The lectionary started us in John 6 a with the feeding of 5,000+ miracle, then Jesus began to share about his relationship with the world as the bread of life. As the bread of life, Jesus offers to spiritually nourish all who come to him for eternity; a seat at the never-ending table simply requires reception and belief. Starting with this week’s text, you may want to consider approaching these final three weeks in John 6 based on the series of questions the people ask Jesus, as their questions point to what hinders our ability as humans to simply believe.
This week, John 6.35, 41-51: “How can you be from heaven?”
The challenge: God does not make sense.
Next week, John 6.51-58: “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”
The challenge: God offends us.
The final week: John 6.56-69: “Who can accept these teachings?”
The challenge: Can we accept God’s work and ways?
Spoiler alert! The answer is always the same: God. God makes it possible. God does it. God.
If you are interested in this sort of structure, in his commentary on John, Dale Bruner actually outlines 10 questions between verses 25 and 71. But, on to this week…
How can you be from heaven?
Having heard Jesus say that he is the bread of life and that they will never be hungry or thirsty spiritually, it seems that the part that the people got stuck on next is the idea that Jesus came down from heaven. This would make Jesus different than themselves, and different from Moses (to whom they earlier compared him). How can Jesus be from heaven if they know his mom and dad? Maybe even watched Jesus grow up?
Not to mention the fact that in their collective story as the Jewish people, when God did something among them by “coming down from heaven,” most of the time, it was pretty unforgettable. It stood out. From the plagues to manna and quail; a pillar of fire to communal exile… the hand of God was not so subtle as a baby born in a manger.
Jesus is implying that what they have seen with their own eyes and the very basics of being human are not true for him even though he is just like them. It literally does not make sense.
And that’s exactly right. God literally does not make sense to the world that he has made. It’s the reason why we speak of both general and special revelation, of natural and revealed theology. There are things we come to know about God by the way the world works, but then there are things that we can only come to know about God if we receive them from God through revelation. God stands both within his created order and outside of it.
And God is the one who can raise us up out of all that we know of this world and teach us about the miraculous and eternal. Notice what God is described as doing as the bread of life throughout this pericope: (1) the Father sent the Son; (2) the Father makes us be drawn to the Son; (3) the Son will raise us up; (4) the Son came down from heaven; (5) the bread comes down from heaven (see textual points below on the difference between 4 and 5); (6) God teaches and speaks to us; and (7) Jesus, as the bread of life, will give his flesh for the life of the world. God makes it all possible for us. God is the active agent.
Jesus is telling them that there are things that they need to accept, including accepting that they do not make sense in the context of this world.
The struggle to accept what does not make sense when it comes to belief in God hasn’t gone away. As the Enlightenment was birthed and some began to wonder how to make sense of religion and belief and its place in the modern world, the need for special revelation—of any sort of knowledge outside of what we could reach on our own with human reason—was rejected by many of the thinkers of the age. Others tried to present Christianity as the prime or “Natural Religion” that was the most reasonable of all the world religions (e.g., Immanuel Kant) because Christianity at least resulted in a strong moral duty among its adherents. What many of these philosophies shared as their ideological foundation was the idea that there is a hard divide between the realm of “God” (the noumenal) and the realm of this world (the phenomenal). We can’t really know much about the noumenal, or about God for that matter, because we can’t access it through our rational mind. But, the philosophers argued, we can know and trust and build our lives on things about this world, the phenomenal, because we can empirically study it. Philosophers and Theologians have been trying to parse the boundary between these two realities, of heaven and earth and their interaction with one another, for as long as we humans have been around.
Just as the people with Jesus did. “How can you be from heaven? We know you’re from here, Jesus.” They saw Jesus in the things of this earth: being born, living and breathing and working just like them. How could he be from something, somewhere, else? It isn’t rational.
There is much to our knowledge of God that is rational. We can look at the wonders of ecosystems and our own biology and marvel at the order and the way all things, when working according to their design, work for our good and for life. General revelation is a way to come to know things about God, and especially God’s providence.
But there are some more foundational things that we have to have revealed to us by God to be able to believe, and often those are the messages we hear that lead us to not just knowing things about God, but to actually know God.
Over the last two weeks, the people who came to Jesus kept talking about signs—what would Jesus show them so that they might believe what he was saying about himself? In this section, Jesus tells them (again) that it isn’t about what they will see. It is about what they will learn from God, or in other words, what they will believe without seeing because they can accept the work of the triune God.
If we could be wholly rational about faith, then we wouldn’t need God at all. We wouldn’t need anything to “spiritually eat” the bread of life that comes down from heaven. That’s why, Jesus says, the Father draws us to himself. Because if we’re in charge, we won’t turn towards the heavenly realm, we’ll keep looking around the earthly one to try to make sense of things. (As we saw last week, switching our mindset from full bellies to hearts full of wonder isn’t a quick change unless stirred by God.) It’s also why Jesus says that he continues to come down as the bread of life, inserting more and more of the age to come into the present world until that final day when all that there is is the noumenal (God realm) for the rest of time.
Even that promise doesn’t make sense to us! The reality is that the earth is finite, but the promise is that we have an eternal reality that Jesus, as the bread of life, raises us into. Our present steps into “forever” come because God the Father started us on the path, Jesus nourished us on the journey, and actually delivers us into our destiny.
We cannot reason our way into believing that. That, like we heard last week, is a revelation that needs to be accepted as part of Christ’s spiritual nourishment as our bread. Last week, Jesus told us that God gives us the gift of belief and all we have to do is “eat it” and thereby integrate it into ourselves. This week, Jesus expands the description of the work of God but keeps our activity the same. All have to do is eat the living bread that is Jesus Christ and we will not die—not even when this world as we know it comes to an end.
This pericope is chock-full of participles; paying attention to the tenses used on those participles, we see that an important theological point is made without being explicitly stated. We’ll focus on two of them as they refer to Jesus coming as the bread of life in both the present and past (aorist) tenses.
- In verse 43, Jesus says that the Father sent him (past tense participle); this implies the specific occurrence of the Incarnation was a one-time event.
- In verse 50, Jesus says that the bread (him) comes down (present tense participle); implying that he continues to feed us even now even though he is bodily not with us anymore.
- In verse 51, both tenses are used: Jesus says that he is the living bread (present tense participle) that came down (past tense participle).
In other words, Jesus came down in a unique way to give his flesh so that the world might have life; but even though he only did that once, he continues to nourish and provide life to the world even now. We didn’t miss out on justification because we weren’t there, and we continue to be sustained by God’s providence today.
Two images of God came to mind as I read this text and took note of the God-active language. As we saw above, God the Father is described as sending Christ as well as drawing us to Christ. The set of actions made me think of some of the playground introductions I’ve witnessed, as one parent encourages (and sometimes forces) their child to make a new friend. Sure, sometimes it’s out of desperation to get the kid out of their hair, but really, parents do it because it’s good for their kids to get to know, be kind to, and experience relationships with others. The Father knows that Jesus is exactly what we need as his children. That’s why he sends him to be the bread of life for the world, and why he nudges us forward to seek and follow and hope after him.
The other image that came to mind was the way God seems like a strategist in this passage. God sends himself to us in Jesus, he draws us to himself, he is the one who raises us up, and the one who teaches us. Up, down, side-to-side, God is at work in every direction to corral us for himself—like the good shepherd that he is!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 8, 2021
John 6:35, 41-51 Commentary