Gospel for Eighteenth Sunday (2 August 2015)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who 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.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. (John 6:24-35 – NRSV)
1. We must return to the beginning of John’s Gospel to set our text within its context. “The opening events of (John’s) Gospel .... Are contained within one week of which almost every day is noticed; it culminates in the manifestation of Christ’s glory.” (Footnote to John 2:1 in the Jerusalem Bible.) John situates Jesus firmly within the tradition of the Exodus. He builds towards a dramatic moment by telling us what happened day by day: the “first day” (John 1:19 – the witness of John the Baptist), the “second day” (John 1:29 – John the Baptist sees and names Jesus “the Lamb of God”), the “third day” (John 1:35 – John the Baptist again sees and names Jesus, this time his disciples are introduced to Jesus) and the “fourth day” (John 1:43 – Jesus meets Philip). At the conclusion to this conversation with Philip we are given a strong hint of where the drama is headed: “I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). “Three days later” (John 2:1) we have the “first sign” – the miracle of the water-into-wine at the wedding feast in Cana. John then sums up with an unmistakable reference to the Exodus Event: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John
2:11-12). Francis Moloney writes: “Fundamental background to these days, which close in 2:11 with the revelation of the doxa of Jesus to the disciples, is the description of the gift of the Law in Exodus 19. After the people’s confession of their preparedness to do all that YHWH commanded (cf. Exod 19:7–9), YHWH tells Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow ... and prepare for the third day, because on the third day .... YHWH will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (19:10–11). Moses obediently tells the people, “Prepare for the third day” (v. 15). The description of the gift of the Law then begins: “On the morning of the third day ..... there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud ..... on the mountain.” The glory of God is revealed “on the third day.” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, The
Liturgical Press, 1998, 50.)
2. In this way John reveals that, not only is Jesus fulfilling God’s plan for the people, he is the central player – like Moses – in a New Exodus Event.
(a) As with all the true prophets and servants of God’s unfolding plan, there are “signs” – see for example Exodus 4:30-31 and John 2:11. Scholars speak of two major parts to John’s Gospel: “The Book of Signs” (John
1:19-12:50) and “The Book of Glory” (John 13:1-20:31). These two parts are introduced by the “Prologue” (John 1:1-18) and followed by a brief conclusion
(John 20:30-31) and an “Epilogue” (John 21:1-25).
(i) Although Jesus has just given a “sign” to the people in the miracle of the loaves (John 6:1-15), they do not “see” it. There is some irony, therefore, in their question to Jesus: ““What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” Jesus exposes the irony with his response: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
(j) John emphasizes the fact that these people do not “see” – they do not “believe” therefore. Unstated here is the fact that the disciples do not yet “see” or “believe” either.
(k) In the first Exodus, God, through the servant Moses, gave the people manna – food from heaven; in the New Exodus, Jesus himself is the food from heaven. (We should also note here – relevant to 4. below – that
Jesus corrects the implication that it was Moses who gave them the manna, reminding them that it was God. This may be seen as part of Jesus’ intention of recalling the true focus of the Exodus, then and now – it is God’s initiative and God’s work and it is brought to fruition by God.)
3. Our text, focusing on the theme of “the bread from heaven”, is structured around two questions and a request:
(a) “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (v. 25). This trivial question leads Jesus to instruct the crowd on the need to search for the food that endures to eternal life: belief in the one whom God has sent.
(b) “Then what signs do you do?” (v. 30). Jesus is asked for miracle-working credentials that surpass Moses’ gift of the manna (vv. 30–31). He points to another bread from heaven, the true bread from heaven.
(c) “Lord, give us this bread always” (v. 34). Jesus presents himself as the true bread from heaven, the only one able to make God known and give eternal life. (See Francis J Moloney, op cit, 207.)
4. We have already heard the metaphor of food used in the conversation at the well: “(Jesus) said to (the disciples), ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about’. So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work’.” (John 4:32-34)
(a) As at the well, so here, Jesus speaks of a “food” that nourishes one’s very being, one’s identity.
(b) And, as at the well, the disciples still do not understand – and therefore do not “believe” – what Jesus is actually saying to them.
(c) Jesus is the unique source of this “food”. Something radically new is being revealed, even if it is a fulfilment of the old and continuing story of God’s Covenant. “Based on Proverbs 9:5, where personified Wisdom cries out, ‘Come, eat my food [lit. “my bread”] and drink the wine I have mixed’, some Jewish authorities figuratively referred to the Law of Moses, Torah, as ‘bread’ .... If such symbolism is operative here, then the thought is something like this: the manna God provided through Moses is not the true bread from heaven, nor is the Torah God revealed through Moses the true Torah, though both pointed, in parabolic form, in the
right direction (cf. also similar claims with respect to the temple, 2:18ff.; the various feasts, 4:21; the shepherd, 10:1ff.; the vine of God, 15:1ff.). The true bread from heaven, the true Torah, is Jesus himself (vv. 35, 47ff.). This does not mean that the manna was not in any sense bread from heaven, or that the Torah was not truly given by God. But the manna from heaven was comparatively crude: it perished with time, and the people who ate it perished with time. One of its chief functions was to serve as a type of the true bread from heaven. Similarly the law of Moses, as important and true as it was, would be replaced .... by that to which it pointed, that which fulfilled it.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 286-287.)
