Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Signs (4): Flesh and Blood

John 6:1-15, 25-40, 52-61

Yesterday, we hosted a wonderful seminar and training event for ministry with the military. It featured some wonderful food, including crab asparagus bisque, tomato bisque, and chicken and wild rice soup. One of the evaluation forms, at the question, “What was the best part of this event?” responded: LUNCH – all caps, underscored twice, with extra exclamation points. Khris, when she was told, joked, “It must have been a man.” Thanks once more to everyone who had a part in making it a great day.

A friend of mine says that whenever he eats, he is always thinking about his next meal. I suppose it ensures an enduring appetite, but it would certainly distract me from enjoying the one I was eating. On the other hand, one reason we say “Grace” at our meals is not simply to express thanks for what is before us but also to anticipate the final feast in the coming kingdom of our Lord.

Now, we’ve got a similar situation for Jesus. Five thousand men (for the purposes of the story, the women and children were not counted . . . so we have no idea how many the total was) were fed by Jesus. It was the best part of their day, and all they could do was think about their next meal: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6.26).

John is a master at little details – the kind that we would otherwise overlook – at giving these little details theological and biblical weight. All four of the gospel accounts include this story, but John has some unique details and phrasing.

The boy’s loaves are made of barley, not of wheat – a detail that John alone provides. Barley was the bread of the poor (Raymond E. Brown, John I-XII, p 233). Barley loaves – not wheat – were used for Holy Communion in the primitive church (Brown, 248). And barley loaves were used by Elisha to feed a crowd in 2 Kings 4:42 (in that case, it was 20 loaves for 100 people, a feat that seemed miraculous enough at the time but pales in comparison with feeding 5 loaves to 5000). And, that bread was provided to Elisha by a servant . . . and the Greek word for the servant (the text was originally in Hebrew, but the first Christians were more familiar with the Greek translation) was the same form used in this Jesus story for the young boy, a “lad” (Brown, 246). No wonder the people – though preoccupied with the meal – began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6.14).

John uses the language of Holy Communion throughout the story. Barley loaves. Jesus took the loaves and “gave thanks” – the Greek root is the root for Eucharist. Jesus himself distributes the bread – just as he did at his last supper. (Because of the size of the crowd, we assume the disciples help, but John only speaks of Jesus’ role.) As Jesus interprets this story in his preaching, he tells people that they must “eat my flesh and drink my blood” to have eternal life (John 6.53). And, back in verse 4, John sets this entire chapter in the context of the Passover feast, the feast of redemption, the feast of unleavened bread that preceded the gift of manna bread from heaven in the wilderness, the feast that involved a slain lamb and sprinkled blood.

This is what John means by “sign”. He does not simply report miracles as evidence of Jesus’ power. He reports signs, signs that say something about Jesus and his kingdom, signs that say something about God’s new creation inaugurated by the 8th sign on the 8th day, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Last week, the miracle was the healing of a lame man on the Sabbath. That SIGN was about the Sabbath rest that is ours in Jesus Christ, and about the work of Jesus to bring life and justice to this broken world. This week, the SIGN is tied up in themes of Passover deliverance (Exodus, unleavened bread, and – next week – going through the sea) and wilderness supply (manna from heaven). This week’s sign tells us emphatically that Jesus is the prophet who was to come, and not just the prophet but the fully realized hope of the prophetic tradition.

The crowd gets that something more is afoot than a great meal on a tight budget. “This is indeed the prophet!” But, they are still fixated on what they ate rather than on what it points to.

Jesus, attempting to get folks to look past appearances, uses some word play that most English translations don’t adequately present:

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6.27).

The word for “perish” is the same word used by Jesus earlier in the story when he tells the disciples to collect the leftovers “so that nothing may perish/be lost/spoil” (6.12).

As the eminent scholar Raymond Brown writes, “Even the miraculously multiplied loaves can perish” (Brown, 248).

If all we want is a miracle, we’re stuck with this profound limitation. Even the water turned to wine will eventually run out. Even those who are healed eventually die. Even the miraculously fed will become hungry again. We must be grateful for the miracle, but we cannot live on the miracle. And, ultimately, it is not the miracle that Jesus offers. Jesus offers “food that endures for eternal life”. If all we want is a miracle, we’re stuck with this profound limitation: Every miracle comes with an expiration date.
Perish, word play #1. The second word play is the word for “work” – as in work that involves effort, muscle . . . hard work.
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
“What must we do to work the works of God?” (6.28)
“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (6.29).
In the endless conversation about salvation by faith, salvation by works, we have John’s entry: Faith is work. And, faith is God’s work. For the phrase “work of God” could just as easily be translated “God’s work”. So, faith is the work God requires of us, and it is also the work God does for us. (See Brown, 265.) What a mystery!

It is hard work. At the end of the story, many disciples turn away. Why? The particularity – you have to deal with Jesus himself. The substance – not just about by-and-by, a disembodied future, but about creation, new creation, flesh and blood. Death – not our preferred vision for salvation.

Today’s sign points to Jesus as heir of the prophetic tradition and object of the prophetic hope. Today’s sign points to Jesus in the language of the Exodus deliverance, in the bread and cup of Holy Communion. Today’s sign also points to Jesus in the language of the Creation story.
You shall not eat the fruit of the tree [of the knowledge of good and evil], or you will die (Genesis 3.3).
This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die (John 6.50).

So God drove them out of the garden (Genesis 3.24).
Anyone who comes to me I will never drive out (John 6.37).
(Brown, 279, citing Guilding)
Many years ago, at a service of Holy Communion, my father suddenly realized that he had not received Christ, and that he wanted Christ in his life. He wanted the “bread that comes down from heaven”. As the bread and cup was served, he received it with faith. He did the work God required, and God did God’s own work in him. Eat and live. Come to Jesus and never be cast out.

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