(Readings John 6, 56 – 69)
Preparing for today’s service has felt a bit like watching one of those endless Hollywood sequel films – you know the sort of thing – Jaws lll and Police Academy VI. I don’t expect many of you have the Common Lectionary as your bedtime reading, so you may not have noticed that we have been having readings from chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel for the past 5 weeks. Today is the last – Bread of Life V!
One might ask why the compilers of the lectionary thought this chapter of John so important that they used up 5 weeks worth of Gospel readings on it, especially in a year when the focus is supposed to be Mark. One reason may be that this is the only passage of eucharistic theology in John; his account of the Last Supper has no narrative of the institution of Holy Communion, merely a description of the feetwashing and discourses about the vine and the Holy Spirit; but all the Christian churches now place great emphasis on the Eucharist. But this passage also contains a detailed exposition of Johannine Christology,the Gospel’s understanding of who Jesus was; and since most Christians, even if unconsciously, have had their views of Christ shaped by John’s Gospel, it is not surprising that it is given a central place in this year’s lectionary.
Many people, however, assume that John’s understanding of Jesus is that of the whole New Testament; but this is not so. If we think of the human and the divine Jesus as two sides of a balance, in John’s Gospel the balance is tipped very much to the divine side, to the extent that his humanity almost disappears. Jesus is not only shown as the pre-existing Son of God, he knows he is, and talks freely about his life before his physical birth into this world. He also talks constantly about himself and his relationship with God the Father, and about the Holy Spirit, in Trinitarian terms. He speaks in a way far removed from the language patterns of a Galilean Jew, such as we find in the Synoptic Gospels. He talks in eucharistic language, even before the Last Supper. And, in contrast to Mark’s Gospel in particular, in John, Jesus is always in control of events and has superhuman knowledge, especially of how people will react, and what will happen in the future.
In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, where Jesus uses picture language in the form of parables to speak about the Kingdom of God, in John’s Gospel, Jesus uses picture language in the form of metaphors to speak about himself. Many of these begin with the formula “I am… “ (in Greek “ego eimi’,) which both John’s Jewish and Greek readers would recognise as a formula used by divine beings; so making even clearer John’s understanding that Jesus was divine, and knew it.
Several interrelated themes run through John’s Gospel, and in chapter 6, many of them appear. John wrote his Gospel as something like a film script, where the plot is advanced by action and dialogue, by misunderstanding, explanation and allusion. We sometimes find it hard to understand, because we no longer share the culture of Jesus’ world, nor of the world of John’s community, so we miss many of the allusions.
John’s community appears to have consisted of people who were equally at home in the Jewish and the Greek worlds. More than any other Gospel writer, he gives us a Jesus who can be understood through the cultures of both Judaism and the Hellenistic world. The Logos (Word) imagery of the Prologue, which can be interpreted both in terms of Jewish Wisdom theology and Greek philosophy is but one example of this.
One major theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus is the giver of life. This is referred to in the Prologue: “in him was life”, and it is expanded in the Gospel using several images which refer to the basic necessities for life: water, light and in this passage, bread (food). This would have made sense to both Jews and Greeks.
In his telling of the story of the feeding of the 5000, John clearly refers back to the significant events of Jewish history, especially the Passover and the Exodus. This reference is expanded in the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse which follows, where there is reference to Moses and the manna which fed the Israelites in the wilderness. But there is also reference forward, to the Last Supper, a Passover meal, and to the Christian community’s experience of the Holy Communion, when Jesus takes bread, gives thanks (eucharistaysas) and distributes the bread and wine personally to his followers.
For the Jews, the Law given to Moses, and the prophecy and Wisdom given in the Hebrew scrolls were the Bread of Life. In John’s understanding, Jesus not only gave Law and Wisdom and Prophecy, he was them. He was The Word, he was The Bread of Life. His coming meant the end of the old order of Law and Temple and festivals. John’s Gospel constantly shows him reinterpreting these things and replacing them with an emphasis on belief and faith in himself. Those who could not accept this, like the leaders of the Jewish people, remained in the darkness and were destined to die. Those who did believe, however, walked in the light, and were already experiencing eternal life.
This talk would have seemed blasphemous to the traditional Jewish believers who heard it. Even more horrifying to a people who drained the blood from the meat they ate, would have been talk of ‘drinking my blood and eating my flesh’. If we do not find it so, it is only because long years of hearing eucharistic language have inoculated us to the overtones of what Jesus is shown as saying.
