In Year B of our Eucharistic Lectionary, the semi continuous reading of the Gospel of Mark is interrupted by a sequence of five excerpts from the sixth chapter of John on the Bread of Life. This happens once every three years and when it does, people in the pews ask why we spend so many Sundays hearing about Jesus Christ as the Bread of Life. It’s a great question and I hope my attempt at an answer will be almost as great, or at least helpful.
Each one of the three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – has its own year in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary. John is sprinkled around during Lent, Christmas, and a couple of other times. Because of this, there is no really suitable niche for the important teaching on the Bread of Life. Since our lectionary is a Eucharistic lectionary, it would be inconceivable for those who developed the lectionary to omit this important discourse in the three-year cycle. They decided to interrupt the semi continuous reading of the Gospel of Mark at the point when Mark is about to recount the story of the feeding of the multitude in order to give us John’s more elaborate account.
We are a Eucharist-centered Church and we need the instruction provided by the Bread of Life Discourse of John’s Gospel in our Eucharistic lectionary. It is so important and so powerful that we have devoted five Sundays in a row to explore the depth of its message.
Last Sunday, we read the account of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude at the beginning of the sixth chapter. As we continue to read from this chapter for the next four Sundays, we will examine John’s indirect account of the Eucharist. Bear in mind that in John’s report of the Last Supper there is no mention of the bread and wine.
The crowds that both witnessed and participated in the miracle of the loaves and fishes didn’t really understand that Jesus came to give more than the bread that satisfies physical hunger. In this discourse, he refers to himself again and again as “The Bread of Life.”
Jesus is inviting everyone to eat this living bread. The bread our Hebrew ancestors in the faith ate in the wilderness sustained them in their journey. The Living Bread, Jesus Christ, is food that sustains the cosmos - not just our tribe, or race, or nation, but the cosmos!
That means that if we feast at the table with The Bread of Life, we are not the only invitees. There are others, many of whom are not like us, some of whom we don’t like, and plenty with whom we will disagree.
Several years ago when I was a Canon at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas, I was giving a tour to a confirmation class from one of the parishes in the Diocese of Texas. We were exploring the Chancel and the Sanctuary when some of the youth spotted the needlepoint cushions on the Altar rail. I asked if they could figure out the meaning of the symbols on those cushions. One boy said, “That cross and crown in the middle is probably Jesus and the other twelve symbols represent his disciples gathered around the table with him.” That seemed like a pretty satisfactory answer, until a girl pointed out that one of the symbols looked for all the world like the symbol for Judas Iscariot. “He doesn’t belong here?” she said. “He betrayed Jesus.”
I pointed out to the class that a number of ladies from the Cathedral had painstakingly and lovingly applied every single stitch by hand on those cushions and that I would be very cautious about telling them that one of the symbols didn’t belong there. “If that’s Judas and they went to so much trouble to include him, I wonder what that might mean for us?”
After some conversation, one young man said, “Maybe it means that God’s love big enough to include Judas along with the rest of us.”
My response was to suggest that there will be times when we come to the Altar to dine with Jesus, the Bread of Life, and notice someone we can’t abide kneeling beside us or across from us. “When that happens,” I said, “remember this moment and remember that the same divine Love that welcomes you to this feast welcomes others who need it just as much.” After all, as someone has said, the bread that Jesus gives for the life of the universe (John 6:51) is multigrain.
John 6:51 says that those who eat of this bread will “live forever.” That is the consistent translation in almost all the versions of the Bible. However, some scholars point out that the literal translation of the Greek text says we will “live into the age.” The “age” – eternal life, abundant life, kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven - is a state of being where we live with God who is both in and beyond time and space. When we feast upon the Bread of Life, we are living into this divine cosmic reality. It nourishes us for the ways we touch and change that reality.
So, in this banquet, we all become one body not because we all agree or because we all are alike. We become one body because we share in one bread – the Living Bread, Jesus, who is present for us in a wonderful and mysterious way in this banquet that is happening in the here and now and at the same moment in the age into which we are living, with faith, hope, and love. This Bread of Life is our true sustenance. As we are fed, so we are sent to feed others.
It really is going to be good to spend a month of Sundays on this topic!