John in July: The Bread of the Self-Giving High Priests (Jn 6)

Screenshot 2014-07-09 16.24.37 “If Our Lord seems to be asking something from me I can be sure He is offering Himself to me in that way” – Caryll Houselander (Essential Writings, 48)

This last Pentecost, I preached at an Episcopal church in San Rafael and said, “At Pentecost, we celebrate the profligate outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all of God’s people, empowering, consecrating and ordaining all of us. So then why do we have ordained ministers, if we are all ordained already? According to Scripture, we are all priests by virtue of our baptism. (1 Peter 2:5,9; Rev 1:5-6), so why then do we have people like myself designated as priests? And why do we make such a big deal out of ‘ordination’”?

Before I offered my answer (which you can read here), I let the congregation offer their own answers. One woman suggested that we needed priests because we needed people who could devote themselves to studying, interpreting and preaching the Scriptures, but that seems more like a teacher to me. Someone else jokingly suggested, “We need someone to take the blame.” I thought this person’s answer, though initially pretty funny, was very telling. In many ways, priests are those who take the blame.

Just as leaders of organizations are held responsible and therefore bear the blame when something goes wrong so also do priests bear the blame when things go wrong in a congregation because the priest is in charge and the buck stops with them.

The priests are shepherds who are meant to guide and nourish their flock, which is why Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep (Jn 21:15, 17) and asks Philip in this chapter, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” In this case, it seems like Jesus is throwing the responsibility of providing food onto Philip just like his mother threw the responsibility of providing wine on Jesus at the wedding. The text makes clear Jesus’ intention in asking this question: “He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do” (6:6). Jesus knows that his disciples will be expected to bear the responsibility of providing for people’s needs and desires and sometimes have to bear the blame when expectations are not met. So here he is preparing Philip. How are you going to respond when people expect you to do the impossible? Are you ready to take the blame for the hunger of 5,000 people?

Does Philip pass the test? He says, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Philip offers a realistic appraisal of the situation, but Jesus does not respond to Philip and so perhaps he has failed the test. And then Andrew says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two pickled fish. But what are they among so many people?” Now Jesus responds.

Philip points out something they do not have (six months’ wages) which still would not be enough while Andrew points out something they do have (some bread and fish) and asks about its possibilities, albeit rather hopelessly.

But Jesus seems to be more ready to work with the latter approach.

William Temple writes, “The need of the world is not too great for our resources if it is the Lord who directs the use of those resources” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel, 73). However hopeless the situation might appear and however meager our resources seem to be, the invitation is to give what little we have to Christ and let him surprise us.

This miraculous feeding of the five thousand serves as the fourth sign of Jesus in John, after the turning of water into wine, the healing of the royal official’s son and the healing of the ill man at Bethesda. All the Gospels record this miraculous feeding and its Eucharistic significance seems clear to me (Jesus εὐχαριστήσας – eucharistesas), even though William Temple says, “I cannot doubt that the Evangelist is deliberately eliminating a sacramental reference” (74).

This is also the second reference to the Feast of the Passover (6:4) and there are “allusions throughout to the synagogue Scripture readings for the Passover season”: Gen 2-3, Exodus 11-16, Numbers 6-14, as Aileen Guilding points out in her illuminating work The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship: A Study of the Relationship of St. John’s Gospel to the Ancient Jewish Lectionary, 60 – 8 as cited by Margaret Barker, King of the Jews, 249.

But what makes the bread so spiritually significant? Reading the Gospel in light of temple theology as Margaret Barker does helps give new insight. In the first temple, the high priests ate what was called the bread of the Presence (lechem panim). On the Sabbath, 12 loaves made of fine flour were to be placed in the temple, a number that John clearly references in verse 13. This bread of the Presence served as a sign of the eternal covenant and nourished the priests with the wisdom and holiness to uphold that covenant. It also became associated with the “daily bread” of the Lord’s Prayer (Barker, 252).

What wisdom did the eating of the bread impart?

“Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave the deceived ones and live, and walk straight in the way of insight” Proverbs 9:6

“[Wisdom] will feed him with the bread of understanding, She will give him the water of wisdom to drink” Ben Sira 15:3

From a Girardian perspective, I would suggest that part of the wisdom imparted by the bread is what James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim.” The intelligence of the victim is the intelligence that “comes from a freedom in giving oneself to others, in not being moved by the violence of others, even when it perceives that this free self-giving is going to be lynched as a result.” (James Alison, Knowing Jesus 45).

