The offense of Jesus as bread of life

Pentecost 10
John 6:41-51
Marian Free

In the name of God who in Jesus gives us life, both now and forever. Amen

Chapter 6 of John’s gospel is considered so significant that we are spending five weeks trying to unravel its complex argument. We began two weeks ago with the account of the feeding of the five thousand. Last week we saw how John moved from the miracle to a discourse on bread culminating with his statement that he is the bread of life and that those who believe in him will neither hunger or thirst. Jesus’ audience misunderstood what he was saying. Having seen the multiplication of the loaves, they interpret Jesus’ statement literally. They see it from a materialistic point of view. Here is someone who can meet their basic needs for survival – they want to have this bread always!

Jesus, as we know, is referring to a spiritual truth. Faith in Jesus can ease the craving for worldly goods and give us real satisfaction and peace. In today’s gospel Jesus seeks to clarify what he has said – he is speaking of heavenly bread, bread that will lead to eternal life. This bread, he says, is vastly different from the manna provided in the wilderness – those who ate that bread died, those who depend on him will live forever.

Throughout Chapter 6, the author of John’s gospel has made a number of illusions to the Passover festival. In Jesus’ time this celebrated not only the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, but also the provision of manna in the wilderness. His audience would have picked up the references and understood that Jesus was not only claiming to be greater than Moses, but that, in claiming to be the bread from heaven, he was suggesting that he had replaced the manna which God provided in the wilderness. This claim was significant in itself, but it takes on a completely radical tone when one realizes that by the first century, the manna had come to represent the law – the source of life. Jesus’ claim then, is not just that he can provide spiritual sustenance, but that he has replaced the law as the source of life! No wonder there is murmuring in the crowd – just who does this man think that he is.

As controversial as Jesus’ claim to bread is, his claim to have come from heaven is equally confronting for his audience and this is where we begin today. Having kept quiet until now, the audience feel they have to challenge the arrogance which claims an intimate relationship with God and a heavenly origin. However, the crowd with whom Jesus debates in the earlier verse is replaced here with “the Jews”. This is a technique John employs whenever he wants to introduce controversy – he narrows the conversation partners down to the leaders of the people – it is they according to John – who are most guilty of failing to understand. The illusion to the Exodus story would have been clear to Jesus’ audience they would have heard the reference to complaint as an illusion to the Israelites murmuring against Moses in the desert (in particular in reference to having bread to eat).

The question “the Jews” ask seems to us to be quite reasonable quite reasonable. How can Jesus possibly claim to be the bread which comes down from heaven? They know where he came from. His father is Joseph. They know his mother and father. This makes Jesus’ claim quite outrageous. How can he possibly have come from heaven when those who know him, know that he has had an earthly birth and earthly parents?

But Jesus is not interested in pacifying his opponents or responding to their complaints. If anything what he goes on to say will only further antagonize them! He quotes the OT to suggest that the prophets predicted a time when the people would be taught by directly by God – that is they would no longer need the intermediary of the law. Further, he is suggesting that those who are open to this direct teaching from God are able to recognise Jesus and come to faith in him.

Jesus’ claim that he has come from the Father coupled with the allusion that he has replaced the law as a means of knowing God was not only contentious, it was clearly heretical. Jesus takes his discourse even further claiming that faith in him leads to eternal life. He is the bread of life. The manna in the wilderness came from God (not Moses), but its efficacy was limited to the meeting of the human need of hunger- feeding the Israelites in the wilderness of the desert. As the bread of life, Jesus provides life not only now, but for all eternity. Those who receive this bread will never die.

Throughout this chapter, the author of John seems to be trying to escalate the offense that Jesus’ words cause. He is the bread, he replaces the law, he is the source of life, he has come down from heaven, he is the source of eternal life, he is living bread.

Finally, in verse 51, Jesus adds a further affront, the straw that for many will break the camel’s back and turn them away from following him. Jesus says: “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  It was bad enough that Jesus claimed to replace manna and therefore the law, but now he is equating bread with flesh which implies the unthinkable – eating flesh.

You and I are so used to the language of the Eucharist that we may completely miss offense that equates bread with flesh. His first century listeners would have heard Jesus’ statement literally – that somehow he was going to use his flesh as the source of their nourishment. For many, this was impossible to accept. With the advantage of hindsight, we understand that Jesus when Jesus speaks of giving his flesh for the life of the world, he is predicting his death – his giving up of his life for the sake of the world. Jesus’ audience, however, would have had no idea what he meant. They were interested in him when he performed miracles and demonstrated his healing power. They were much less willing to have their world view challenged and expanded and their faith deepened and enriched.

Our scriptures contain puzzling and confusing texts which challenge our faith and our understanding of God. We can choose to ignore them or we can choose to wrestle with them. Only if we take the more difficult route of seeking understanding, will we enter into a deeper and richer relationship with the one who gave himself for us.

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