Gifts of Earth — John 6:35-51 and 15:1-5

Kathleen Rushton discusses how Jesus uses the imagery of bread and the grapevine in John 6:35-51 and 15:1-5 to highlight God's gifts — of Jesus and creation.

The environmental activist and writer Wendell Berry said: “I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is ... It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better … This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread ... We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.” We experience God’s gifts of creation through our five senses.

I Am

Some of us in cities and towns may feel disconnected from nature, but those who first heard Jesus say: “I am the bread of life (Jn 6:35, 41, 48, 51) and “I am the vine” (Jn 15:1, 5) were embedded in the natural world and experienced an interdependent relationship between human life and all creation. Wine, bread and olive oil were the three main food groups of the Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world. The three are often linked, as in “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart” (Ps 104:15).

In his “I am” statements, Jesus calls on nature and the five senses to help disciples understand him. His saying “I am” (egō eimi) which concerns his unity with God is prevalent in the Gospel of John: “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58 cf. 8:24; 8:28; 18:5). This evokes Isaiah 43:10 where God calls on people to be witnesses so that all may “know and believe and understand that I AM.”

I Am the Bread of Life

In proclaiming: “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread,” Jesus grounds the Eucharist in the realities of daily living. Bread, a staple food of people through the ages, takes on further symbolic dimensions to reveal Jesus, the Word made flesh.

Jesus claims: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes into me will never be thirsty.” “Believing into” Jesus means that we are to become like him and do what he does. With him, we are to cross boundaries by reaching 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).

Significant shifts happen as Jesus continues to evoke biblical manna and wisdom traditions. The crowd attribute to Moses the feeding with the manna during the Exodus wandering. Jesus points out that God gave their ancestors “bread from heaven to eat.” By declaring: “I am the bread of life”, Jesus claims to be the manna and, also, Wisdom Sophia who gathers friends to “eat of my bread and drink of my wine.” “I am the bread of life” parallels “I am the true vine.” “Abiding” is found in both passages.

I Am the Vine

When Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches”, he bases our whole being in a spiritual reality that transcends physical reality. This does not mean that we remove ourselves from the material natural world. We are not isolated, autonomous but organic beings and abiding together and nourished by Jesus as the vine and tended by a loving vintner, God. The vine offers a rich and developing view of Christian life in Earth experienced as joy through our senses.

Of all the terms related to plants and agriculture in the Bible, those associated with grapevines and wine are the most prominent (88 Hebrew terms are used 810 times in the OT; 36 Greek terms used 169 times in the NT).

The vine image suggests both joy and suffering. Joy, in the fruitfulness, the work of nature in which living organisms produce fruit; and suffering, in the growing in stony soils and on steep hillsides, and the

pruning required to produce new life. And for the vines to be most productive, they are wired to poles — the wires like the structures and rules in a community that guide, support and give stability to our common life.

Best Read and Understood Outdoors

We can be unaware of God’s gifts to us or we can regard them as ours by right — as part of the “standard equipment” of a fully human being. We can be unaware, too, that the “I am” sayings are not just about Jesus but more about what Jesus brings uniquely to the world, how he benefits the world.

Taking a walk of praise and thanksgiving — a consciously contemplative time in nature — is a way to rediscover that the gifts of “I am” are best read and understood outdoors through our senses. When we’re outside we notice things in a sensory way: a cool wind, salt air, even our muscles straining as we climb uphill.

We can consciously use our senses: ask ourselves what we are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting — and in doing so experience the gift of our senses. We may not have all our senses, or even use those we have, but we can become aware of ourselves being alive in nature, the fruit of Creation.

“Believing into” Jesus requires that we dedicate our lives to Christ and work with him to complete the boundary-crossing works of God by hearing both the cry of Earth and the cry of the marginalised.

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 262 August 2021: 24-25