Scholars believe that John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century. It was written for a community facing a crisis of confidence. The first disciples, including the beloved disciple around whom the community had gathered, were dying, and there was a risk that the Christians who remained would lose touch with the memory of what Jesus taught. Jesus had not yet returned in triumph, as they expected he would. After the fall of Jerusalem, the exiled Jewish community was drawing lines around itself, demanding strict adherence to the Pharisees’ understanding of Judaism, and excluding as heretics those who saw things differently, including Christians.
In response to this situation of crisis, John’s Gospel provides a picture of a supremely confident Jesus, who was misunderstood by the Jewish leaders of his time, but knew he would replace their religion with one centred on himself. It provides a picture of a community which is united to the source of life through faith, and which continues to be taught by the Spirit as it was taught by the human Jesus. It provides a picture of a community that does not have to wait for the Second Coming in order to enjoy eternal life, because through baptism and the Eucharist, it has entered into eternal life already.
It is not surprising that this understanding of Jesus appealed to the Church, which adopted it in its creeds and hymns. It is also an understanding of Christ that continues to appeal to many Christians, especially to those who are undergoing times of trouble, for whom John’s confident assertions provide comfort.
But many Christians today find John’s Gospel difficult to take. There are always three contexts in which we read the Gospels (or watch a film, for that matter.) First of all there is the context of the original event, what actually happened. The Jesus of John is far removed from the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, and scholarly opinion inclines to the view that the Synoptic Jesus is likely to be closer to the real historical Jesus. This, for some Christians would disqualify John’s Gospel as a source for belief about Jesus.
Secondly, there is the context of the evangelist and the community for whom he wrote. Scholars can make educated guesses about this community. In many ways, what they describe has parallels with our own. They think it was an urban community (because of the emphasis on the Jerusalem ministry of Jesus ); they think it was a community of many cultures; they think it was a Christian community set in an alien or hostile environment. This should help to make its message relevant to us. But, the Old Testament and Greek cultures to which it constantly alludes are less and less familiar to the people of our day, and its emphasis on the divine rather than the human side of Christ, and its certainty, are alien to many in our society.
The third context is that of the reader. We always read a text from the point of view of our own time, and reinterpret it according to our own assumptions. As I have said, the work of Biblical scholars has meant that many people can no longer read John’s Gospel as a record of the historical Jesus. It may still, however, appeal to those who prefer to explore their faith intuitively, through metaphor, poetry, symbolism and allusion.
But for those who do not find that John’s symbolism and allusion means much to them, perhaps we just need to follow the example of John’s freedom with the original script of Jesus’ ministry, and to rewrite it for our own time. As an example of how this might look, I’m going to offer you three pieces of writing, what we might call the outlines for ‘Bread of Life VI and VII and VIII’. The first is a worship song, that I learnt many years ago when I taught in a Roman Catholic school; It’s called ‘The Bakerwoman’ and it looks at the Bread of Life image from the point of view of Mary; perhaps you can understand why I like it.
The bakerwoman in her humble lodge
received a grain of wheat from God.
For nine whole months the grain she stored:
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord”
Make us the bread, Mary, Mary,
Make us the bread, we need to be fed.
The bakerwoman took the road which led
to Bethlehem, the house of bread.
To knead the bread she laboured through the night,
and brought it forth about midnight.
Bake us the bread, Mary, Mary,
Bake us the bread, we need to be fed.
She baked the bead for thirty years
by the fire of her love and the salt of her tears,
by the warmth of a heart so tender and bright,
and the bread was golden brown and white.
Bring us the bread, Mary, Mary,
Bring us the bread, we need to be fed.
After thirty years the bread was done.
It was taken to town by her only son;
the soft white bread to be given free
to the hungry people of Galilee.
Give us the bread, Mary, Mary,
Give us the bread, we need to be fed.
For thirty coins the bread was sold,
and a thousand teeth so cold, so cold,
tore it to pieces on a Friday noon,
when the sun turned black and red the moon.
Break us the bread, Mary, Mary,
break us the bread, we need to be fed.
And when she saw the bread so white,
the living bread she made at night,
devoured as wolves might devour a sheep,
the bakerwoman began to weep.
Weep for the bread, Mary, Mary,
weep for the bread, we need to be fed.
But the bakerwoman’s only son
appeared to his friends when three days had run
on the road which to Emmaus led –
and they knew him in the breaking of bread.
Lift up your head, Mary, Mary,
lift up your head, for now we’ve been fed.
