life discourse as expecting a fresh perspective works against the theological nature of the Fourth Gospel,” she cautions, “that the intent of the discourse is a desire to pull the believer deeper into abiding with Jesus, not to gain some further knowledge or insight” (page 86). So, we seek to go deeper with the Discourse, not wider.
The lectionary selection omits verses 22 to 24, but I would include them in the reading. The crowd doggedly pursues Jesus until they find him. He is no longer at the place where he had “given thanks.” The verb used there is the root for our word, “eucharist,” so that is of some significance. The place is not noteworthy merely because a mass feeding happened there. It is an important spot because the Lord did something eucharistic in that place.
Karoline Lewis urges us to include these verses in the reading for several reasons. The searching and seeking show that the relationship between Jesus and the crowds is not one-sided. She reminds us that looking for Jesus has been a mark of potential disciples from the very first chapter of the Gospel account, and it will be a question of Mary Magdalene in the Easter garden.
The crowd seeks more bread. Jesus offers them abundant life. As is so often the case in John, this sort of disconnect will produce a fruitful and extended discourse. “That the crowd wants or needs a sign exposes their inability to recognize the meaning of the sign and therefore the necessity of Jesus’ discourse,” Lewis writes, “Even witnessing the sign itself will not necessarily result in belief” (page 87).
The gospel writer continues to focus on the disordering of desire. In John 6, the problem is not “too much” desire. The problem is too little desire – settling for physical bread as an end in itself. Jesus tells the crowd that they are seeking him because they want to have their bellies filled once again, and nothing more. That is the food that perishes, he tells them. It’s not worth the effort by itself and of itself.
I think this stretch of texts begs for stories of shocking, life-transforming abundance. There is Johan Bojer’s final chapter in his work, The Great Hunger. Peer Holm, the main character, has spent a lifetime pursuing his specific and concrete desires, only to discover that he remained unfulfilled. He returned home to his village, found a wife, named Merle, and together they had a daughter, Asta. The little girl, now five years old, was the light of his life.
Holm and his family had neighbors who owned a large, brutal, wolfhound named Tiger. The wolfhound was trained to attack anyone who happened into the neighbor’s yard. “A couple of days later,” Holm writes in a letter to a friend, “I was standing at the forge, when I heard a shriek from my wife. I rushed out—what could be the matter? Merle was down by the fence already, and all at once I saw what it was—there was Asta, lying on the ground under the body of a great beast” (Kindle Location 2828).
The wolfhound had torn open the little girl’s throat. The local doctor battled to save her, but there was no help. “Now it was that I began to realize,” Holm continued to write, “how every great sorrow leads us farther and farther out on the promontory of existence. I had come to the outermost point now—there was no more” (Kindle Location).
As a result of his cruel carelessness, the neighbor was shunned by the villagers. The village was suffering through a terrible drought. The neighbor’s barley planting had died from lack of water. No one in the village would sell or give him the seed for a second planting. The neighbor was the object of public scorn and ridicule. There was talk of driving him and his family out of the village.
Even as the villagers plotted their social punishment, Holm had a different experience. He discovered that his desires in life had been misplaced. “And I knew now that what I had hungered after in my best years was neither knowledge, nor honor, nor riches; nor to be a priest or a great creator in steel; no, friend,” Holm continued to write, “but to build temples; not chapels for prayers or churches for wailing penitent sinners, but a temple for the human spirit in its grandeur, where we could lift up our souls in an anthem as a gift to heaven” (Kindle Location 2851).
In the light of that realization, that he desired something deeper, Holm could not sleep as his neighbor suffered. In the middle of the night, he got up from his bed. He went to check his granary so see if he had half a bushel of barley remaining. “Barley – what do you want with barley in the middle of the night?” asked his wife.
“I want to sow the neighbor’s plot with it,” Holm replied, “and it’s best to do it now, so that nobody will know it was me.” His wife stared at Peer Holm in disbelief and then got dressed to come with him. The dog was no longer a threat – shot by the sheriff’s officer.
As he sowed the barley, a kind of light dawned on Holm. “And more and more it came home to me that it is man himself that must create the divine in heaven and on earth—that that is his triumph over the dead omnipotence of the universe. Therefore, I went out and sowed the corn in my enemy’s field, that God might exist” (Kindle Location 2875).
Bojer was not writing as an apologist for Christianity. He argues that Holm did not act for the sake of Christ or for love of enemy. Instead, Bojer asserted, Holm had hungered a lifetime for an authentic and meaningful existence. He discovered that this desire would not be satisfied simply by demanding more bread. It was, rather, a desire to be met only by deep participation in life – both joy and suffering, both gratitude and sacrifice.
A thought strikes me at this moment. We hear repeated calls for workers to return to the employment rolls. Help Wanted signs are ubiquitous. Yet, jobs go wanting while fewer people are employed than before the Pandemic. Why? Is it perhaps that some people are re-evaluating the content and focus of their desires? During the time away from work, have they discovered a longing for the Bread that does not perish? Have they explored what it means to receive that for which one cannot work?
Some thoughts worth exploring further, perhaps.
References and Resources
Bojer, Johan. The Great Hunger . Kindle Edition.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.