The Bread of Life Discourse immediately follows the Miraculous Feeding account of John 1:1-18 (Year B, 17th in OT) in the Lectionary. It is important for preachers to know that the Fourth Gospel narrative of the Sea Crossing is not given a Sunday in the Lectionary, but only appears in the lections for Weekday and special Masses.[i] Without reference to the Sea Crossing, the opening statement of our lection is confusing. The crowd sees that neither Jesus nor his disciples were “there” (presumably near Tiberias where they had been fed the loaves and fish). The opening scene of this Discourse, then, focuses on the search of the crowd for Jesus, leading them to Capernaum and finding him “across the sea (lit., “on the other side of the sea). There they pose a question to Jesus, now referring to him as “Rabbi.” They seemingly have forgotten that only the day before they had attempted to seize him in order to make him their political Messiah! This question now is crammed with Johannine double-meanings. At a surface, literal level, they ask, “when did you get here?” The Greek renders a question open to a deeper question as well—“When did you come to be here?” Wes Howard-Brook notes that this more profound question “asks Jesus about his relationship with creation itself: ‘here’ refers to the world of becoming, the place in which the Word pitched its tent (1:14).”[ii] While the crowd is interested in Jesus’ travel itinerary, their question also, unknowingly, echoes the Prologue’s testimony to the Incarnation.
The “who and why” of Jesus’ presence is set aside momentarily and will be raised again at the finale of the pericope. Instead, a transitional section follows that centers in the trajectory between “signs” (yet again!) and that which is perishable (again, or “lost”) on one side and the reference to that which is eternal and the One who is given the “seal” by the Father. The issue of the crowd’s interest in signs—in fact, their raison d’etre as noted in 6:2—is called into question by Jesus: “you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (6:26). The double-meaning rhetorical device in John’s Gospel now shifts to the meanings of “food.” On the surface, worldly level, Jesus warns the crowd, “Do not work for the food that perishes.” On the deepest level of speech that is “from above,” Jesus invites them to seek the food “that endures to eternal life.” This double-meaning centered in “food” will also set up a new section of the Discourse that explores the meanings of “work.” Prior to that new section, however, the concluding statement expands on the gift of eternal life that the Son of Man will give. “For on him the Father, God, has set his seal”(6:27b). Preachers may find their homiletical curiosity aroused at this point. Raymond Brown comments that “Here God sets His seal on the Son, not so much by way of approval, but more by way of consecration.”[iii] So, for example, when we pray together, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world…,” we address the One consecrated by the Father. Other rich Johannine images of Christ are also found in the Fourth Gospel including the seven “ego eimi” (“I am…”) statements such as the first embodied in our passage--“I am the bread of life.” Given the ways in which these images of Christ’s consecration are present in liturgical texts and song, our homily may benefit from drawing on the “work of the people” for imagery and interpretation in this move in the homily.
The second major section of the pericope is evoked by the crowd’s question, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” (The Greek for “works” is erga. We may recall from high school physics that an erg is an electrical term for a unit of energy or work.) The use of “works” reflects the crowd’s interest in knowing what to “perform” or “accomplish” that would be a work of God. “They seem to expect a new set of commandments, like the Israelites in the wilderness, awaiting the words of God.”[iv] Jesus shifts the meaning radically: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent”(6:29). First of all, God reveals in Jesus that one work is needed, not many “works,” as the crowd asks. Then, the meaning of the term shifts from any kind of catalog of pious deeds that God expects. Rather, Jesus shifts the “work” pleasing to God as belief “in the one he sent.” (The acts of discipleship in the Fourth Gospel will be articulated in several ways including that of bearing “fruit.” See a further “I am” statement’s exploration in John 15.) In spite of Jesus’ earlier critique of the crowd regarding their true reason for seeking his—not for signs but to get their bellies filled once again—the crowd now asks for a sign! “What kind of sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” “They are asking for the very sign that they have just witnessed!”[v] In a homily on this Discourse, the preacher may well pause to explore the seemingly willful lack of memory displayed by the crowd. What are some contemporary examples of similar lack of remembrance in church and society? The crowd instructs Jesus—as if he has never shared in a Passover!—about the gracious feeding of Israel in the wilderness. “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert…” It seems that it is Jesus who needs to have his memory jogged! Now Jesus reinterprets Scripture:
Amen, amen, I say to you,
It was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven;
My Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. (6:32)
Jo Ann Brant comments that Jesus “persuades the crowd to make their supplication by offering something better than manna, something from God that is not a temporary solution or salvation through a national movement; it is the redemption of the world.”[vi]
