John 6 is the foundation for the orthodox meaning of Christian Eucharist. The chapter opens with John’s version of the “feeding of the 5,000,” or “miracle of the loaves and fishes,” followed by the first of the “I Am” statements attributed to Jesus by John; John then presents an extensive argument about what exactly the “bread of life” means. This is too much for some of Jesus’ followers, many of whom “dropped out and would no longer travel with him.” Jesus is left with “the Twelve,” which includes “Judas, son of Simon Iscariot . . . who was going to turn him in.”
A thorough discussion of Mark’s version of this story can be found in the series titled “Ordinary Time,” contained in commentary on Propers 9 through 16 of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B. The following excerpt sets the scene:
John’s version of the loaves and fishes miracle differs in significant ways from the original parable as told by Mark. The context for John’s version of Mark’s stories is “about the time for the Jewish celebration of Passover.” This sets up a ready reference to unleavened bread, and to the legend of manna, which magically appeared every morning to supply the exiles returning from Egypt with food for the journey. Anachronistically, it evokes Christian Eucharist. Further, it establishes the context for the first of the declarations that define Jesus’s mythic identity: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the good shepherd, etc.
Instead of the disciples noticing there is need for bread, (Mark 6:35-36) John’s Jesus asks, “Where are we going to get enough bread to feed this mob?” Five Gospels translation. The disciples discuss how much money it would cost; then Andrew says, “There’s a lad here with five loaves of barley bread and two fish.” So “Jesus took the loaves” from the kid and magically multiplied the amount. This is a major change from Mark’s Jesus: “Give them something to eat yourselves.” The followers object on economic grounds (as do the ones in John’s story), but they come up with five loaves and two fish among their own provisions. Only after his followers have come up with food to share does Mark’s Jesus bless the bread, break it, and give it to them to distribute among the crowd.
Then Jesus orders the disciples to “gather up the leftovers so that nothing goes to waste.” The followers collect 12 baskets of scraps from the 5 barley loaves. Nothing is said in either story about what was done with the over-abundance of food. The point of both the original story and John’s version seems to be that there was not only enough, there was more than enough. But in Mark’s story, the abundance comes from the willingness of people to share. In John’s story, the abundance happens by the direct intervention of divine miracle. That intervention, it should be noted, confiscated what was needed from a child in the crowd. John’s Jesus did not ask the boy if he was willing to give up what he had. Perhaps the writer assumes a kind of natural altruism in the innocence of a child. Perhaps he was familiar with the idea that children are the ones who naturally inhabit God’s kingdom (Mark 10:14). Whatever it might mean, that detail carries moral and theological implications about the nature of the realm of God as well as the “body of Christ.”
The next major difference is that in Mark’s original, Jesus sends his disciples ahead in the boat while he disperses the crowd. After that, Jesus goes off alone to the mountain to pray. But in John’s gospel, once the people had seen the miracle, “Jesus perceived that they were about to come and make him king by force, so he retreated once again to the mountain by himself.” After he has gone, the disciples decide to row across the lake to Capernaum. Darkness has fallen, and a strong wind has come up. Jesus is seen walking toward the boat over the water. The disciples are terrified. But just as they decide to take him into the boat, they are magically transported to the shore, boat and all. Mark has no such magical transportation. Instead, by the time Jesus has climbed into the boat, the winds have died down. Mark says the disciples were dumbfounded. Then he adds parenthetically, “You see, they hadn’t understood about the loaves; they were being obstinate.” They did not want to realize their own role in the transformation of normal life in the Empire to God’s rule.
The writer of John’s Gospel was given a major clue about the meaning of Mark’s parable, but – like the disciples that Mark constantly complaints about – John didn’t get it. As a result, Christians have a choice about what the stories might mean. [The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary] are clear that interventionist miracle and magic is what it takes to bring about God’s Kingdom, God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion. There is no work involved, only “belief” or – for postmodern minds – the suspension of disbelief.
John’s Jesus tells the people that they were so distracted by having bread to eat that they missed the obvious miracle (John 6:26). Then – in an echo of what he said to his confused disciples in 4:32-34 – he tells them “Don’t work for food that spoils, but for food that lasts – food for unending life – which the Human One will give you.” After his encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, Jesus’ disciples plead with him to eat something; he says “I have food to eat you know nothing about . . . Doing the will of the one who sent me and completing his work – that’s my food.” But neither his disciples, nor the “crowd” who later follow him across the sea to Capernaum understand what he means.
John’s argument seems circular to post-modern minds. When the people ask “what do we have to do to accomplish the work God wants done?” Jesus tells them that the work is “to believe in the one whom God has sent.” When they demand a sign (apparently not satisfied with the multiplication of loaves and fishes), he says that he himself is the sign:
Let me tell you this: it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven; rather it is my Father who gives you real bread from heaven . . . I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry again, and anyone who believes in me will never again be thirsty.
Throughout Chapter 6, the people (“crowd”), the Judeans (Jesus’ hometown neighbors, the opposition in John’s local synagogue), and Jesus’ disciples all take what Jesus says literally. Jesus says he is “the bread that came down from heaven” and the Judeans ask, “Isn’t this Jesus son of Joseph? Don’t we know both his father and his mother? How can he now say, ‘I’ve come down from heaven’?” Jesus says, “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. Those who feed on my flesh and drink my blood remain in me, and I in them.” The disciples respond: “This sort of talk is hard to take. Who can take it seriously?”
Indeed, those very words have been used as proof that Jesus was establishing cannibalism as the defining Christian ritual. Because a literal interpretation of John’s Gospel soon became established church dogma, finding a place outside of that interpretation is challenging. As the series from Year B makes clear, any interpretation other than the literalist tradition is precluded by the combinations of readings that comprise the Revised Common Lectionary.
One scholar who has created a theology outside the box of conventional Catholic dogma is Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox. In The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Fox created a Christology for the third millennium that grounds Christian mysticism in modern cosmology. Fox says that the Cosmic Christ reveals the “divine ‘I Am’ in every creature. This is the doctrine of incarnation that leads to the return to the secular that Lloyd Geering suggests in Coming Back to Earth. Fox asks,
How are we the bread of life or living bread to each other? . . . The Statements that “I am bread” and “I am wine” ground our reverence for food and drink, wheat and wine, soil and vineyard, the processes of photosynthesis and all that makes things grow in an ultimate reverence. . . . In this revelation of the divinity of the bread and wine lies that part of compassion that is celebration . . . To celebrate our “I am” is to put our being before our doing or having or proving. . . . An “I am consciousness also affects our attitude toward time. The past and future are not what exist; it is the now moment that exists most richly. It is the divine “now” that is ours for the drinking (pp 154-155).
John’s Jesus says, “I am the life-giving bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the world’s life is my flesh.” This late first-century writer may have been talking about the popular dream that God would act to restore God’s justice to a world crushed by the Roman empire. In that apocalyptic legend, the savior of the world would be taken up to reside in heaven with God until the end of time. Then the savior – Messiah – Son of Adam – Human One – would return to a world transformed into God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion that would last forever. John’s Jesus speaks through the gospel from the point of view of the crucifixion. The catalyst for the ultimate transformation from earthly injustice to eternal justice, John says, was Jesus’ own flesh and blood.
For 21st century activists, from Occupy Wall Street regulars to poets such as Drew Dellinger, theologians such as Spong, Crossan, Borg, and Fox, the way to distributive justice-compassion for all beings on the Planet is our own flesh and blood.