Homiletical Exegesis: John 6:41-51 ~ 19th Sunday OT B ~ Rev. Richard Eslinger

The Gospel lection for this Sunday in Ordinary Time signals an end to Jesus’ first Bread of Life “homily” and now both shifts the dialogue partners and alters the thematic focus. The Johannine “rule of twos” is kept inviolate--in the Fourth Gospel, all conversation is between two entities and never moves to a trilogy. The new dialogue partners involve groups within what has previously been described as “the crowd.” Now they become a group having an internal dialogue with themselves. “They drop Jesus as a dialogue partner and begin to speak among one another, referring to Jesus in the third person.”[1] As we would expect within the Gospel of John, whenever such a rhetorical shift occurs, the subject matter with its theological importance also usually involves a sudden change. Here, as the first section of the Bread of Life Discourse gives way to these other matters, the most striking shift involves that related to “the crowd.” They are called by that designation no longer. Suddenly, and surprisingly, they are now called “the Jews” (Ioudaioi). Up to this point in the Gospel, we have associated the term with the Judeans, especially in Jerusalem, who represent the Temple and political authorities, those who care little for the plight of the poor or those on the boundaries (such as the Galileans). It has been easy to read “the Judeans” whenever John provides us with Ioudaioi. But it has been established without doubt that the “crowd” present at the Discourse is Galilean. In fact, the Evangelist provides us with a further designation of these “Judeans”—they know Jesus personally, know his mother and father, and many, therefore, are from the Nazareth area of Galilee. What merits speaking of them with the same brush stroke as those Judeans?[2]

The sequence following this shift in rhetorical focus immediately provides clarity to the rationale for the depiction of this Galilean crowd as “Judeans.” Retaining the wilderness-Passover motif, the factions within the assembled people drop off their rather sincere, if misunderstanding questions directed to Jesus. Now they turn to each other and “murmur about Jesus’ proclamation that he “came down from heaven.” Important to note, and even include in a homily this Sunday, is the insight that in the Greek text, “these people were murmuring before they are named as Ioudaioi.” [3] Now comes the full disclosure of their hybrid Galilean-Judean identity. They are very familiar with Jesu and his mother and father, personal relationships that imply that some, at least, are disciples who have followed Jesus from his hometown. This insight casts light on the statement in 6:66 where “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Implied here is that some went home to the area around Nazareth. (A homilist may want to decide whether to pick up this ancient and modern fragility of faith on this Sunday or on the 21st Sunday in OT when the finale of the Discourse is the Gospel lection.)

Following this excursus related to the identity of “the crowd” and their murmuring, the Fourth Evangelist resumes the Bread of Life Discourse with several key elements now being added. They include:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw them. Coming to Jesus in John’s Gospel is through the Father—a consistent theme since the Prologue. But the character of that coming to Jesus is now given its boundaries. On one hand, the witness of the Fourth Gospel is that people do not just decide to come to the Word made flesh out of their own “spiritual journeys.” There is a providence and mystery, even foreknowledge, to our being chosen by God. In fact, again a theme of the Prologue, it is the power of God that makes possible our becoming “children of God.” On the other hand, no one is compelled to become a believer in Jesus and follow him. We have just encountered those who “know” Jesus’ family, have sought for a while to follow him, but now turn away and reject him. Rather, it is by the Father’s act of “drawing” persons that they are impelled[4] into the category of potential children of God. Brant explains:

The term “draws” suggests the paradoxical nature of God’s call in the fourth gospel; it is like a magnetic pull upon a person that exerts a strong influence but can still be resisted. It also carries an implication of nonuniversality: some people may not be “drawn” to Jesus.[5]

Given this paradox, the homilist may shape a move here that explores how some children of God have been drawn to God, whether with an immediate compelling—e.g., Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael—or, later in Christian tradition, St. Augustine (who spent years resisting the Father’s compelling love before being baptized by St. Ambrose).

The Sapiential Theme

They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. Within the scope of the Bread of Life Discourse, the primary mode of revelation is, with Raymond Brown, the sapiential theme. Replete with Jewish witnesses, to eat the bread of God is to be taught by and to learn from Yahweh. The parallels of Torah and bread are manifold in Scripture and Jewish tradition. Conversely, in Amos, a famine in the land will not be that of bread, but of hearing the words of the Lord”(Amos 8:11).[6] Here, towards the end of this section of the Discourse, the context of the Passover—“now the Passover of the Jews was near”(6:4)—and the sapiential theme find their intersection. Brown notes that “in the Galilee setting, [Jesus] wishes to show that the banquet given to the five thousand just before Passover was messianic in a way that they have not recognized: it was a sign that Wisdom has come to give food to all who seek.”[7] A liturgical and homiletical connection may be made, therefore, between the Wisdom-revelation of Jesus as the Bread of Life and the assembly’s character as children of God. The second of the Advent “O Antiphons” invites Wisdom to draw near. This petition is most appropriate to be chanted or sung on this 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Veni, O Sapientia, quae hic disponis omnia, Veni, viam prudentiae ut doceas et gloriae.

O Come, Thou Wisdom, from on high, and order all things far and nigh; to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.

Here is the messianic banquet where “They shall all be taught by God.”

