Sharing John's Gospel
by Craig Bogley

Session 6 - The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6: 25-59)

Environment - Equivalent to Session 1.

Prayer - "Sometimes It Just Seems to Be Too Much" (Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace, 66-67)

Reading - John 6:25-59. Select a volunteer to read the entire passage slowly and clearly. Suggest that each person listen for possible themes or structure of the passage.

1. What themes or structure can you discern in this passage?

Facilitator - In this passage there is rich interplay between theological themes and a complex discussion of Jewish Passover traditions. Because of this, the passage is one of the most analyzed texts in the New Testament. The cited references of Brown, Flanagan and Moloney perceive the thematic structure differently. Brown's concise commentary suggests two dominant themes. The first, the sapiential theme, the nourishing heavenly bread is the revelation or teaching of Jesus (6:35-50). The second, the sacramental theme, is the sublime sacramental theology of the Eucharist (6:51-58). These two themes are complimentary, and are seen to correspond to the proclaimed word and the Word in the sacrament which constitute the Christian liturgy.

Flanagan's Collegeville commentary suggests a three phrase-by-phrase order for the discourse. In the first, "he gave", the emphasis lies in the giving of Jesus (6:26-34). In the second, "bread from heaven", emphasis is placed on Jesus being the bread from heaven. In the third, "to eat", constant reference is made to flesh and blood, food and drink.

Moloney, in his Sacra Pagina commentary, identifies five sections each introduced by questions or statements from the crowd or "the Jews."

(a) "Rabbi, when did you come here?" (6:25-29)

(b) "Then what signs do you do?" (6:30-33)

(c) "Lord, give us this bread always." (6:34-40)

(d) "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he say, 'I have come down from heaven'?" (6:41-51)

(e) "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (6:52-59)

This structure will be examined in today's session. The discourse unfolds around each question and answer. Each section evolves a new idea around the central theme of the bread from heaven.

Reading - Ask a volunteer to read the first section, John 6:25-29. Suggest that the audience reflect on the sections' major focus.

2. What is the main thrust of this section?

Facilitator - To the opening trivial question Jesus responds by instructing the crowd on the need to search for the enduring food of eternal life through believing in the one whom God has sent.

3. What did the opening question reveal about the view these Jews held about Jesus (6:25)?

Facilitator - These Jews understood Jesus in their own terms as Rabbi and then trivialized his presence (6:25). This represents a step backward since they had previously wished to make him king (6:15).

4. How does Jesus respond to their query?

Facilitator - Jesus accuses them of seeking him for only the physical bread that perishes. He teaches that they must seek the nourishment that transcends earthly bread, food that endures to eternal life which he will give them (6:27).

5. What does Jesus promise and how does it contrast with Israel's belief?

Facilitator - Jesus promises food that endures to eternal life, that the Son of Man will give. Israel believed that the Law provided life to those that lived by it (Sir 17:11; 45:5). In this section, the authority of Jesus' promise is established for "God the Father has set his seal" upon the Son of Man (6:27).

6. How does Jesus respond to the question indicating that the crowds attempted to bypass the promise of the Son of Man (6:28)?

Facilitator - He indicated that access to God is only through the Son who makes God known (1:18) and that the only way to do the work of God is to believe in the one whom God sent (6:29).

Reading - Select a volunteer to read the second section, John 6:30-33. Suggest that the audience reflect on the section theme.

7. What is the focus of this section?

Facilitator - Jesus, when asked for miracle-working credentials, points to another bread from heaven, the true bread from heaven.

8. What do the crowds questions and statements reflect about the Mosaic tradition?

Facilitator - First, the crowd is asking Jesus to conform to the Jewish tradition of confirmatory miracles. Their ancestors ate manna in the desert which was assumed to be from heaven (6:31). If Jesus is making greater claim than Moses what sign can he do to confirm this? The people are attempting to force Jesus into their Mosaic model of Moses, the manna, and the Torah which tradition says gives life to Israel. The people had become aroused by Jesus summoning the crowd to labor for bread that does not parish (6:27).

9. How does Jesus answer this challenge?

Facilitator - He teaches the people not to focus on Moses since it was God who gave the bread from heaven. And further that the gift once given is now surpassed by the true bread from heaven. The true bread comes down from heaven and gives life to the whole world. This surpasses God's former gifts. The Mosaic manna gave nourishment for Israel; the true bread from heaven gives life to the entire world.

Reading - Appoint someone to read the next section, John 6:34-40.

