Saturday, August 15, 2015

Offended at the Bread of Life

The end of the bread of life texts, John 6:56-69, is the appointed Gospel lesson for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost.  The penultimate line in the text states what John has hinted at all along - the bread of life and the "words of eternal life" are one and the same.  As God said to the Israelites, "[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 8:3)

(The following questions are meant to bring to mind some of the issues at stake for Law and Gospel preachers.  A full description of this method can be found in my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available on

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The text begins in a very hopeful way.  Jesus gives us himself, promising that "whoever eats me will live because of me," (vs. 57) and "the one who eats this bread will live for ever." (vs. 58)  These are gospel words, meant to assure us that life comes through Jesus.  The second half of the text, however, is less hopeful, as John tells us of the disciples' complaint at these words.  Jesus responds with a word of law: "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless." (vs. 63)  This phrase unmasks all our attempts at self-sufficiency, we who are decidedly fleshly.   We might want to insist that we can have life apart from Christ or his word, but Jesus will have none of it.

2.  How is the word not functioning in the text?  Once again, as we have seen for the entirety of John 6, there is no call to obedience, no word from Christ which says, "Follow me."  Indeed the only command we have in this entire chapter is repeated over and over:  Believe.  This is a call to faith, not a call to follow Jesus.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are certainly meant to identify with the disciples.  Their offense in verse 60 is our offense: "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"  We, like the disciples, resist the notion that our life is dependent on Christ or the Word.  We want to claim that our life has come from and is sustained by ourselves.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Given Jesus' statement regarding the spirit giving life, it might be interesting to the play with flesh/spirit, death/life, or non-faith/faith.  Any of those couplets might lead us to interesting strategies for preaching this text.

5.  Exegetical insights:  The Greek text enrichs our understanding in this passage by providing us hints to the multiple meanings that John might have had in mind as he wrote.  Several examples:  In verse 60 when the disciples say, "This teaching is difficult," we see that the word for teaching is our old friend, LOGOS.  Recalling John 1 we know that Jesus is called the logos, so clearly John is saying that it is more than the mere teaching that is difficult - Jesus himself, the Word made flesh, is difficult.  Another example: In verse 61, Jesus asks, "Does this offend you?"  The word "offend" is SKANDOLIZOMAI, a well-known word, that means to cause to stumble, particularly in matters of faith.  So Jesus is asking, "Does this teaching cause you to stumble in faith? Do I cause you to stumble in faith?"  Stumbling in faith is more than a mere offense to our sensibilities.  Finally, in verse 66 we read that "many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him."  The phrase translated "turned back," means literally that they returned to "the things they had left behind." This suggests that what we have here is a test of loyalty, not merely a reaction to a difficult saying. The twelve, however, stay the course, for they realize that Jesus has "the words of eternal life."

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  It would be well worth the time to look at Steven Kuhl's analysis of this text archived under 2012 Year B Gospel, 13th Sunday after Pentecost, at study.  Kuhl takes up the whole business of our offense at these statements of Jesus and shows how, allowed to fester, it leads to alienation from God.

7.  Insights from the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Craddock's insight that we must help the listeners experience the text is a particular challenge for the preacher here, because it entails offending our listeners.  If Jesus' words offended his listeners, then we too, as preachers, must do the same.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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