We’ve been loitering around John chapter 6 for several weeks now. Jesus has fed the five thousand, and his miracle has led into a lengthy and sometimes difficult theological discussion about the bread of life, which in today’s gospel has proved to be too much for some of the crowds. While Jesus was still making one packed lunch feed a crowd and even making the leftovers laughably miraculous, they were more than happy to follow him; now he’s started talking about them drinking his own blood and eating his own flesh, they’re not so sure. And small wonder – the very idea of cannibalism is abhorrent to most human cultures and societies, and for those who couldn’t get past the literal words of Jesus, what he was saying in today’s gospel was beyond what they could comprehend or accept.
For these last few weeks that we’ve been spending with John chapter 6, the lectionary has gradually immersed us in one of the most significant themes of John’s gospel account of the life and ministry of Jesus: namely, how does the physical, material reality of the incarnation, relate to the spiritual reality of what Jesus came to do?
When we ask ourselves this question as we read John 6, it’s helpful to remember something. In John’s gospel, his account of the Last Supper doesn’t give us a version of what we call the ‘institution narrative’ for Holy Communion. Where the other gospels give us Jesus breaking bread with his friends and saying ‘this is my body’ and pouring wine and sharing it with them saying ‘This is my blood – do this in rememberance of me’, John instead tells us the story of how Jesus washed his friends’ feet.
If we want to find a ‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’ moment in John’s gospel, we look not to the Last Supper, but to John chapter 6, Seeing the chapter this way can help us understand why John wrote his gospel in the way he did, and shed some light on how Jesus’ words and actions in chapter 6 relate to the rest of the gospel.
So, what do we find in chapter 6? Two things spring most readily to my mind, though there are many more.
First, we find an exploration of Jesus’ place in the history of salvation, of God’s love for the world. Just as the Last Supper makes the link between the Jewish Passover meal (remembering how God freed his people from slavery in Egypt) and our Holy Communion, so John 6 makes Jesus into a new Moses, contrasting the purely physical nourishment that the people of Israel ate in the desert, and the spiritual nourishment that Jesus can offer them.
Second, we find an exploration of the relationship between the physical reality of Jesus’ birth and earthly life, his miracles, and his coming suffering and death, and their spiritual meaning (on a purely metaphorical level) and effectiveness (in terms of God’s work of salvation).
So Jesus’ words in today’s gospel do rather challenge us with a question: what do we think is actually going on when we celebrate Holy Communion together? I suspect that if we all wrote our answers down on a piece of paper right now, we’d get as many different explanations or understandings as there are people, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But there might well be some common threads.
Firstly, that we’re taking part in something that’s bigger than we are, that has its roots in something that predates the time of Jesus’ earthly life, but that recorded and celebrated as one of the most significant moments in God’s relationship with his people. If you’ve ever had the privilege of taking part in a Jewish passover meal, or a Christian version of it, you will have been, I’m sure, acutely aware of the weight of history and the richness of tradition, of knowing that you are part of something that is far bigger than any of us. To sit down with one’s brothers and sisters in faith, and to share a simple meal is one of the most significant things that we can do together. It puts us in touch with one another and with God in a way that is profound and personal, simple and yet beyond our full understanding.
Second, we might find that between us we’ve tried to find words to express something of idea that the physical bread and wine and the words of the service are not all that is going on, that there is something deeper at work, through the grace of God. When I see wedding couples, I often show them how the wedding service has four interwoven strands: words, actions, the couple’s own thoughts and feelings, and what God is doing in them and for them – together, those four strands make a wedding one of life’s most overwhelming experiences. It’s easy to see this at work in a wedding, but we can also see something similar happening in Holy Communion, in which we have Jesus’ own words of institution: this is my body, this is my blood; we have the bread and wine themselves, and the way we experience them with our senses; we have our own thoughts and feelings, understandings, doubts, questions, faith and so on; and we have the work of God in our lives through that moment that he has given to us that we call a sacrament.
John’s gospel is brilliant at highlighting the spiritual reality of Jesus’ actions and words. This makes it inspiring and mysterious to read, and not always easy to understand. Some have even said that the balance is so far over to the spiritual that we lose some of Jesus’ humanity. But even in chapter 6 I think there are real signs of Jesus the man even in the midst of all the theology: we have his frustration that the crowds can’t see beyond the free food, we see his despondency at the idea that some of his disciples may leave him, and that they may ultimately betray him; we see him trying everything to get them to understand what he is really about, what matters most. Again and again we see his very willingness to use the ordinary stuff of life – fish, bread, wine, water – to unwrap the mystery of God’s love for his people. And ultimately, chapter 6 gives us a pretty heavy hint about the very real and physical death that Jesus is willing to endure in order that we might be raised up to participate in eternal life. ‘Lord, to whom shall we go, for you have the words of eternal life.’
John 6 shows us Jesus the teacher, Jesus the pastor, Jesus the leader, the new Moses, Jesus the sacrificial lamb, and Jesus the way to life eternal. As we receive the bread and wine today, may we experience the true closeness of the Son of God in bread and wine, and fine ourselves raised up and able to hear those words of life for ourselves and share them with others.