If there was a campaign slogan for the Gospel of John, I think it might be, “Look up.” John’s Jesus is focused on heaven, and almost scorns the incarnate earth. Jesus sometimes lacks pastoral bedside manner. Remember the royal official who traveled to Cana for Jesus to heal his son? Jesus’ reply was that unless the people saw signs they would not believe, when all the man wanted was to save the life of his son. We enter this reading just after the feeding of the five thousand. A very curious thing happens. Yes, Jesus walked on water, and he and his men and the boat sped to the far shore, but the people were watching. They see him over there. But they didn’t see him in the boat or take a boat. Their curiosity is aroused. But Jesus’ begins a discourse that runs from John 6:25 and doesn’t end until 6:59 by suggesting that all they want more bread. That is the sign they seek.
I noticed that this whole discourse looked a lot like a Socratic dialogue. A student asks a question and the teacher launches into a lesson. But it also is the form of the Jewish homiletic midrash, that is, the way a rabbi of note would preach a sermon in the synagogue with his pupils. So the form would be familiar to John’s readers, both converted Jews and Greeks. And what does Jesus teach? In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well the subject was water, living water. In this dialogue the topic is bread. Basically the two elements of the Eucharist, because here water doesn’t turn into wine after the event at Cana until the blood of the Christ is shed on the Cross. And John’s is the one gospel that doesn’t narrate the institution of the Eucharist, but substitutes Jesus as the servant washing the feet of his disciples. What about bread? For one, when we read “bread” in Greek it means food, all food. It is not by accident that we are saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” (And this to a generation that is eschewing bread as unhealthy and fattening.) In the Temple, the chamber only one curtain away from the Holy of Holies was a display of show bread, or Bread of the Presence. Each Sabbath a new pile of a dozen breads replaced the old, which was given to the priests to be consumed only on holy ground. This tradition goes back to the days when the tabernacle of God was a tent. Bread was important. It still is and every Sabbath eve a bread is broken and shared with prayers in every observant Jewish home.
Bearing this in mind, the dialogue begins with the question, what must we do to do God’s works. The answer is, believe in whom he sent, Jesus. Jesus is asked for a sign, citing the manna which Moses gave. Jesus corrects them, countering the argument that he is the new Moses, reminding them that God sent the bread, not Moses. And then we get to the heart of it when the question was asked, will this gift last? The manna didn’t. Jesus answers with these very familiar words, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” He says his Father chooses who will come. He will keep all whom he is sent, and raise them up for eternity. When a disciple says, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” he was right. But it is the heart of our faith, of our belonging to Jesus and our longing for God. This chapter is the institution of the Eucharist in John. Jesus is the bread of life. The nourishment of life. Consume it. It is freely given. Drink his life force, his blood. It brings eternity. There is no Last Supper in John. There is instead foot-washing, the work of a servant, but by the Lord, the Teacher, to teach service is love.
In the Eucharist we are fed, and in faith we know we are all embraced in Jesus’ arms, adopted by his Father and cherished. It is done. It is over. We are saved. And the deeper we know this the greater our hearts turn to God, and the greater our hearts turn towards the world. That is the place where we care for those in need. Look up first, and then down. All the free meals and collections of coats, all the rescued kittens and adopted old dogs, all the outrage at wars and prayers for the refugees of those wars, they come from being called to Jesus, of believing there is such overwhelming good that we are glad to give our lives over to him. But anything we do that doesn’t meet that test is wrong. It is the Father of Lies in a lamb suit.
Working on this reflection and upon reading the Creed praying the Daily Office, as I do, it struck me how difficult the Creed is in a similar way as is John’s Gospel. I know a woman whose smile radiates like the very presence of the Holy Spirit. Once in a group discussion she said that when we say the Creed on Sunday she is silent for some of the lines, because she can’t say what she doesn’t believe. The discussion moved on with other reflections on the Creed, but I could see it was still gnawing at her. I believe it was in the Spirit when I came back to her and what she said. “What you said is righteous, because you are being honest with God. And that is what God wants from us, an honest relationship. You are doing fine.” Her smile cheered us all. And over time I think that she has grown to deeply understand the Creed. Some want to change the Creed, make is more understandable, dumb it down. Some want to turn it into the CV of Jesus of Nazareth, adding all the healings and a list of good works. That is not the point of the Creed, nor was it the point of the Gospel of John. I once heard someone complain that in the farewell discourse with his disciples Jesus only speaks of love and relationship, but never of social justice. That was not the place for it. The place for that is in the Synoptics and in the Hebrew Scriptures. What Jesus teaches throughout this Gospel is hard basic truth about himself and his Father. Are we just like those who were puzzled? This is not rational or easy. It is known through faith and devotion. And that can be dangerous ground, as the educated scribes knew. Jesus is asking those who were given to him to leap off into an unknown future on a promise of eternal life. But are those the words of the Christ or the words of a false prophet, the people ask?
The way we know who the Christ was and is, is through prayer and Sacrament – through the Bread and Wine of life and salvation. We know because we know how we feel the Spirit. It is a lightness, a trust, a lack of fear. We are asked nothing less than to turn over our lives to Jesus and to his Father, in trust. And when we are in a crunch, a place where we are in pain, confused, tempted, that is when we need him the most. And only facing him with an open heart in prayer, placing ourselves with that crowd when Jesus told them who he was, and believing in the Spirit, will we be guided and comforted.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is currently at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.