John 6: 15-50: Manna

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on February 18, 2007.

Introduction:     Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I heard from several younger people this week who have discovered this broadcast and are listening in. So here is a shout out to them!  If you want to see Comenius’ birthplace and learn more about John Hus and the founding of the Moravian Church, join us on a tour of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria this summer. Call Aladdin Travel for details.

     Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which begins our season of Lent. We have special services each Wednesday evening until Holy Week. The Moravian women’s fellowships in Winston-Salem also sponsor Days of Prayer, with special preachers, at noon on Wednesdays until Holy Week. Ash Wednesday is a day in the calendar when we focus on the fact that we are mortal and sinful. Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, is the party that people held before entering into the season of penitence, prayer, and fasting. The Moravians in Reading make special doughnuts for the day and I know some Episcopalians that consume lots of pancakes that day. Whatever your plans for Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, I hope that your Lenten observance will include time for prayer, study of Scripture, personal reflection, and a renewed focus on living as Jesus has called us to live. Today we move into Lent with a discussion of the bread from heaven.

Walking on Water:   Since I ran out of time last week, let me begin with some observations about the second miracle in chapter 6: Jesus walking on the water. Last week we noted that this story and the feeding of the multitude seem to have been firmly linked long before the gospels themselves were written. It is somewhat surprising that John kept the link between these stories since the discourse that follows the miracles focused entirely on the feeding miracle with no mention of the walking on water.

    The differences between John’s account of this event and the way it is told in the other gospels are striking. The synoptic gospels add a lot of dramatic detail that magnifies the supernatural aspect of the story. There is a great storm at sea that Jesus walks through and then calms with a word. The disciples feared he was a ghost until he spoke to them. There is an eerie quality to the synoptic account that is missing in John. John’s version is very simple and easily overlooked. It simply says that the sea was rough and the disciples had some difficulty rowing. Though they were about half way across the lake, it is not clear how far from the left or right shore. In other words,it appears that Jesus did not walk halfway across the lake the way he did in the other gospels.

     The Greek here is actually ambiguous over whether they saw Jesus walking on the shore by the lake or walking on the lake itself.  Strangely, the story does not even say that Jesus got in the boat with them: just that the disciples wanted to bring him into the boat. He tells them not to be afraid, and in no time at all they have reached the shore. John’s version reads almost like a dream or a vision. Some scholars think that the simplicity and lack of special effects means that John’s account is closer to the original than the other gospels. The other gospels focus on the miracle, but John focuses on Jesus.

      This scene is similar to the revelations of God in his glory in the Old Testament. Jesus says to the disciples, Ego eimi, “I am. Do not be afraid.” This is often translated, “It is I,” but that may obscure the most important part of this passage. God speaks to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets as “I am” and tells them not to be afraid. Here the disciples were terrified, as all mortals are when they see God. Jesus claims the divine name and tells them not to be afraid. The connection between the feeding miracle and the walking on the water now becomes clear. Psalm 77, which was read at Passover, speaks of God walking through the water with unseen footprints. Jesus would not let humans make him a king to fight against men like Herod, but he does reveal himself to his followers as the Son of the God who saves. The whole story of Passover and the entire Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus.

Preaching:      The remainder of chapter 6 is a collection of sayings by and about Jesus put in the form of a dialog with the crowd and with the disciples. I’m not going to read verses 22-24 which deal with the crowd seeking Jesus out, but I want you to know that there are many more variations in the ancient manuscripts for these lines than most of the Gospel of John. Raymond Brown notes dryly that “the textual variants in these verses suggest a very complicated history” (Brown, 258). It appears that ancient scribes were just as confused as modern readers about the identity of the people to whom Jesus was talking. Was it the same people who had eaten the loaves and fish or a new crowd in Capernaum?

