The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14B)
Sunday, 12 August 2018
Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, that we, who can not exist without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Ephesians 4:(25-29) 30–5:2
Last week I referred obliquely to an earlier incident in John’s Gospel that has
some parallels with the feeding of the five thousand and the bread of life discourse that
follows: Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. It is a wonderful story that tells us
something profound about who is included in God’s work, and shows us that everyone
has a share in that which God brings in Christ. It also helps us understand who Jesus is
and what it is exactly that he does bring.
Just as the people in the feeding miracle receive their nourishing bread, the woman draws from the well the water necessary to sustain her life. At the same time, Jesus teaches both the crowd and the woman something essential about who he is and what he is doing. In that earlier story, Jesus explains to the woman,
“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give them will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The Woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” (4:13-15)
As the people in last week’s Gospel asked Jesus for the bread, so the woman asks Jesus
for this special water. She is excited by what Jesus is telling her, she recognises
something divine at work and says, “‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called
Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to
you am he.’” Unabashed, Jesus clearly affirms his identity as the one who was sent, the
Word incarnate, just as he did in the passage immediately preceding this morning’s
gospel when he said, “I am the bread of life.”
The water referred to in the encounter with the woman at the well is to be understood in a spiritual sense. It is an image and a symbol of God. In John’s Platonic world view it is no mere symbol, however, but the Idea itself, the original pattern on which the water we drink and that sustains us is based. Jesus is Living Water because he is both the pattern, the Idea, and the incarnation of it. All water is like Jesus. The same is true for bread.
The Idea of bread, on which all the bread we eat is based, is also identified with Jesus because he nourishes the world and provides us with what we need to live in relationship with God and with each other. Furthermore, this Platonic understanding of the relationship of pattern and expression, is made more meaningful for those acquainted with the Biblical tradition in which Divine word and wisdom are often presented as food or bread, and eating. (1) In response to the crowd asking Jesus how he can be both the man from Nazareth and the Bread of Heaven, Jesus tells the crowd, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” He is bread because he brings the true wisdom and teachings of God and those who have heard these things will be drawn to him. This tradition of connecting food and bread with the giving of the divine word is also often associated with the anticipation of the messianic banquet, of which the manna is also a symbol. Raymond Brown suggests that Jesus “wishes to show that the banquet given to the five thousand just before Passover was messianic in [that] … it was a sign that Wisdom has come to give food to all who seek.” (2)
Jesus sums up this spiritual meaning of the bread when he says that “this is the
will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have
eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” God wants us to have eternal life
and offers it through Jesus. To believe in Jesus, to be in relationship with him, is to
have eternal life, and we have a choice to engage in this work or not. Jesus is bidding
us into that relationship.
Up to this point the bread and the water function similarly, but the two accounts diverge when we compare how they conclude. At the end of the discourse on the water, Jesus does identify himself with the water, even making messianic claims for himself. What he does not do, however, is say she should drink him. Now, that may sound funny. Jesus isn’t the little bottle in Alice in Wonderland after all. It would be absurd even to bring up; except for one thing: where Jesus makes no such claim about the water, it is exactly what he does say about the bread: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The invitation into life with Jesus takes on new meaning.
So what is different about the bread? What makes the bread so special that Jesus would add the injunction to eat him? The answer, I believe (and so do the scholars that I am following) is found in the Eucharistic meal that John’s community was sharing on a regular basis, in which by eating the bread and drinking the wine they were themselves now in a new and special relationship with Jesus and with each other. Jesus says,
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.
This is the culmination of everything Jesus has been saying up to this point. Jesus is the
one who brings divine revelation. He is the bread of life that allows them to know and
be connected with God and have eternal life. He goes now one step further and says
they must eat of this bread, literally. It connects the ritual language of the feeding
miracle, the bread they have eaten, with the bread they will eat in Jesus. This is the
shift to a sacramental meaning that will become even more apparent in the passage we
have for next week’s Gospel. We move from the spiritualisation of Jesus’ identity and
his importance, that he is the Wisdom God sent to enlighten the world, to the
sacramental, which is to say the specific event into time and space in which we can
share that makes God specially present with us.
We have travelled a long way from the world of Roman patrons throwing bread
to the masses to shore up their loyalty. Jesus fed the crowd, yes, but what he gives them
is something that can change them from the inside out. The people receive the
Wisdom, receive the Word of God and learn something, yes, but in the meal they
share, they also take that Wisdom into their very bodies, physically, and are
transformed by it into something new, something changed, something that can help
the Christ in the work of unfolding the Kingdom of God.
The people who heard Jesus speak would have been familiar with many images
of the Kingdom from Hebrew Scripture, including the passage we heard today from
Deuteronomy, of that “good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs,
flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land … in which you will lack nothing …. And you
shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has
given you.” More importantly, however, the new reality brought into being by eating
the Bread of Life in the Eucharistic meal they share, is that we are called to new life,
new actions, a new form of community, such as described in Ephesians:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
These are the instructions to the community that has received the bread of life, spiritually and physically, and has been turned into the Body of Christ.
Today’s passage from Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life begins like the story of the woman at the well, but takes us down another path. It shows us how we, too, can personally, physically, be in relationship with the Wisdom and Word of God, that we can share in the bread of life ourselves and become united with God in purpose and direction, and truly have a share in eternal life, both in this world and in the world to come.
Andrew C. Blume✠
Claire of Assisi, 11 August 2018
1 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John, Anchor Bible, 29 (New York, 1966), 274.
2 Brown 1966, 274.
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume