RCL Scriptures: 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Let us pray: Illumine for us your word, O Lord, that the Light you bring, the words I speak, the Spirit you send inform us of your will for our lives. Amen.
We begin today’s Gospel lesson with the same verse with which we ended last week: Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (6:51)
What, exactly, does this mean? As our passage tells us, those who heard Jesus utter these words argued among themselves, unable to grasp their full meaning. Even with a further attempt to explain himself and the origin from which he came, Jesus leaves his audience even more conflicted and confused. If we were to put ourselves in the place of his hearers, however, certain truths and allusions unmistakable to them might become clearer to us; I wonder though, if we were to trace this teaching backwards a bit through earlier sacred literature, if we would find some additional common ground with which to interpret it.
First let’s put ourselves in the footsteps of the first recipients of John’s Gospel. This is a community of God-fearers who have taken the life and story of Jesus to heart and are Followers of his Way. They believe Jesus is the One who came down from heaven, the One who is God en-fleshed among us. The One who came in fulfillment of all the law and prophets known to them from earlier times. These community members probably know by heart their earlier Hebrew writings as well as the more recent letters from Paul, Peter, Priscilla, and perhaps others as the early apostles and disciples spread out from Jerusalem and began to teach the Way of Christ.
With this perspective, some of the stories, like today’s passage, are teaching passages from a point of already knowing and believing in Jesus the Messiah, the Bread of Heaven. So the community of John’s gospel included this troubling story of Jesus teaching about it with a belief in it already in place. Why then, the confusion in the story? Perhaps it is a teaching tool to explain their perspective and understanding of what and what Jesus is to their community, as well as naming the challenges they faced in those from their original synagogues who refused to believe it. It takes a kind of implanted Johannine wisdom to accept this teaching in the way in which they came to believe it – as symbol of what sustains them as a community together. Trying to relate that to our own Gentile context might seem daunting, but we can probably relate well enough to illustrations of bread being sustenance of body and Jesus being sustenance of soul.
Unless of course, we struggle with soul. Some of us may be seeking, with our involvement and inclusion in this community of faith simply to worship, directing our longing for life’s meaning to God, who is somehow outside ourselves yet also deeply a part of who we are in our innermost beings. On that level, to be a child of God is to be in community, not to be alone. After all, we are made in God’s image, and God is Three – in – One, an eternal interdependent community. Others of us may see Sunday morning traditions as fulfilling duties laid upon us from an early age – “Going to church is just something we do, and you better be in church on Sunday!” On the other hand, some of us may be seeking for the core of faith, or for belief itself. It could be simply yearning for sustenance for our contemporary spiritual lives; perhaps similar to how the Johannine community viewed this teaching for their spiritually communal lives.
Put another way, at the point of the Johannine community’s setting down their stories and recollections of Jesus some fifty years or more after his initial bodily time on earth was completed with his ascension, they had begun to be put out of their synagogues, some perhaps even rejected by family and friends because of their beliefs. Under such persecution the only thing they could do was hold onto the wisdom passed on to them, which became the very sustenance they needed to continue to exist following their chosen way. The bread, if you will, of their spiritual lives together. The bread of heaven, echoed forward thousands of years from the time of Moses and the manna from heaven. This bread, which is Jesus, marks one of several important highlights of their collected writings, which became for us in its final form the Gospel of John.
William Willimon writes,
“Jesus always has more to say in John’s Gospel as he beckons us toward a thick, multilayered world where there is always more than meets the eye. As modern people, we are conditioned to live in a flattened, demystified world that is only what we can see or touch. The modern world loves “this is only …” statements: this is only bread, this is just another day at the office, this is only a Jew from Nazareth. The Fourth Gospel tries to train us limited, modern people in the expectation that now the Word has become flesh, we may expect more.
The thick reality being communicated here [with this allegory of Jesus-bread] is incarnation. We were warned upfront in this Gospel. The Word has become flesh…. Incarnation is so against our natural, normal, widespread expectations for what is spiritual and religious that we must have Jesus reiterate to us that “flesh” (life in this world) is where… God deems to meet us. It is as if, throughout this sixth chapter, Jesus has been gradually, patiently raising the bar on incarnation.”
And that is a deeper wisdom than many from the time of Jesus onward through today were, or are, able to accept. Wisdom. It occurs to me to wonder if wisdom could be a theme stretching between and tying together all three of our scripture readings for today. Tracing this theme back chronologically through today’s scriptures I think will illumine further for us this troubling passage normally reserved for Eucharistic deliberations.
The letter to the Ephesians, written earlier than the Gospels, instructs its readers to, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, … do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (5:15-17)
Paul V. Marshall, commenting on the Ephesians passage, writes,
“The mark of the wise, according to this passage, is using time wisely, and using it to change the world. “Making the most” of the time, or more familiarly, “redeeming” the time (v. 16) carries with it [an] urgency…. The phrase “because the days are evil” shifts the purpose of seizing the day from personal gain to Christ’s purpose for the church. Christian language speaks of “evil days” in terms of systems of oppression that require resistance.”
Now that raises an interesting parallel, don’t you think? Paul’s instructions are clear: make the most of what we face today; but not for personal gain, for Christ’s gain and the Kingdom of God. If we care to take that parallel and bring it closer to home, then our response as Christ-followers becomes vitally important. Again, Willimon writes,
“…There are many paths open to us for the transformation of the world before it is too late for millions, and too late for the species. There is reason to believe that the planet itself is in danger, and even the United Nations has begun to enlist a worldwide effort to eradicate poverty, ignorance, and oppression (in [their publication] the Millennium Development Goals). Do we share the urgency felt in the passage?”
Taking stock of current events in this, our time, I think at least I do.
“A vision of world transformation is daunting. Who would not run from it or from the other challenges of life?”
To ready us for this journey ahead, should we choose to take up the challenge Jesus leaves for us in response to our contemporary times, we can turn to an even earlier passage from the Hebrew Scriptures.
King Solomon, after taking the throne of his father David, is visited by the Lord in a dream where God says, “Ask what I should give you.” Ultimately, Solomon asks for an understanding mind to govern God’s people; that is, of course, a life of wisdom on behalf of others. If we are to be counted wise, then perhaps we should echo Solomon’s request. Amen? May it be so, and may all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ.
Let us pray: O Lord, grant us your wisdom, that we may discern between good and evil and govern your people, your lands, your creatures, your very planet entrusted to our care. It is only your own great wisdom and loving-kindness that can do it. May we be your hands and feet; in the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
 William Willimon, “Homiletical Perspective, John 6:51-58” in Feasting on the Word – Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0
 Paul V. Marshall, “Pastoral Perspective, Ephesians 5:15-20” in Feasting on the Word – Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0
Questions for Reflection
“At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you’” (1 Kings 3:5). If God said to you, “Ask what I should give you,” how would you respond?
Household Prayer: Morning
I praise you, Lord, and give you thanks for the gift of this new day. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Let your songs fill my heart. Give me a discerning mind to walk in your ways, making the most of the time as I go about among your people. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
Gracious and merciful God, I have gone out and come in today seeking to do your will, yet there is so much that I do not understand or discern. I commit to you my questions, concerns, and anxieties. Grant me peaceful sleep as I rest in your wisdom and steadfast love. Amen.