This “intelligence of the victim” makes sense when one considers the role of the high priest: “On the Day of Atonement the royal high priest, albeit using a substitute animal, offered his blood/life to cleanse the temple and thus to heal the creation that it represented and to restore the eternal covenant” (Barker, King of the Jews, 258).

So by feeding the five thousand, is Jesus doing more than satisfying the hunger of 5,000 people? Is Jesus feeding everyone with the Bread of the Presence, the bread that imparts to them the wisdom to uphold the eternal covenant, the “intelligence of the victim”? Is Jesus treating them all like high priests?

Is Jesus saying, “You are all going to be high priests now, which means you are called to offer your blood/life to heal creation. This bread enlightens and empowers you to participate in the healing of creation through self-giving love, which is your participation in the divine community.”

Perhaps Jesus is providing the people physical nourishment along with the spiritual nourishment needed to give themselves to each other and to all of creation in love, empowered by the self-giving love of the Messiah.

The people do not seem to get it and instead want to make him king by force. If he can do a miracle like this, then perhaps he can overthrow Rome…

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself (6:15)

James Alison writes, “It would be quite wrong for us to see Jesus as simple ditching Israel, and its hopes. He was subverting those hopes from within, operating from within the web of expectations that people had. This can be seen from the way in which Jesus conducts his mission before going up to Jerusalem. He sets up a new trek, going across the sea of Galilee (rather than the Red Sea), and starting to feed the people, as Moses and Joshua had done on their way to the promised land….The Israel of God, which Jesus prepared and brought about was never intended simply as a break from Israel, but a subversion from within, so as to recast the meaning of Israel from within the categories the people of Israel already had.” (Alison, Knowing Jesus, 67)

William Temple sees John minimizing the miraculous nature of Jesus walking on water: “His version does not necessarily imply a miracle at all; the phrase ‘on the sea’ is also used for ‘on the sea shore’ (21:1)” (Temple, 76). Temple sees John emphasizing the invitation to receive Jesus as our companion when tossed by trouble.

I see Jesus embodying the Exodus story. After all, it is the Feast of the Passover. Alison thinks he is subverting Jewish expectations and I agree. At the same time, I see Jesus embodying a liberation and movement from a blame-bound existence into abundant life no longer contingent upon victims. He is inviting his disciples and us to cross over. Jesus is saying, “I will guide you and liberate you from the storms of death and blame into new life. I will guide you as you cross over.”

The following discourse on the bread of life elucidates the feeding of the five thousand, explaining how he gives himself to them as the true bread of the Presence. He gives himself as the victim and as the object of blame in order to nourish a new community of high priests who give themselves to one another and to all of creation, being vulnerable to victimhood and blame. The bread gives them the necessary wisdom, holiness and blessedness to be these self-giving high priests.

Again, Alison: “The key feature of blessedness is that it involves living a deliberately chosen and cultivated sort of life which is not, involved in the power and violence of the world, and which because of this fact, makes the ones living it immensely vulnerable to being turned into victims” (Alison, 43).

In Jesus’ discourse on the bread he essentially says, “I will nourish you with myself. My self-giving love will nourish you so that you can nourish others through your self-giving love as high priests.”

The references to the Jews complaining in verse 41 are clearly references to the Israelites grumbling in the wilderness (Numbers 14:2; Exodus 16:2). In the wilderness, the Israelites often blamed Moses and sometimes God for their troubles. Jesus does not encourage this grumbling, complaining and blaming. He clearly says, “Do not complain among yourselves” (6:43). He is trying to raise up a people who can be on the receiving end of the grumbling, complaining and blaming and transform the world through their creative forgiveness.

They can do this by feeding on the bread/flesh/wisdom of the creative, self-giving and forgiving victim. Listeners were clearly turned off his teachings because they smacked of cannibalism. The people failed to understand Jesus’ spiritual meaning, which is often the case in John. However, if they actually understood Jesus’ spiritual meaning, I wonder if they would still be turned off.

Jesus is offering himself to the people so that they may have life, but this life involves being a self-giving high priest.

Jesus realizes that his teaching is difficult and seems to offer his disciple a chance to leave, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Simon Peter responds with one of my favorite lines in all of Scripture, a line that communicates why I have been rambling on about the Gospel of John for the last several days and plan to ramble on some more: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Jesus has the stuff, Jesus is the stuff, that will nourish us so that we can nourish others as his self-giving high priests.


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