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"Bread of Life" 
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Being a Disciple — John 6:24-69

Kathleen Rushton RSM —

Kathleen Rushton explains that in John 6:24-69 being a disciple means committing to believing into Jesus and in God’s mission.

The two words “in” and “into” have deep and subtle meanings in John. In the Prologue we read: “to all who received [the Word], believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). What bibles translate as “believed in” actually means “believed into”. It is one of the Fourth Evangelist’s favourite phrases — repeated 34 times.

Today “believe in” suggests an intellectual faith or belief. Although faith and belief permeate the Fourth Gospel, we do not find them as nouns in the text. And in the Middle Eastern world faith and belief, along with fidelity and faithfulness, bound one person to another. These sentiments come from the heart, the centre of a person’s being, and are the external expression of social and emotional values of solidarity, commitment and loyalty. This understanding underpins “believing into”. The Evangelist prefers to use verbs — and “believing into” is dynamic and an active commitment.

The expression “believing into” (pisteuein eis) is unique to the Fourth Gospel. Scripture scholar Raymond Brown describes it as “an active commitment to a person and, in particular, to Jesus … it involves much more than trust in Jesus or confidence in him; it is an acceptance of Jesus and of what he claims to be and a dedication of one’s life to him.” This means a willingness to respond to God’s demands as Jesus presents them. The verb “to believe” is found 98 times, mostly in John 1-12 where Jesus lays out for people the choice of believing. This is the background to John 6:25-69. In John 12-21, Jesus is speaking to those who already believe even if inadequately (Jn 14:1).

Who? Where? When?

John 6 follows the Gospel’s usual action-narrative pattern. The chapter begins with feeding a large crowd (Jn 6:1-15) and a boat trip (Jn 6:16-21). The narrative (Jn 6:22-71) consists of the Bread of Life discourse. Sections of the discourse are addressed to groups — the crowd, “the Jews”, disciples and the twelve — who respond differently to the invitation to “believe into” Jesus.\

After feeding the crowd, Jesus “withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (Jn 6:15). That evening the disciples crossed by boat to Capernaum. The next day, some of the crowd sailed from Tiberias to Capernaum to look for Jesus (Jn 6:23). The discourses (Jn 6:25-59), in part, serve to address the mistaken expectations of the Galilean crowd (Jn 6:14-15). Views about Jesus and his work unfold and stretch the faith of disciples following him.

Believe into Jesus — John 6:24-35

The crowd was seeking Jesus because of the free food and he is straight with them. They missed “signs” of what he was really offering: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (Jn 6:27). It seems a bit tough of Jesus to scold people who were probably living on the breadline. Even so, the people seem to understand. “Work” evokes the prologue (Jn 1:1-18) which inserts Jesus into God’s work of creation. The works of God feature often in this Gospel. Here the crowd asks: “What must we do to work the works of God?” (literal translation). Jesus responds: “This is the work of God, that you believe into the one whom God has sent” (6:28-29).

“Believing into Jesus” is a work of God required of all who seek to follow him. It is an all-embracing acceptance of Jesus and of what and who he claims to be. He is the one on whom God has set God’s seal (Jn 6:27). He claims: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes into me will never be thirsty” (Jn 6:35). And again, it is will of God “that all who see the Son and believe into him may have eternal life” (Jn 6:40). Believing into Jesus means becoming like him and doing what he does. He reaches out to those on the fringes of society and religion (Jn 7:49) — the physically marginalised (the sick man by the pool Jn 5:1-15; the beggar born blind Jn 9:1-41); and the geographically marginalised (the official Jn 4:46-54; the woman of Samaria Jn 4:4-42). Believing into Jesus requires the dedication of our life to him.

Murmuring — Jn 6:41-51

The crowd had disagreed with Jesus’s interpretation of Scripture. Now, “the Jews” murmur in a disrespectful tone. This fellow claims: “I am the bread came down from heaven” (Jn 6:41). They know his mother and father. Jesus has stepped out of line, gone beyond his origins by his audacious claims that threaten the established order. Jesus tells them directly to stop murmuring. “Murmur” evokes the Israelites murmuring during the Exodus (Ex 16:2, 7-8). Bread in the Scriptures often means divine instruction. Then, Jesus quotes Isaiah loosely: “They shall be taught by God” (Is 54:13) and speaks about being “drawn” by the Father who sent him (Jn 6:43-45) using a term meaning to be drawn to the Torah. The “I am” statements of Jesus — in this case, “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35, 48,) or “the living bread” (Jn 6:51) — are not about who Jesus is but what he does. He nourishes with a bread that gives eternal life. Life (zoe) features 18 times in John 6.

Eucharistic Overtones — Jn 6:51-58

Tensions rise. “The Jews” disagree among themselves: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52). Jesus does not mince words. Four times he insists that they are not only to eat his flesh but also to drink his blood (Jn 6:53-58). In these four repetitions he uses a word for an impolite way of eating — meaning physically crunching the food with teeth (Jn 6:54, 56-58). And the drinking of blood was prohibited (Gen 9:4; Lev 17:10). But flesh and blood highlight the reality of Jesus’s incarnation and very real death. Eating flesh and drinking blood, too, describes the intimacy and close relationship with Jesus of those who “believe into” Jesus. The Eucharist is placed in the middle of his ministry and linked to his incarnation more so than as a memorial of his death or a continuation of the meals of his lifetime and after the resurrection.

Crisis Because of the Word of Jesus — Jn 6:60-69

Jesus’s words create a crisis for many of his disciples. They “turned back and no longer went with him” (Jn 6:66). After this, Jesus turned to his core group, the twelve, and asked: “Will you also go away?” (Jn 6:67). And from Peter, we, for the first time, hear belief expressed in Jesus because of his origins: “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69).

Most who heard Jesus would have been illiterate, but their familiarity with Scripture is evident throughout Jn 6:31-59. They engaged passionately in debate. What about us? Do we continue this debate? Do we access, study and engage deeply with Scripture so that we believe into Jesus? 

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 229 August 2018: 22-23