Proper 14 · John 6:35-51 · August 9, 2009
By Joel Okamoto
Notes on the text
1. This passage is an excerpt from Christ’s “Bread of Life” discourse, and forms the middle section of a three-lesson series taken from this same chapter. This pericope’s exchange occurred after Jesus fed the 5,000 (w. 1-13) and after the people failed to discern the sign that he had given in this miracle (w. 14-15, 26). Jesus urges these people to work for the food that endures to eternal life (v. 27). The people ask for a sign that they might see and so believe in him. They remind Jesus that their fathers received a sign in the manna they ate in the wilderness (w. 30-31). In his reply Jesus retains the image of bread and tells them that God gives the true bread from heaven that gives life for the world (w. 32-33). That bread is himself: he is the bread of life (v. 35). Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him will have eternal life (v. 40). (For additional comments on the larger context of this reading, please refer to the notes for Proper 13.)
2. Jesus’ claim to be the bread that came down from heaven causes the Jews to begin to murmur (egogguzon; v. 41). The subjects have changed from the previous section, or at least have become more specific. Jesus had been talking with “the crowd” (ochlos; e.g., v. 22), but now it is “the Jews” whom the Gospel identifies as grumbling. John’s Gospel sometimes refers to Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews” (e.g., 5:16) but not always (e.g., 8:31). These Jews see plainly that Jesus, the son of Joseph, is identifying himself as the Son of God, and it confuses and offends them. This claim is the principal identification made of Jesus in this Gospel (e.g., the prologue, the miracles, the “I Am” sayings, and the evangelist’s summary statement in 20:30-31: “These [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”).
This claim is also the primary reason that Jesus was rejected, opposed, and killed (e.g., 5:17-18; 8:58-59; 11:45-57; and especially 19:7, where the Jews tell Pilate that Jesus must die because “he made himself the Son of God”).
3. Jesus responds by rebuking his hearers (v. 43: “Don’t murmur…”). His claim to be the bread of life conflicts with experience and reason. But this is a matter of divine initiative and revelation, not of human effort and reason, as is belief in this claim and in the one it is about: “No one is able to come to me except the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God'” (w. 44-45). Therefore, the hearers’ complaints have no foundation. Moreover, Jesus tells them that he is the one God has sent to make himself known (w. 45-46). Everyone who is truly godly listens to Jesus; everyone who puts his trust in Jesus will be raised on the Last Day and have eternal life. In this way, Jesus is the bread of life. So Jesus promises that anyone who eats of this bread, that is, anyone who believes in Him, will have eternal life (w. 47-48).
4. Just as he did earlier, Jesus draws a contrast between kinds of food (w. 49-51). Here Jesus contrasts the manna given in the wilderness to himself as bread of life. The forefathers ate manna and died, but those who eat the bread from heaven will live forever. This distinction should not be understood as one between the material and the immaterial. Speaking about Jesus as “spiritual food” may leave this impression. The “bread of life” is none other than Jesus, the Word made flesh. At the same time, however, earlier verses (especially w. 26-29 and 35-40) indicate that the “eating” to which Jesus refers in this situation should be understood as faith in Christ.
Notes for preaching
1. “Is not my word like fire,” declares Yahweh, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock to pieces” (Jer 23:29)? The words of Jesus in the bread of life discourse are certainly like fire or a hammer: they challenge and offend His hearers. Accordingly, it would be appropriate to seek to kill the hearers of the sermon and then to speak directly to them the saving Word of God. But I expect that Christ’s divinity is taken for granted in the circles in which most readers of this journal operate and so would not be the stumbling block that it was for Jesus’ hearers. Furthermore, the decisive moment occurs later in this episode (w. 60-69), and it would be more fitting to wait until that pericope comes up. That situation is not ideal, but neither is it unworkable.
What, then, might preachers seek to do? I would suggest that they take their lead from this excerpt. Here Jesus explains himself and his mission. In a similar way, a sermon based on this excerpt might seek, first, to explain what Jesus teaches about himself and his mission and then to assure hearers of the truth of Jesus’ words about himself and the salvation he brings.
2. Since the text is an excerpt, it will be necessary to set out its context, even if the sermons on the three connected pericopes are similarly connected as a series. How much discussion of this context is needed will depend in part on the previous and subsequent sermons. In any case, it will be important for this text to speak about Jesus’ claims to be the bread of life from heaven. In particular, the sermon should draw attention to the basic issue in this discourse, which is life. Jesus had come not merely to provide for this life by satisfying temporal needs (e.g., the food that spoils) but especially to provide for eternal life by giving “the true bread from heaven.” And the sermon should draw attention to the problem that this claim raises for Jesus’ hearers. Of course, death continues to reign in our time and remains as threatening as ever. Efforts to prolong life and to minimize or isolate ourselves from death and its causes are as prominent as ever. Therefore, even we who say that Jesus is the bread of life may find ourselves “working for the food that spoils” (v. 27).
3. Next, the sermon would observe that Jesus explicitly denies any attempt to make God and his ways conform to human reason. When the people complain about Jesus’ words, he tells them to stop. He also quotes Isaiah 54:13—”They will all be taught by God.” Urge the people to be taught by God, and stress the promises that Jesus himself makes: “Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me” and “He who believes has everlasting life” (w. 45, 47).
4. Following this line of thought, the sermon might seek to assure hearers of the certainty of Christ’s promises. This could be done by showing that Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God is, on the one hand, basic to John’s witness to Jesus Christ and, on the other hand, the reason (in John’s Gospel) that Jesus was rejected and ultimately killed. Then it should be declared that the resurrection vindicated Jesus’ claims about himself and about salvation through him. In the language of John’s Gospel, the resurrection shows that Jesus “is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). In terms of this pericope, the resurrection vindicates Jesus’ claim to be the bread of life and the living bread that comes down from heaven.