Sunday, August 8, 2021

Sunday 15 August 2021 - Ordinary 20

Theme(s): Bread of Life / Eternal Life / Wisdom / Provision of our needs / Filled with the Spirit

Sentence: Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)


Living host, call us together,
call us to eat and drink with you.
Grant that by your body and your blood
we may be drawn to each other
and to you. Amen.

Readings (related):

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58


Proverbs 9:1-6

Solomon excels himself here with his verbal picture of 'Wisdom' as the hostess with the most-est (house with seven pillars, animals killed for a feast, wine secured, table set, servant-girls sent out with invitations). 

The feast here consists of food which imbues the feaster with wisdom, insight, and maturity. (By way of contrast, note verses 13-18, where the 'foolish woman' also seeks to invite people to learn of her foolishness.)

On the 'seven pillars' see Job 9:6; 26:11; Psalm 75:3 and Proverbs 8:29-30.

Psalm 34:9-14

These verses express assurance that God looks after those who love God ('fear him', 9; 'seek the Lord', 10). They will 'have no want' (9) and 'lack no good thing' (10).

Verses 11-14 then express the psalmist's teaching on what it means to 'fear' the Lord.

Ephesians 5:15-20

How then shall we live? If we were to boil the answer to that question down to one sentence, vv 15-16 or 17 or 18 could be answers!

15-16 invokes the great tradition of wisdom, a tradition represented in the Old Testament through books such as Proverbs (including our Old Testament passage) and carried forward by Jesus who was a wise teacher. Wise people do not know all the rules but they always know what to do. But Paul introduces the theme of time in respect of wisdom: 'making the most of the time, because the day's are evil.' Some older translations speak of 'redeeming the time', others suggest 'seize the opportunity.' Before we attempt to say what this means, we need to ask what it means that 'the days are evil'?

One thought is that the times we live in are difficult and challenging. Nevertheless they present opportunities to live wisely, to draw close to God and to proclaim the gospel.

17 is, effectively, saying the same as verses 15-16: to be wise is to not be foolish and to be wise is to understand what the will of the Lord is.

18 invokes the great tradition of living empowered by the Spirit of God. Humanity has tended to prefer the spirit of alcohol to the Spirit of God. Paul says No to the former. Rather 'be filled with the Spirit.' The sense of the verb is continual filling with the Spirit rather than a one off experience of the Spirit filling us. 

When we are filled with the Spirit we will be directed as to how we are to walk in the Spirit. Verse 19 then paints a picture of what the Spirit-filled life looks like: it is marked by a joy which spills out in song, motivated not only by the Spirit but also - verse 20 - by thanks for all God has done.

But verse 20 goes a bit further because it instructs the Christian community to give thanks 'at all times' - even in the 'evil days' we are to give thanks to God. Why? One reason is that all of time, all days, good and bad, are ultimately subject to God's control and direction. In the end, all will be well for those who trust God - a trust which is exemplified when we give thanks at all times.

John 6:51-58

Verse 51 (which concluded last week's passage) connects Jesus the 

'living bread that came down from heaven' 

with the eucharistic bread of the Last Supper, 

'the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.'

'The Jews'* dispute what this means among themselves (52) with more than a hint that a hint of cannibalism in the conception of eating Jesus' flesh is unacceptable. Jesus does not back off. In verses 53-56, Jesus un-embarrassingly talks about the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood. Yet only the perverse would think that he means for his flesh literally to be eaten and his blood literally to be drunk. So what does he mean?

On the one hand (taking into account the whole dialogue through chapter six), Jesus is clearly referring to the spiritual union between himself and believers, a union in which Jesus gives life (eternal life) to those who believe in him and who receive and follow his teaching (e.g. 35, 36, 44, 45, 47, 63).

On this understanding the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood is the in-taking of the life of Jesus (recalling the Mosaic Law's injunction not to drink/eat the blood of animals because the life of the animal is in the blood).

On the other hand (also taking into account the whole dialogue through chapter six), Jesus is less clearly referring to the eucharistic bread and wine - see note above on verse 51 - the bread and wine, that is, which he has signified, according to the Synoptic Gospels, is his body and his blood. Thus some scholars argue that these verses have nothing to do with the eucharist, while other scholars argue that they have everything to do with the eucharist.

A point in favour of a eucharistic understanding of Jesus' language here, of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, is that it makes little sense for him to pursue this imagery of eating and drinking if no eating or drinking of anything is in view. Whereas the eating of bread and the drinking of wine has potential to be understood as the symbolic** eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood, especially when we reflect on the connection made in verse 51 re 'eats of this bread'. But honesty does demand that we acknowledge that no reference is made to drinking of wine in this chapter.

A further point in favour of a eucharistic understanding goes like this:

1. later in the gospel, John will depict Jesus' death as occurring at the same time as the Passover Lambs are sacrificed (19:14).***

2. But already in chapter 1:29, 36 Jesus has been hailed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Passover Lambs were sacrificed and their flesh was eaten as part of the remembrance of when God saved Israel from the Angel of Death (Exodus 12).

3. Here in chapter six, Jesus is thinking of himself as the Passover Lamb who will be sacrificed and eaten (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7). But what meaning does eating Jesus the Passover Lamb have if his actual muscular flesh is not eaten? The only meaning we can give to 'eating' being an actual ingestion is if we think of the eating of bread which 'is' his body. In verse 51 Jesus himself equates 'bread' with 'flesh' and thus it seems logical to conclude that a similar equation is at work as in the Synoptic Gospels (as well as in 1 Corinthians 10-11).

*'The Jews' is always a tricky subject to discuss in John's Gospel as 'the Jews' always seem to be disparaged as those who are consistently against God and against God's Son. One line of argument is that 'the Jews' refers to (naughty, corrupt) leaders of the Jewish people, but in this chapter it makes sense to think that 'the Jews' are the crowd of ordinary people that have followed him around the Lake of Galilee. Nevertheless, 'the Jews' here seems to mean "fellow Jews of Jesus (the Jew) who are antagonistic to Jesus". By contrast, 'disciples' seems to mean "fellow Jews of Jesus (the Jew) who follow Jesus (at least until they choose not to follow him)."

**In using the word "symbolic" in this sentence I am not offering a definitive understanding of the nature of the bread and wine of the eucharist relative to questions of transsubstantiation, consubstantiation, or  tokenism (i.e. the bread and wine are mere tokens of another reality).

***Until reading Brant Pitre's book Jesus and the Last Supper, I had assumed that the John 19:14 reference was to the lambs being slaughtered for the Passover meal (i.e. the meal at the beginning of the feast of the Passover) and thus John places Jesus' crucifixion a day before the Synoptics do, and the "last supper" in John 13 is not the same meal depicted in the Synopics as Jesus' Last Supper: thus and hence a difficulty over who is telling us the history of Jesus' death most accurately. I am now convinced by Brant Pitre that we have read too much into John 19:14. That is, that verse is a reference to slaughtering of lambs for meals during Passover week and not to the initial meal of that week. And thus and hence John's "last supper" is also "the Last Supper" [Thursday night] and Jesus dies on Friday, as depicted in the other three gospels. 

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