10. What is the central theme of this section?

Facilitator - In this section Jesus presents himself as the true bread from heaven; the one who is able to make God known and to give eternal life.

11. What is the meaning of Jesus response to the crowd's petition for Jesus bread always (6:34)?

Facilitator - Jesus, perceiving that they misunderstood the nature of the bread, tells them that he is the bread of life (6:35). As with all the "I am" sayings, Jesus is also describing what he is doing: nourishing with a bread that produces life. He is perfecting the former gift, the nourishment provided by the Torah, Moses, Manna or Wisdom which are no longer sufficient. Jesus, the bread of life, will satisfy the deepest needs of all humankind (6:35).

12. What is the problem of many in the crowd?

Facilitator - As Jesus tells them, they have seen but have not believed (6:36). However, Jesus accepts everyone sent by the father (6:37).

13. How do we understand Jesus' coming in relation to the word and Law of God?

Facilitator - As the word and Law were understood to be the heavenly gift of God, Jesus presents himself as the perfection of that gift (Isa 55:10-11, Exod 19:11, 20). The Father gives and sends and Jesus responds unconditionally (6:37-38).

14. What then is the promise of Jesus to the crowd?

Facilitator - Because it is the Fathers will, "all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life" and will be raised up on the last day (6:40).

Break - Take a 10 minute stretch and refreshment break. Because of the length of this session the facilitator may wish to continue on a later occasion. In this case he can conclude this half of the session with Teilhard's closing prayer. Because of the deep spiritual insights of this prayer it is desirable to present it on both occasions. Open the second half of the session with Merton's "The Road Ahead," given in the introductory session.

Reading - Ask someone to read the next section, John 6:41-51.

15. What is the primary focus of this section?

Facilitator - Jesus presents himself as the true bread from heaven, the only one who can make God known and give truth about eternal things.

16. What is the nature of the challenge that Jesus faces in this section?

Facilitator - The previously unspecified crowd has erupted in hostility which is identified with "the Jews" (6:42). The murmuring recalls the Israelites in the wilderness (Exod 15:24) and denotes rebellion. How can Jesus descend from above when they clearly know his father and mother?

17. How does Jesus respond?

Facilitator - Jesus reproaches the murmuring of "the Jews" (6:43) just as Moses warned the Israelites (Exod 16:8) by pointing to his origins in relation to the Father. The Father sends the Son, the Father brings believers to him, and through belief in the Son, they attain everlasting life (6:45-47). Jesus therefore is the true Son of the Father, not Joseph.

18. In what sense has Jesus become the source of God's instruction?

Facilitator - As Moloney recalls, the prophets had foretold that "they shall all be taught by God" (6:45, Isa 54:13). Jesus asks "the Jews" to listen to God for instruction whereas God taught Israel through the Law, Jesus proclaims that all who have listened to God will turn to him (6:45).

19. Do you understand the point made by the narrative that distinguishes Jesus from Moses?

Facilitator - One of the points made in the Prologue is that Moses brought the Law whereas the gift of truth came through Jesus. No one has seen God, but "the only Son is turned toward the Father, he has made him known" (1:16-18). Jesus is the only one who has seen God, hence he was given unique authority to make God known (6:46). Because of this anyone who believes in the revelation of Jesus, the true bread from heaven, has eternal life.

20. What does a comparison of the two "breads" reveal?

Facilitator - The ancestors of Israel ate manna in the wilderness and died; but the bread that comes down from heaven in the person of Jesus promises eternal life to all who believe in him (6:49-51).

21. What is the surprising assertion made by Jesus at the end of this section?

Facilitator - "The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh" (6:51). Moloney summarizes by pointing out that the true bread from heaven will make God known in an unconditional gift of himself for the life of the world. Earlier statements point to a future encounter between the darkness and light (1:5), the hour of Jesus (2:5) and his being lifted up (3:14). Also there are clear hints that Jesus will be killed by "the Jews." They rejected him in the temple (2:13-23) and plotted to kill him (5:18).

22. How does Jesus' experience of death provide nourishment for the life of the world?

Facilitator - This is not the first time in this narrative that Jesus has promised a future gift. He urged them not to labor for perishable food but for food that endures which the Son of Man will give (6:27). He promises that all who come to him will not hunger, and all who believe in him will not thirst (6:35). Hence there was a mounting impression that there will be a nourishment that will forever satisfy those who believe in Jesus. "The Jews" are outraged by his telling them that he will give his flesh for the world promising a bread that surpasses all that a Passover can give.

