August 12, 2018
By Wes Howard Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jesus, John 6.51)
As we enter this shocking passage from John’s gospel, it might not seem at first very “wild” or earthy in the tradition of “Wild Lectionary.” Metaphorical bread from the sky hardly seems connected with the flowing life of rivers, forests and animals that is the focus of this series. Yet as we listen closely to the imagery of this Gospel, we may be surprised to find that Jesus’ Word about “bread” is more earthy than it appears at first glance.
As we’ve seen over the past few weeks of working through John 6, our narrative context is a Passover meal that takes place on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee. This is already a clue to what is going on. According to Deuteronomy 16, all Israelite adult males were supposed to be in Jerusalem for Passover. Instead, we encounter a crowd ready to reject the commands of the urban religious elite in the hope that Jesus might offer something better. Their initial purpose is vague: they “kept following him because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick” (6.2). What might they have imagined he would do next?
Before Jesus teaches or heals or does anything else, though, he asks his disciple, Philip, the key question: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (6.5). The narrator tells us—but not Philip—that this is a “test” because Jesus “already knew that he was going to do” (6.6). Thus, the central theme of the chapter is: where are the people to look for their daily bread?
After they are fed and the crowd has followed Jesus back across the lake to Capernaum, the conversation ensues about who Jesus is and from where “bread” comes. The story explicitly echoes Exodus 16 by comparing what Jesus has done with the memory of Moses and the manna. The manna story itself is embedded in the Exodus narrative just after the people have safely exited Egypt. With the chariots and charioteers at the bottom of the sea, the people turn to immediate concerns: now that we are out of Egypt, where is the food? Not knowing how to identify the food that God provides, their fear leads them to want to turn back to their imperial slavery in exchange for a secure supply of food from the “fleshpots” (Ex 16.3). But after wrangling with Moses and Moses’ own wrangling with YHWH, the people discover a new, divinely-sourced food, which they first call with ironic humor, “What is it?”, which is the meaning of Hebrew, manna. Having begun the process of rewilding, the former slaves can begin their long journey to the Promised Land.
Jesus’ audience in John 6 plainly knows this story, as they bring it up themselves (6.31). We might guess that they are in a sense “auditioning” Jesus to play the part of the new Moses, the “prophet like me” that Moses—again from Deuteronomy (18.15-18)—promised YHWH would send one day. What can Jesus say or do to instill confidence in the crowd that he is the divinely-appointed leader who will guide them out of empire?
For the audience of the Gospel, Egypt’s fleshpots were paralleled by the Roman annona, the supply of grain—and later, olive oil as well—provided to all Roman citizens as a demonstration of imperial beneficence. Of course, such a provision sought to temper the passions of the poor for revolt, by offering basic foodstuff that might keep the rabble unroused. It also served to cement the patronage relationships upon which the empire was built, with those “below” in the social order expressing gratitude and loyalty to those “above” who offered access to what the poor could not gain on their own. The ultimate patrons were the gods, with the empire standing under the supposed protection of the pax deorum, the “peace of the gods” that Roman propaganda claimed kept the empire stable and safe.
So, while the crowd in the story might be understood as juxtaposing Jesus with the Jerusalem temple elite (who throughout John’s gospel are so often Jesus’ primary opponents), the audience of the Gospel would hear it a little differently: is the god of Jesus as powerful a patron as the gods of Rome?
As the conversation continues, we reach this week’s section, John 6.41-51. The Judeans “grumble” (echoing their Israelite ancestors in the wilderness; e.g., Ex 17.3) about Jesus’ claim that “I AM (Gk, egō eimi, echoing YHWH at Ex 3.14) the bread that came down from heaven.” How can a flesh-and-blood human being like Jesus be “bread”? Jesus refers them back to the manna story, but then continues with a shockingly concrete shift in the metaphor: “…the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6.51). What?? The passage continues (which we’ll leave for next week’s commentators) with Jesus insisting on this cannibalistic conundrum in the face of the crowd’s understandable shock and confusion.
What is at stake here is the nature and scope of Jesus’ authority: is it greater than Rome’s or not? Jesus’ alternative to both manna and the imperial annona is his earthy, fleshy self. Jesus invites hearers, then and now, to break the cycle of imperial dependence by trusting ever more completely in God’s own Presence found in human flesh and bone and blood. His offer and invitation are more than “daily bread,” but a form of ingestion that offers “eternal life” (Gk, zōē aionion,6.27, 40, 47, 54, 68). This phrase refers neither to endless days of life as it is nor to a heavenly afterlife, but to the fullness of life that has been God’s promise since the days of Daniel (see Dan 12.2). That fullness or “abundance” (John 10.10) of life comes not via an unending supply of manna/bread, but through the fleshy relationships one gains by committing to Jesus and his Way while abandoning the way of empire.
So much of the church seems to avoid the messy fleshiness of authentic intimacy within the Body of Christ. We carry all kinds of shame about our flesh. Ever since the fig leaf in the Garden, we’ve sought more to cover ourselves from others than to be “naked and unashamed” as God made us. Jesus invites us to reverse this process in and through his own Flesh, which is to say, through each other’s flesh. The “I AM” Moses encountered at the burning bush is the I AM one encounters in Jesus and is the I AM we encounter through the sacred flesh of one another. He asks us to imagine being so closely bonded together in God that we are no longer ashamed of who we are or what we look like. He calls us to turn away from imperial enticements and toward an embrace of one another’s flesh-and-bloodiness, as the true source of our deepest sustenance.
What could be more earthy and wild than that?
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.