Words: Marie Noel. Additional words, translation and music: Hubert J Richards. Copyright Kevin Mayhew Ltd.
Then there’s a poem that sees God as a Bakerwoman, forming us humans and testing us in the fire.
Bakerwoman God, I am your living bread.
Strong, brown Bakerwoman God.
I am your low, soft and being-shaped loaf.
I am your rising bread,
Well-kneaded by some divine
and knotty pair of knuckles,
by your warm earth hands.
I am bread well kneaded.
Put me in the fire, Bakerwoman God,
Put me in your own bright fire.
I am warm, warm as you from fire.
I am white and gold, soft and hard,
Brown and round. I am so warm from fire.
Break me, Bakerwoman God.
I am broken under your caring Word.
Drop me in your special juice in pieces.
Drop me in your blood.
Drunken me in the great red flood.
Self-giving chalice, swallow me.
My skin shines in the divine wine.
My face is cup-covered and I drown.
I fall up, in a red pool in a gold world
Where your warm sunskin hand is there
To catch and hold me.
Bakerwoman God, remake me.
Alla Renée Bozarth
Womanpriest: A Personal Odyssey, Paulist Press 1978,
rev. ed. Luramedia 1988, distributed by Wisdom House;
Gynergy, Wisdom House 1990;
Water Women, audiocassette, Wisdom House 1990;
Moving to the Edge of the World iUniverse 2000;
This is My Body~ Praying for Earth, Prayers from the Heart,
iUniverse 2004.To listen to the musical composition of “Bakerwoman God” by retired Northern Illinois University professor of music, Tim Blickhan, performed by the Augustana College Jenny Lind Vocal Ensemble, Michael Zemek, director, on All Saints Day 2013, go here: http://www.mediafire.com/listen/3nrh3kt1a03u6q7/2012+Bakerwoman+God.mp3
Last is a poem by the Cornish poet, Charles Causley, called ‘The Bread Man’. It is a retelling of the story of Jesus in modern dress, and with modern doubts and ambivalence. You may find the imagery used shocking; if you do, remember how shocking the words which John shows Jesus using, in Bread of Life I-V would have been to his contemporaries, and then see if this sequel appeals to you more or less than the previous scripts!
Ballad of the Bread Man
Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in through the window.
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.
‘God in his big blue heaven,
Sitting in his big gold chair,
Wanted a mother for his little son.
Suddenly saw you there.’
Mary shook and trembled,
‘It isn’t true what you say.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel,
‘The baby’s on its way.’
Joseph was in the workshop
Planing a piece of wood.
‘The old man’s past it,’ the neighbours said.
‘That girl’s been up to no good.’
‘And who was that elegant fellow,’
They said, ‘in the shiny gear?’
The things they said about Gabriel
Were hardly fit to hear.
Mary never answered,
Mary never replied.
She kept the information,
Like baby, safe inside.
It was election winter.
They went to vote in town.
When Mary found her time had come
The hotels let her down.
The baby was born in an annexe
Next to the local pub.
At midnight, a delegation
Turned up from the Farmers’ Club.
They talked about an explosion
That made a hole in the sky,
Said they’d been sent to the Lamb and Flag
To see God come down from on high.
A few days later a bishop
And a five-star general were seen
With the head of an African country
In a bullet-proof limousine.
‘We’ve come,’ they said, ‘with tokens
For the little boy to choose.’
Told the tale about war and peace
In the television news.
After them came the soldiers
With rifle and bomb and gun
Looking for enemies of the state.
The family had packed and gone.
When they got back to the village
The neighbours said to a man,
‘That boy will never be one of us,
Though he does what he blessed well can.’
He went round to all the people
A paper crown on his head.
Here is some bread from my father.
Take, eat, he said.
Nobody seemed very hungry.
Nobody seemed to care.
Nobody saw the god in himself
Quietly standing there.
He finished up in the papers.
He came to a very bad end.
He was charged with bringing the living to life.
No man was that prisoner’s friend.
There’s only one kind of punishment
To fit that kind of a crime.
They rigged a trial and shot him dead.
They were only just in time.
They lifted the young man by the leg,
They lifted him by the arm,
They locked him in a cathedral
In case he came to harm.
They stored him safe as water
Under seven rocks.
One Sunday morning he burst out
Like a Jack-in-the-box.
Through the town he went walking.
He showed them the holes in his head.
Now do you want any loaves? he cried.
‘Not today,’ they said.