John 6:1-15: This story is one shared by each of the gospels, but each puts it into a somewhat different context, and the telling is different. Here, Jesus seems in complete control of the situation from the beginning. There are also details not included in the other re-telling of the story. The five barley loaves and two fish given by a boy are multiplied so five thousand are fed. Part of the lesson John wishes to convey is that even in the midst of seemingly meager resources, Jesus will be able to provide what’s needed most. As people notice what has happened, they affirm a faith that Jesus is “the prophet who is come into the world.” But their faith contains misunderstanding – they want to force him to become a king, a king modeled after the kind of imperial rule they have known, except that this king would meet their needs. Jesus frustrates their expectation by withdrawing to a mountain by himself. Jesus wants to meet our deepest needs, but will not always meet our expectations. By the way, this story is the closest thing we have to a story about communion in John. John has no story about the Last Supper.
John 6:16-21: This story, too, is familiar. The disciples have been left alone and are headed across the water to Capernaum when a strong wind makes the sea rough. In the midst of the rough sea, the disciples see Jesus, but the vision frightens them, terrifies them. He assures them of his presence, invites them to not be afraid and suddenly, with Jesus, they are where they need to be. The phrase “It is I” is better translated, “I Am” another Johannine affirmation of the identity of Jesus as one who incarnates God. Because of who he is, the disciples should not fear, though the waters are rough and the sea is wild. Where have you felt the presence of Jesus in the midst of the storms of life?
John 6:22-59: As is his pattern, John inserts an extended discourse after a couple of stories, a discourse that seeks to interpret the stories just told. Most scholars argue that many of these words embellish the actual words of Jesus, and for some Christians that is a huge problem. It doesn’t need to be. We can affirm that some of these ideas may go back to Jesus himself, even if the gospel writer expands on them. Think how phenomenal an impact Jesus must have had on people to inspire the kind of writing that we find in the gospels. In him, people really did encounter God as bread of life. Some, however, had a difficult time seeing beyond the fact that this person fed them bread – and that is no small matter in itself. God cares about the well-being of persons in their fullness. It is often we, human beings, who want to reduce what is important in life to only the spiritual or only the material, or who lose our sense of perspective on the relative importance of the various dimensions of human life. Not long ago, I saw a young man with a t-shirt that read, “Inner Beauty is Overrated.” That shirt represents a deep misunderstanding of what is important in human life, as do bumper stickers that read: “The One Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins.” Jesus encourages us to work “for the food that endures for eternal life.” “Eternal life does not speak of immortality or a future life in heaven, but is a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God” (New Interpreters Study Bible). An important part of such work is to be open to the way God is at work in Jesus. As if the crowd had not already seen enough, they ask for yet another sign – you wonder if they are hungry again. They mention the story in the Hebrew Scriptures about God sending manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The food had come for many days, and Jesus had only fed them once! But if they really understood, they would know that Jesus himself is the on-going bread of life, a bread which continues feeding day after day – not the body but the soul. Opening our selves to the gift of God in Jesus is to know life in it fullest, most abundant, at its best. A typical complaint arises, one we have encountered before in the gospels – who is Jesus to say all this, the son of Joseph. Jesus response is easily misinterpreted. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father.” Does the mean some are merely doomed to miss out? I don’t think so. It is an on-going paradox of the life of faith that we experience it both as a result of our searching and our work and our practice, and also that we experience it as sheer gift. I’ve already said that there is no “Last Supper” story in John, but this chapter makes strong reference to the tradition of communion that had already developed by John’s time. The language is deeply symbolic, and some of its symbolism is disturbing to us – eating flesh and drinking blood. This startling language is meant to grab our attention. It suggests the intimacy of relationship that Jesus suggests is possible between his followers and himself. Jesus is to become a part of us, just like the food we eat becomes our flesh and bone. Jesus incarnated God, and we are invited to do the same. This teaching is difficult, indeed, and it causes some to turn away. To be a Christian is not to have it all figured out, but to trust that as we grapple with Jesus and the words about him in the gospels we hear “words of eternal life” (verse 68). It may be a challenge, but we trust it is one worth taking up. In order to understand what the Fourth Gospel means by images such as that of the living bread, we must be open to wider spiritual vistas. If our minds can think only literally, if we have refused any insight into ourselves, if our only means or perception are through the physical senses, if we become theologically and psychologically rigid, then we cannot appreciate the tremendous subtlety and variety of the images of Christ that we find in John’s Gospel. (Sanford, Mystical Christianity, 166)