5. We must “work” for that “food that gives eternal life” rather than “the food that perishes”. At this point a subtle but deep distinction is made between what is on offer in and through Jesus and what has been on offer through the manna in the desert and the Law of Moses:
(a) The people ask Jesus about “the work” to be done: “They said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’” Jesus’ reply goes straight to the heart of the matter: “‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’.”
(b) The verb “to believe” – pisteuo (πιστεύω) – is used three times in this text and about one hundred times in John’s Gospel. And it is always the verb, never the noun that John uses. We find it at the beginning of the Gospel – “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (1:7) – and at the very end of the Gospel, in the last verse of the last Chapter – “These (signs) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). (Note: Chapter 21 is a later edition to the Gospel – and “Epiogue”. Interestingly enough the verb is not used there.)
(c) How can we resolve the apparent contradiction entailed in working for something that is “given”? Does this bring us to a crude reward-for-effort way of thinking?
(d) Believing is both gift and task. I cannot believe unless the gift is given; that gift will never be realised unless I respond and choose to act in ways that facilitate the growth of that gift. The same principle applies to any significant personal gift in life – if I do not respond the gift will never be realised.
(e) Jesus is in effect telling his audience that the Lord who gave the Law is now giving them “food” that lasts for eternal life. This “food” is Jesus himself. The Law is no longer to be regarded as the way to God. Jesus is “the way” (see John 14:6). With the Law, the emphasis is on the work, what the people can and must do. With Jesus, the emphasis on grace, what God has done and will do. Our “work” is to make ourselves available – “get out of the way” as Meister Eckhart says – and wait.
Two conversations in John’s Gospel can help shed some light on our text.
The first conversation is near the beginning of the Gospel and it is a conversation with the Pharisee, Nicodemus:
“‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’.” (John 3:3)
The second conversation is near the end of the Gospel and it is a conversation with Pilate:
“‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’. Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’.” (John 18:36-37)
There is a fundamental principle at play here. Some people can see potential where others simply cannot see it, an expert can see in a given situation what the inexperienced cannot see, a person who loves another person can see more in the one they love than others can see, and so on.
From the Buddhist tradition we have a well-known saying: When the finger points to the moon, look at the moon and not the finger. The Chinese Taoist philosopher, Ko Hung (284-364) expresses the same idea in a slightly different way: “What we call footprints were of course produced by feet, but they are not the feet. In the same way, books were written by sages, but they are not the sages”. There is a perception that is common in Asian cultures – and indeed all religious cultures – that “reality” lies much deeper than that which can be empirically verified. In our own Western tradition, the simile of the cave in Plato’s Republic, Book VII, assumes this same perception.
And is it not true that, in ordinary human affairs, the ability to see “more”, to see beyond the surface, is generally valued. In some instances, in fact, such seeing is regarded as essential.
John’s Gospel is always working at more than one level. It asks us to pay close attention, to see with the eye of the soul, to hear with the ear of the heart and to know through believing. The natural human inclination to probe beyond appearances, to go deeper, to see more than the eye can see, to hear more than the ear can hear, to know more than the rational mind can even begin to know, intimates something more.
John suggests – in fact claims – that our fulfilment as human beings lies in a dimension that we cannot access except by believing in Jesus.
The people – including the disciples of Jesus – who had been present for the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (John 6:1-15), saw an extraordinary thing happen. What they saw was evidence that Jesus was an extraordinary human being. However, they could not see beyond this. At this point, neither the masses nor the disciples believed. As yet they could not see. They all needed to be healed of their “blindness”.
They will believe when God accomplishes this “work” in them. They will see, they will hear, they will know, in ways they never dreamed of. They will be “born from above”. That is, their very identity as individuals made deliberately in love by God will be liberated. The truth will set them free (see John 8:32).
Believing does not come by wilful effort or rational argument. It is not a matter of conquest but gift. Our part is to be willing, to avoid whatever forms an obstacle to that gift and nurture whatever can enable the full realization of that gift.
Believing in this sense in which John speaks, transforms our way of being in the world. The believer sees. The believer is always present to the depth dimension.
This transformed existence is than the ground of a transformed way of behaving. The ultimate manifestation of this new way of being and behaving is found in the great commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
This is not just another expression of a moral injunction found in many religious traditions. This is unique to Jesus. What is being “commanded” here is that we allow the “work of God” (ie believing) to have its way. Believing will lead us into an abiding with and in God – see John 15:1-17. God is love, the work of God is love – see 1 John 4:7-8. The point of it all is “not our love for God, but God’s love for us” – see 1John 4:10. Believing is inseparably from loving. Both are ways of naming God’s presence.