Amen, Amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. This pronouncement by Jesus closely mirrors an earlier “Very truly I say to you…” encountered in 5:18 and following. Jesus there concludes, “Very truly, I tell you (“Amen, Amen…”), anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life”(5:24). The eschatological theme, then, is picked up as this section of the Discourse draws to a close. The contrast between death and life is now unveiled within this Passover context. Those ancestors who ate manna in the desert all died. Jesus is the bread come down from heaven “so that one may eat it and not die”(6:50). Jesus is the Bread of Life and those who believe and follow him have eternal life. This mystery, as Jerome Neyrey observes, elevates Jesus “above all breads eaten in the past.” Neyrey adds, “some bread is not self-rising…”[8] In the Roman Canon of the Mass at the unde et mémores, the celebrant speaks of the “the holy Bread of eternal life.” The proclamation of eternal life in Christ is revealed in the Discourse through the repetition of the assurance of Jesus’ words: “I Am the bread of life.” Now, at last, we are in the transition from the sapiential dimensions of the Bread of Life image and the eucharistic. We will fully arrive at the latter in the final verse of the lection.

The Eucharistic Theme of 6:51

If the prior material in the Discourse has shown a dominant sapiential theme along with a Eucharistic secondary one, the Eucharistic theme “comes to the fore and becomes the exclusive theme.”[9] Two main factors, according to Brown, lead us to this conclusion. On one hand, the promise of eternal life is no longer grounded in the call to believe in Jesus. Now, it comes from eating the living bread that will yield life “to the age” (lit. translation of “will live forever”). The “stress on eating (feeding on) Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood…cannot possibly be a metaphor for accepting his revelation.”[10] On the other hand, the material in 6:51 may embody the formulaic Words of Institution as liturgically enacted within the Johannine community. It remains clear that the Fourth Gospel provides no details on the Upper Room Meal. The brief transition to the Foot Washing—“during supper”(13:2)—leaves the church with no Eucharistic words or actions at that point. However, it becomes understandable that upon making this turn to the Eucharistic theme, the Evangelist would reach into the “work of the people” of the community for this seminal statement. On additional insight is offered by Brown. He notes that this juxtaposition of sapiential and Eucharistic themes is a perennial one in Christian theology and practice. He explains:

The two forms of the Bread of Life Discourse represent a juxtaposition of Jesus’ twofold presence to believers in the preaching word and in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This twofold presence is the structural skeleton of the Eastern Divine Liturgy, the Roman Mass, and all those Protestant liturgical services that have historically evolved from modifications of the Roman Mass.[11]

Also implied here is the ecclesial aspect of the “Double Feast” of Word and Sacrament. Just as the faithful who are becoming children of God cannot endure without eating the Bread of Life that is the wisdom of the Lord, so, too, they remain (‘abide”) as a people of faith through their feeding on his flesh and blood.

The dense meanings embodied in 6:51 now call for some further interpretation:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. John provides two versions of the formula. In vss. 35 and 48, we read “bread of life” while here we are given “living bread.” The force of “came down” implies a past action although its results continue to impact the present and future. Brown adds that “the ‘coming down’ does include the Incarnation.”[12]

Whoever eats this bread will live forever. Again, this is not meant to deny that physical death is bypassed. Rather, as Neyrey summarizes,

“Not die” cannot mean a literal avoidance of death…, but avoidance of “death” after “death,” as the multiple references to “I will raise them up on the last day” imply.[13]

The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. In contrast to the Synoptic traditions of the Words of Institution—in which the familiar “This is my Body” formula is employed—“the fourth gospel commands followers to eat Jesus’ flesh” (sarx).”[14] Howard-Brook adds that “‘Flesh’ is only used eight times in the Synoptic gospels, and not once in the context of the eucharist.”[15] Of course, within the Hebrew Scriptures, eating flesh in this anthropomorphic sense is both abhorrent and forbidden. A further dimension is provided here that reinforces the theme of the Eucharist: Jesus will give his flesh “for the life of the world.” The Eucharistic theme is being “fleshed out” here as the Incarnation is now linked to Christ’s passion and sacrificial death. At a metaphorical level, Jesus has announced that “I AM the bread of life.” Now he proclaims, “I Will GIVE the flesh of me…” We are no longer chewing on the teachings of Jesus, but feasting on his flesh and blood.

[1] Jo-Ann A. Brant, John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 122. [2] A this point, we do well to remember that in preaching such a text, the teaching of Nostra Aetate remains essential: "the Jews should not be represented as rejected by God or accursed, as if this followed from Holy Scripture" (Nostra Aetate, no. 4). Also see: “God's Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching,” Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, September, 1988, accessed July 31, 2021, https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/jewish/upload/God-s-Mercy-Endures-Forever-Guidelines-on-the-Presentation-of-Jews-and-Judaism-in-Catholic-Preaching-1988.pdf. [3] Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 161. The Greek word translated “murmur” is an onomatopoetic verb, gongyzō (Brant, 122). [4] Brant, 162. [5] Ibid. [6] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii) (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 273. [7] Ibid, 274. [8] Jerome H. Neyrey, The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 185. [9] Brown, 284. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid., 290. See: Michael Monshau, ed., Preaching at the Double Feast: Homiletics for Eucharistic Worship (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2006). [12] Brown, 282. [13] Neyrey, 185. [14] Howard-Brook, 164. [15] Ibid., 165.

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