By Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki
Location: Claremont United Methodist Church, Claremont, CA
The gospel of John has not exactly been my favorite gospel. I like parables—there’s not a single parable in John! And I am profoundly moved by Matthew 25, so clearly identifying Jesus with the oppressed…”I was hungry and you fed me, in prison and you visited me, thirsty. . .” Over against this directness, John gives us long, obscure, and somewhat troubling discourses. And where are those lovely Christmas stories? No shepherds abiding in John’s fields! Clearly this fourth gospel is a gospel with a difference that has not always been to my liking. So many denunciations, with anti-semitic overtones—hardly a progressive Christian’s cup of tea, and I’ve confessed myself satisfied that this gospel so seldom makes it into a lectionary dominated by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
And yet for various reasons I’ve been doing some intensive study of this gospel of late, and I am amazed at its unfolding. –so much so that I am dangerously close to changing my opinion, and making John my favorite. Why, I’m even beginning to think there’s a lot of process theology in here! And today’s lectionary reading–formerly a sticking point for me—provides an opportunity to share with you a new (to me at any rate) reading of John.
First, it’s important to see just how this chapter six, this long discourse on the bread of life, fits into the gospel as a whole. Raymond E. Brown—perhaps the greatest Johannine scholar of all time—divides the gospel into four parts. There are the two “bookends,” if you will, that begin and conclude the gospel: the hymn that begins the gospel as a prologue in the first half of chapter one, and the addition of a final chapter, 21, following the original ending of the gospel. Scholars think these bookends are additions to the gospel as it originally stood. In between these bookends are the two major divisions of the book. Chapters 1-12 are the Book of Signs, in which Jesus gives seven signs and seven discourses relating to these signs. Chapters 13-20 are the Book of Glory. The Book of Signs works off of themes taken primarily from the book of Exodus—Passover, paschal lamb, water from the rock, manna in the wilderness, the bronze serpent, the tabernacle of God. In Exodus these are signs of God’s guiding and nurturing presence with the Israelites. The signs in the book of John are also given as a revelation of God’s guiding, nurturing presence, now manifested in Jesus. And in fact, the whole purpose of the book of John is to signify that Jesus is the full revelation of the nature of God for us—to see Jesus is to see what God is like.
The Book of Glory, chapters 13-20, are the culmination of this revelation, and the amazing thing about John is that the ultimate revelation of the nature of God—the actual hour of glory, which means the manifestation of God—is the suffering on the cross. In a sense, the cross in the gospel of John functions like the manger in Luke. Martin Luther stands astounded that the God of all majesty is revealed in the coarseness of a wooden manger; we must likewise be astounded that the God of all majesty is revealed in the degradation of a wooden cross. Jesus is most fully the revelation of God on a cross, telling us that God is present with us for the sake of resurrection life in every circumstance of creaturely life—there is no degradation, no grief, no madness, no terror, no pain, no humiliation, no rejection, no state whatsoever where God is not present for the sake of enabling our transformation.
So then, if this is the whole purpose of the gospel of John, what is going on in that cryptic conclusion to chapter 6 that was read for us today? How does it feed into this amazing design of the revelation of God?
The Exodus reference of John 6 is the manna in the wilderness, paralleled in John 5 by Jesus’feeding of the 5000 in the wilderness. John 6 is the discourse following upon this sign. In Exodus, the Israelites are presented as hungry, grumbling and complaining. The giving of the manna itself is a discipline, for they must learn that everyone receives an equal share, and everyone must work for that share. They learn the lesson, and are nurtured by a God who, like a good mother, feeds and clothes them in the wilderness.
John also presents us with grumbling Israelites—but you must not now understand these as representing Jews as a whole. Far to the contrary—the focus of John’s stigmatizing Judaism is directed toward those Christian Jews who refused to leave the synagogue. By the time of John’s writing in about 90 AD, the temple has long since fallen, and the Jewish diaspora has begun. The synagogue has taken the place of the temple. You must remember that Christianity began as a sect within Judaism, but after the fall of the temple in 70 AD, Christians began to differentiate themselves from Judaism. By the nineties of the first century, the community within which John was written was one of the most radical of all. As is immediately evident in the prologue to the gospel, this community identified Jesus with God, seeing Jesus as the manifestation in time of the fullness of God’s nature. Obviously, this was a point of great tension between the Christian community that continued to identify as a sect within Judaism, and communities like John’s that had cut themselves off from their Jewish roots. Hence in our text, the evangelist presents Israelites in a bad light indeed—they are continuing their grumbling in the wilderness, failing to see the bread of heaven in this Jesus who had fed the 5,000.
So what does Jesus say to these grumblers? He not only identifies himself with the manna come from God, he goes that manna one better: those who ate that bread eventually lived out their lives and died. But those who eat his bread will live forever. In all of the Bible, old testament and new, there is but one immortal being: God alone. By saying to his audience that in eating him who is the bread of heaven they will have eternal life, Jesus is identifying himself with God—as he does again and again in this gospel.
The words of the text, of course, are rampant with sacramental overtones, for the church has built its understanding of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper primarily from this text. But the main force of the text itself is to identify Jesus with God in a progressive revelation that culminates in the cross. We see it through each of the seven signs: In seeing Jesus, we are seeing God. At a wedding feast, Jesus is a source of joy; God is a source of joy. In the healing of the centurion’s son, distance is no barrier to Jesus’ compassion. Distance is no barrier to the compassion of God. By the pool of Bethesda Jesus enables a man to participate in his own healing; God enables us to participate in our own healing. In the feeding of the 5000 Jesus is nurturing; God is nurturing. Jesus walks on the water in the midst of a storm; God comes to us in the midst of our own storms. Jesus gives sight to a man born blind, enabling him to see things as they are: God gives us sight, enabling our own true seeing. Jesus is life-giver to Lazarus; God is life-giver to us. And in that supreme moment of revelation, God is very present in the midst of our crucifixions, for the sake of resurrection, transformation: God is the power of resurrection, transformation—no matter what.
And through Jesus we have access not simply to this knowledge, but to the living effectiveness of that knowledge in the daily living of our lives. We participate in that bread of heaven in order that we, too, might show forth God’s compassion in the world. We participate in God’s life so that we might be a power for life—no matter how desperate our world seems, with its global oppressions, its warring madness, its greed, its cruelties, its environmental destruction, its suffering, its death—we are empowered by God through Jesus to be a power for life in this world, no matter what.
For that’s what it means to receive the revelation of God in Christ. It is not to bask in special knowledge; it is not to gather our manna for ourselves without regard to others; it is not to puff ourselves up as special possessors of the secret knowledge of God, in some mystic DaVinci code. To receive the revelation of God in Christ is to become a power for life—God’s life among us—in this world. Because of this, we are called to increase our knowledge of the world’s deepest ills so that we might address those ills with joy, with a compassion that transcends distances, with nurturing and life-giving generosity, with resurrection courage even in the face of overwhelming odds. God is in Christ; Christ—this Bread of Heaven—is in us, so that we may act with God for the good of the world.
This is the call of the gospel of John. May we answer it faithfully.