     There is a note at the end of chapter 6 that may shed light on the actual setting for some of the sayings in this passage. Verse 59 says that “he said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.” This agrees with statements in the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus taught in the synagogues and that the original center of his activity in Galilee was Capernaum. One curious fact about the synoptic gospels is that they give almost no examples of what Jesus preached in the synagogues. We can presume that he taught the way other rabbis taught. He read the lessons assigned for that day out of the Law and the Prophets and gave an interpretation of the lesson. Since the Talmud records the cycle of readings for the liturgical year in Judaism, we have a pretty good idea of what might have been read in the synagogue around the time of Passover: Gen. 2 -3, Exodus 11-16, and Numbers 6-14 (Brown, 279). These scriptures provide the background for the teachings in John chapter 6 about the bread of heaven.

 Read 6:25-34

First Dialog on the Bread of Heaven:          The discourses in chapter 6 follow a pattern that we have already become familiar with in John’s gospel. Once again, the dialog begins with a question that Jesus does not answer. The people ask him when he arrived, which seems to be a straight forward question to which the answer would be “early this morning.” Instead Jesus tells them that they are looking for him for all the wrong reasons. They were looking for him because they wanted more free bread. They had missed the point of the miracle, which was a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God. They were not seeking Jesus; they were seeking bread, so why ask when he arrived?  Then Jesus urges them to work for food that does not spoil.

     This sounds like a sermon based on the story of the manna in the wilderness. The manna spoiled quickly and needed to be renewed each day. The Son of Man, the heavenly figure who would usher in the kingdom of God, was the one who could provide food that would endure. This was the kind of sermon the people had probably heard before during Passover. By the time of Jesus, bread was already being used by rabbis as a metaphor for the Torah or the Scriptures. The Law of God was the bread of life that endured.

The Work of God:    Even the crowd’s response to Jesus’ statement is like a rhetorical question that a preacher might ask. What must we do to perform the works of God? This is one of the basic questions of Judaism through the millennia. What does the Lord require of us, the prophets had asked? Over the centuries, the rabbis collected their answers to this question in the Talmud, but the Talmud was written long after the New Testament. In the first century, the question of what God requires was an open question that rabbis like Jesus debated. This basic question was asked of Jesus in the other three gospels by a rich young ruler who longed to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to do all of the works of the Law and then sell his possessions and give the poor.

     Jesus’ answer in John 6 appears quite different. “The work of God is to believe in the one God has sent.” The difference between John’s answer and that of the Synoptic gospels marks one of the sources of theological debate and church division in Christianity. John focuses on belief and the synoptic gospels works; just as Paul focuses on faith rather than works. The similarity between the Paul and John here may reflect their similar contexts. Both were Jews who were deeply involved in the synagogue until they began to believe in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God. Both were writing to people who had been forced to leave the synagogue because of their beliefs. And both believed that the death and resurrection of Jesus had transformed God’s relationship to the world so completely that Samaritans and Gentiles could be gathered into the household of God. For Paul and John, belief in Jesus had transformed their life and orientation toward the entire world.

     So it is not surprising that their writings would focus on belief. Despite what some Protestant theologians and preachers have said through the centuries, neither Paul nor John denies the importance of doing good works or basic ethics. Works themselves are transformed by faith in Jesus. Here in chapter 6 we read that belief or faith is a work of God. It is a work that God does in us and something that we do ourselves. We have already seen in John’s gospel that individuals must decide whether to believe in Jesus and follow him. For John, this is a type of work. Remember that belief for John is an intellectual agreement with a doctrine; it is being born from above. It is placing one’s entire life in Christ and living with Christ. To believe in the one whom God sent is to be born from above and to view the world from a different perspective. Keep in mind that this teaching was given at Passover. John understood that the Israelites had to believe in Moses whom God sent before they could follow him out of Egypt into freedom. The great deeds in history and the great deeds in our lives begin with belief.

Manna:       The crowd asks Jesus for a sign so that they might believe in him. This is one of the confusing aspects of this chapter indicate that it was probably stitched together from several accounts. Jesus had already given the requested sign; he gave the people bread in the wilderness. The crowd even quotes the book of Exodus about manna, but Jesus tells them that they have misunderstood. Like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, they focused on the physical rather than the spiritual. Like a good preacher, Jesus took the traditional Old Testament reading and reinterpreted it for the crowd. Modern researchers have shown that what Jesus is doing here was typical of Jewish preaching. He expands on the original text and applies it to the contemporary setting. It was not Moses who gave the manna; it was God the Father. This was not just an historical event. Jesus changes the tense of the verb so that the gift of the bread is on-going. God gives the bread of life.

