Kathleen Rushton invites us to sense and imagine the interconnections of place, human and divine in her interpretation of John 6:41-51, 60-69.
In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis points out that the biblical creation accounts suggest “that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely entwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself” (par 66). These three interconnected relationships have been kept alive in Aotearoa in the Maori world and offer a lens through which to read the gospels with attention to the divine, the human and creation in its widest sense. The word whakawhanaungatanga means “making right relationship” in a series of interconnected relationships with Atua (God), tāngata (people) and whenua (land). The rich tradition of Ignatian spirituality, with its emphasis on the imagination and the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, touch and smell, encourages reflection on the materiality of the gospel world and ours. May the following reflection inspire interconnection and imagination!
Stories of Jesus’ actions in John’s gospel are followed by a discourse in which he explains what has just happened. In John 6, the discourse begins after much movement on the mountain, sea and waterfront. A large crowd followed Jesus up the mountain above the Sea of Galilee. Imagine that crowd trailing up, over and down what we would call a hill: tax collectors, peasants, lepers, the sick, small farmers, labourers, widows, women, children, the well-to-do. That crowd were Jews living under Roman occupation which included the collaboration of a local king and the upper priestly classes. The crowd was mostly poor people, earning their living on land, sea or by trade. They had a collective history of exile and deportation, of being ruled by other nations, of working day and night and of paying huge taxes from which they got no benefit.
Jesus understood then, as he does now, that so many were adrift from the faith of their ancestors. Sitting on the ground, he taught and fed the large crowd which later dispersed. Jesus withdrew by himself. That night disciples set out in a boat to the busy waterfront fishing town of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus startles them as he comes walking towards them on the water. The next day, the crowds who had been fed go in search of Jesus. From Tiberias (named after the Roman emperor), a waterfront city further south, crowds came in boats to Capernaum to find Jesus. When they found him there “on the other side of the sea,” they questioned him and the dialogue began. Some of this teaching took place in the Synagogue.
The bread discourse consists of two parts (John 6:35-47 and John 6:48-58) which have three sections containing parallels and differences. In the first section of both, Jesus claims: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35-40; 48-51). Murmuring (John 6:41-42) and disputing (John 6:52) follow in the second sections. In the third sections, Jesus says: “I will raise him/her up on the last day.” Eternal life is promised. The responses differ. “Whoever believes has eternal life” John 6:43-47) later becomes: “Whoever eats and drinks has eternal life” (John 6:53-57). Complicated? All this is summed up in two words: believe and eat.
Significant shifts happen as Jesus continues to evoke biblical manna and wisdom traditions. The crowd attributes the feeding with the manna during the Exodus wandering to Moses. Jesus points out that God gave their ancestors “bread from heaven to eat” (John 6:31). When he declares “I am the bread of life: (John 6:35), Jesus claims to be the manna and also Wisdom Sophia who invites: “eat of my bread.” This is consolidated by: “I have come down from heaven” (John 6:38) as did the manna and Wisdom Sophia. The response Jesus invites is: “Whoever comes to me, will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The “I am” statements are not about who Jesus is but what he does. In response “the Jews began to murmur” as did their ancestors in the wilderness.
The second part of the discourse has Eucharistic overtones: “I am the living bread” which will last forever and “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). Bread, the staple food of people then and throughout the ages, takes on further symbolic dimensions to reveal Jesus, the Word made flesh (John 1:14). The word “flesh” implies human nature in its completeness. In becoming flesh, God’s continuing relationship with creation is inclusive of human beings and all living creatures (Gen 6:13). Flesh suggests that which perishes and fades like the grass, while blood is the inner life force. Using two different verbs for “eating”, Jesus repeatedly invites those who “eat my flesh and drink my blood” to life in its fullness.
Pope Francis reminds us that “our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from [God] and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.” (LS, par 155)
Movement towards the Death-Resurrection
The title “Son of Man,” found three times in this discourse and which would be translated more accurately as “Son of Humanity,” refers to the Word made flesh who will experience death. There is another layer to Jesus’ speaking about “flesh” and “blood.” In the Scriptures and in the Jewish environment of earliest Christianity these terms refer to a human being who suffers a violent death. “Flesh” and “blood,” therefore, evoke the violent death of Jesus. Here, as in other discourses in John, there is a movement towards Jesus’ death.
A pattern of meal, rejection and betrayal becomes apparent. Jesus’ words led to division and rejection as did Wisdom-Sophia’s. The crowd did not get it. They asked for signs. “The Jews” murmur.” They knew his parents. Who does he think he is! A larger group of disciples “complain” having found this teaching difficult and no longer went with him. Jesus turned to the Twelve, asking whether they, too, would leave. The words of Simon Peter echo through the centuries: “To whom shall we go? … We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” Further references to Jesus’ ultimate betrayal are made. Later, the supper of John 13 is followed by rejection and betrayal.
In the image of the vine in John 15, Jesus claims: “I am the true vine.” This parallels: “I am the bread of life.” The language of “abiding” is found in both passages: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” Yet again, the point is made that Eucharistic tones flow throughout this gospel in the actions and words of Jesus and of the disciples. John 6 evokes Eucharist as meal when Jesus as Wisdom-Sophia gathers friends to “eat of my bread and drink of my wine.” The Eucharist as sacrifice, willing self-giving for others, is evoked when Jesus speaks of his flesh and his blood.
Published in Tui Motu InterIslands, August 2015.