The response and request from the crowd along with Jesus’ reply provide a doublet structure that concludes the passage. The crowd asks, “Sir (kyie), give us this bread always.”[vii] But notice, the request is impersonal; it is something “out there” that will fix things “once and for all.” However, Jesus responds in a way profoundly personal: “I am the bread of life.” Nothing “out there” that we can acquire, purchase, work for, or even deny ourselves for will bring eternal life at the end of the age and fruitfulness in the present day. The “ego eimi…” radically changes the equation. We either feast on the Bread of Life or remain at a distance asking for something that will provide for our worldly needs. In the Prologue, the alternatives are boldly drawn as matters of life and death:
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him…
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (1:10, 12-13)
Homiletical Notes on Preaching Johannine Discourses
A number of homiletical challenges confront the preacher who takes up a particular Johannine Discourse. The first relates to establishing the order and divisions within the broader scope of the Discourse. Where do the respective sections begin and conclude?[viii] Our Gospel lection for the 18th in OT specifically presents such a challenge to us. This challenge is complicated by the very nature of a Discourse in the Fourth Gospel. What is provided is clearly not a full narrative ordering of a plot (such as was on display in the Multiplication of Loaves pericope last Sunday). Rather, the Discourse involves an interchange between two characters, in this case Jesus and the crowd. The dialogue is propelled forward as two favorite Johannine rhetorical devices come into play: double-meaning words and the related device of misunderstanding and clarification. The crowd, for example, dwells on the “earthly” meanings of “bread,” “works,” and “sign” while these misunderstandings provide Jesus the opportunity to correct the crowd by providing the “heavenly” meaning “from above.” Moreover, in our Gospel lection we quickly discern a play of imagery that provides the markers for movement through the Discourse. So, “food” is the subject of the conversation for a brief time but then the focus shifts to that of “bread.” “Works” and “work” also experience a sudden shift as the crowd’s naïve request for some new list of commandments is supplanted by Jesus’ insistence that belief is the core work!
Given all of the above, it is clear that a narrative method of shaping our homiletical plot will encounter many difficulties, including the fact that the passage is not a full narrative. Likewise, we cannot deploy David Buttrick’s mode of immediacy in which the sequence of “scenes” in the narrative provide the sequence and organization of the moves within the homily. (We could provide a homily on OT 17 of the Miraculous Feeding, perhaps selecting three moves that are embedded in the narrative plot of John 6:1-18. Such an attempt within our Discourse, though, will likely result in confusion.) On the other hand, extracting some thematic from the pericope and deductively analyzing its meanings is also problematic. Our Discourse is alive with movement, and a thematic approach will treat these dynamic interchanges as insects pinned to a display case (Eugene Lowry). Perhaps the best approach in shaping our homily would be to focus on one or two of these images that ground the text and shape its meanings. Some of us may be drawn to the “signs to seal” complex in which the “seal” images the consecration of the Son by the Father. Here, as we noted, the liturgy, its sacraments and songs provide effective contemporary experiences of Christ’s seal. On the other hand, the worldly notion of authorizing someone’s importance deals with, for example, their status on social media or their life-style and displays of wealth. Another complex of imagery that could ground the homily is that related in the closing section of the pericope—the “I am…” statement of Jesus: “I am the bread of life.” Here, the homily could begin by exploring ways in which the world still seeks “bread” in ways that consume, aggrandize (not that we would use such a vast term in our homily without interpreting it!), and exploit. The categories are all impersonal. However, the Lord proclaims his first “I am…” statement and immediately we are within a personal and communal context and we are invited to feed on the Bread of Life at the Holy Eucharist. Other such interchanges grounded in the play of imagery also present themselves in our Gospel lection, but these two dominate the hearing of the Discourse.
[i] See Felix Just’s especially helpful “Texts from the Fourth Gospel NOT USED in the Lectionary, accessed July 22, 2021, https://catholic-resources.org/Lectionary/John-Gospel-Omissions.htm. In this resource, Fr. Just also provides listings of Johannine texts considered theological or pastorally difficult, esp. concerning "the Jews." [ii] Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 153-54. [iii] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii) (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 261. Brown also notes the contrast between the attempts by the crowd to make Jesus King and this once, for all consecration of the Son by the Father (262). [iv] Howard-Brook, 155. [v] Ibid., 156. [vi] Jo-Ann A. Brant, John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 121-22. [vii] The crowd’s perception of Jesus is both fluid and in diminishment. At the end of the Multiplication of Loaves, the crowd wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king. At the beginning of this passage, they greet him with the honorable term, “Rabbi.” By the end of the pericope, we now hear them referring to Jesus with a polite social convention, “Sir.” [viii] Raymond Brown notes that “The problem of the division of the great Discourse on the Bread of Life is difficult, and almost every commentator has his own division.” Brown, 263.