The Bread of Life Narrative
The Bread of Life Narrative (John 6)
The Revd Professor Dorothy A Lee FAHA, Trinity College, University of Divinity, Melbourne
The narrative of John 6 is part of a wider section in John’s Gospel that deals with the overarching theme of the ‘feasts of the Jews’. It begins with the sabbath (Jn 5), the Passover (Jn 6), the feast of Tabernacles (Jn 7–9), and the feast of Dedication (Jn 10). In each case, the fourth evangelist demonstrates how the Old Testament feasts find fulfillment in Jesus. Underlying this motif is the theological understanding that the Johannine Jesus is the Temple of God, the dwelling place of God’s glory (1:14).
Although John 6 is often referred to as ‘discourse’, it is really a long narrative. The key is the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 (6:1–15), which is a Johannine ‘sign’ that points to the divine glory manifest in Jesus (2:11). The ensuing sections, following the feeding explore the meaning of that feeding in dialogue with the crowd and, later, the religious authorities.
The narrative moves initially in the direction of faith, as the crowd’s misunderstanding is illuminated by Jesus to the point where he reveals himself as the Bread of Life (6:35). This is the first of John’s ‘I am’ sayings, the innermost meaning of the ‘sign’. Thereafter, the tide turns and the narrative moves in the opposite direction: to an increasing rejection of Jesus and his scandalous message (6:60-62). In the end only the small community of disciples is left and even among them is a betrayer (6:66-71). Yet even in misunderstanding, Jesus reveals his identity.
The feeding itself - the parabolic narrative on which everything that follows is based - moves through the narrative to include not only eating but also drinking; not only flesh but also blood. This expansion is already indicated at the ‘I am’ saying at 6:35, but is more fully drawn out at 6:51-58. The language is eucharistic, though the aim is not to speak primarily of the sacrament. Its reality is assumed. What John 6 does is to indicate what that sacramental life really means.
Above all, for John it means abiding in Jesus. Sharing in his flesh and blood in the sacrament is the core symbol of that indwelling and of the mutual love into which we are drawn.
Essentially it is about entering into the communion between Father and Son through the enticing presence of the Holy Spirit.
What is most remarkable in this narrative is not just the sacramental presence of the Lord in the eucharist, though that is implied. What is more radical, and underlies the eucharist, is the incarnation itself: that Jesus is both the son of Mary and Joseph - an ordinary son with ordinary human parents - and at the same ‘the bread which has come down from heaven,’ God’s divine self-gift.
The incarnation makes palpable all the elements of Passover and exodus: the manna given in the wilderness, the sacrifice and eating of the paschal lamb, the rescue from slavery and the divine protection and sustenance of God’s people on their journey to the Promised Land. All of that is now embodied in the Johannine Jesus who, like Sophia in the Old Testament Wisdom literature, is both the giver and the gift, the host at the table and the food itself.
The traces of an implicitly feminine image may also be discerned in this narrative. The only time a human feeds on a living human being is in breast-feeding. For the ancients, breast milk is a form of maternal blood from which the infant is born and on which it feeds. Birth imagery is found in the dialogue with Nicodemus (3:1-21), in the farewell discourse (16:21) and, at the crucifixion, in the piercing of Jesus’ side and the flow of water and blood (19:34). In the Medieval period, the church would develop this language to speak of Jesus as mother who gives birth to believers and sustains them with his own self in the eucharist (Anselm, Julian of Norwich).
John 6 is a rich and extensive narrative that moves in different directions, ending on something of a tragic note, with intimations of Jesus’ death throughout. Yet that death is all of a piece with the incarnation, the eucharist, the resurrection: together they represent the life-giving, maternal love of God that births us, sustains us, holds us in being in life and death, and finally sends us out to bring that reconciling love to all creation.