Reading - Ask someone to read the final section, John 6:52-59.

23. What is the theme of this section?

Facilitator - A final question provides Jesus an opportunity to instruct "the Jews" on the need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man.

24. Why do "the Jews" raise the question, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat" (6:52)?

Facilitator - "The Jews" simply cannot go beyond the physical, and hence, misunderstand Jesus' promise. Jesus states both negatively and positively that whoever eats his flesh and his blood has eternal life now and will be raised up on the last day (6:53-54). Here Jesus is perfecting the Mosaic gift of bread from heaven through his gift of himself as the true bread. "Flesh" and "blood" emphasize that it is the incarnate life and the real death of the Son that are life giving nourishment. These words represent the continuation and culmination of the arguments and promises made in this chapter (6:25-51). The gift of the Torah nourished the ancestors of Israel, Jesus gift of himself will nourish the whole world. By their total receptivity of the Law, Israel perennially recalled the nourishment provided for them by eating the manna. It becomes obvious that signs of the Eucharist are insinuated in the words of Jesus, the verb "to eat" (phagein) has shifted to another verb indicating a physical crunching of teeth (trogein) emphasizing a real experience of eating. In chapter 5, Jesus' behavior on the Sabbath has led the Jews to plot his death (5:15-18). In this Jesus will give his whole self for the life of the world in a violent encounter with his enemies. His body will be broken and his blood will be poured out (6:53-54).

25. What is the rationale in the section for the mutuality in which believers live in Jesus and Jesus lives in them?

Facilitator - The mutual indwelling flows from the union that exist between the Father and the Son (6:56-57). "The living Father" has sent his Son who has life in him because of the intimacy between father and son. Thus Jesus has authority to pass on life to all those who accept the revelation of the Father in the Son by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. As Jesus lives because of the Father, the believer lives and will continue to live because of Jesus (6:57).

26. How does the author bring the discourse to a close?

Facilitator - The bread that Israel's ancestors ate in the desert is contrasted with the bread that comes down from heaven (6:58). Jesus highlights the death of Israel's ancestors and the promise of everlasting life to those who eat the true bread from heaven. Jesus has surpassed the Law, which was a gift of God, with the bread from heaven, the promise of his abiding presence, and communicating the life of the Father to all who consume this true bread. He taught these things in the synagogue at Capernaum on the occasion of the Passover celebration, giving a message that presupposes, fulfills, and transcends the Jewish Passover tradition.

27. What is the major thrust of the final part of the discourse (6:52-59)?

Facilitator - The final part of the discourse is a midrashic commentary of the verb "to eat" providing a rich tradition on eucharistic language including the words "bread," "food," "flesh," "blood," "to eat," "to drink," "will give," "for your sakes." Jesus is presented as the true bread from heaven, replacing the former bread from heaven, the manna of the Law. The revelation of God is a never failing nourishment given by the Son of Man that will take place in broken flesh and spilled blood. The language used by the author in the final section provides first century Johannine readers with the insight that the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ is encountered in the Eucharistic celebration. The Eucharist is a place where one comes to eternal life. In the broken flesh and the spilled blood of Jesus, lifted up on the cross, we are called to make a decision for or against the revelation of God in that encounter, resulting in the gaining or losing one's life (6:53-58).

28. Are there further points of discussion before we close?

Prayer - I wish to close this session with a prayer by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Lord God, when I go up to your altar for communion, grant that I my derive from it a discernment of the infinite perspectives hidden beneath the smallness and closeness of the host within which you are concealed. Already I have accustomed myself to recognize beneath the inertness of the morsel of bread a consuming power which, as the greatest doctors of your Church have said, far from being absorbed into me, absorbs me into itself. Help me now to overcome that remaining illusion which would make me think of you as touching me only in a limited and momentary way.

I begin to understand: under the sacramental species you touch me first of all through the "accidents" of matter, of the material bread; but then, in consequence of this, you touch me also through the entire universe inasmuch as the entire universe, thanks to that primary influence, ebbs and flows over me. In a true sense, the arms and the heart which you open to me are nothing less than all the united powers of the world which, permeated through and through by your will, your inclinations, your temperament, bend over my being or form it and feed it and draw it into the blazing center of your infinite fire. In the host, Lord Jesus, you offer me my life.

For Session 7 - Read John 9-10, especially Blind Man & Pharisees.

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