I Am the Bread:        They appear to be sincere when they ask him to give them this bread of life, but they do not like it when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus repeats his promise given to the woman of Samaria: that those who come to him will never be hungry and never thirst. This is one of those statements that even modern fundamentalists do not take literally since those who believe in Jesus still may go hungry and die of thirst. We need to remember John’s warning not to focus on the literal meaning like the crowd. This hunger and thirst does not refer to the needs of this earthly body; it is referring to a deeper craving, to the inner needs that drive us. Those who come to Jesus are freed from anxiety and the gnawing sense of incompleteness that keeps most of us miserable in the midst of prosperity. Since Genesus 2 and 3 were part of the lectionary for Passover season, it is quite likely that Jesus was intentionally comparing the bread of life that God gives through him to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. The bread of life overcomes the punishment for sin. This salvation goes beyond the Exodus from slavery in Egypt; it overcomes the slavery of sin and death.

From Heaven:            We do not know for sure which of these words in chapter 6 spoken by Jesus in a synagogue in Capernaum and which were preached by the Beloved Disciple to his followers about the meaning of resurrection. John is the only gospel in the New Testament in which Jesus speaks of having come from heaven to do the will of the Father. Such statements appear in the gospels written by Gnostics who did not believe that Christ was a human. Before we dismiss Jesus’ statement here in John, though, we should note that this idea that Jesus came from heaven to do the will of God is consistent with the oldest writings in the New Testament, the letters of Paul. Paul also speaks of Jesus descending and ascending to the Father. Rather than trying to decide for certain what Jesus taught before the resurrection and what the Holy Spirit taught afterward, it is important that we grasp the meaning of this little sermon. God the Father promises that those who place their faith in Jesus will have eternal life through him. Death will not have the final answer because we have been given the bread of life.

Grumbling:             This sounds like good news, but John reports that the people began to grumble, just like the Israelites of old grumbled against Moses after eating the manna. Through the centuries and in our time, Christians have had difficulty accepting the teachings of Jesus as the source of life. We keep turning the good news of salvation and the bread of life into the bad news of judgment and anger. Or we are embarrassed to believe that a Palestinian peasant could have been the conduit of God’s grace for the world.

     The crowd’s complaint against Jesus is a familiar one. He could not be the bread of life sent from heaven because he was born to a poor family in Nazareth. The people knew his mother and father. He is the son of Joseph not the son of God! This is the scandal of the Incarnation. As Judas sings in Jesus Christ Superstar, “He is just a man.” The Gnostics in early Christianity dealt with this scandal by denying that Jesus had been born of a woman and died as a man. He simply came from heaven. The Jews and Romans dealt with the scandal by denying the divine mission of Jesus. He was just another Jew killed by the Romans. But the New Testamenr embraces the paradox of the son of Joseph being the son of God. The gospel of John focuses on the shocking idea that a simple carpenter could have been the one sent by God as the bread of life.

     Jesus does not offer proofs of his identity to the crowd. He does not walk across the water for their entertainment. Instead, he tells them that they will not be able to believe without a change of perspective. Some of them saw the miracle of the feeding and still missed the sign. They must be taught by God and hear the teaching of the Father. Then Jesus returns to the theme of his sermon. It is not clear whether this repetition is John’s way of pressing the point home that the bread of life is eternal or if this is a different version of the original sermon. It doesn’t really matter. The feeding of the multitude and the two sermons in chapter 6 tell the same story in different ways. It is the story of the Exodus retold to include the whole world.


Communion:            Next week we will continue with this theme of the bread of life, but verses 52-58 move from the manna in the wilderness to the bread of Holy Communion. I hope you will tune in next week as we continue to feed on the good things that have been prepared for us. I also hope you will join us for our service on Ash Wednesday.   

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