Bible reflections on John chapter 16-17
Originally published in New Daylight – daily bible reading notes produced quarterly by BRF. Each day contains a few bible verses, some words of explanation and reflection, and a brief prayer. They are recommended as really helpful resources for developing the important habit of regularly reading the bible in manageable chunks and growing to understand its wisdom and guidance better. To find out more go to: https://www.brfonline.org.uk/collections/our-notes
At the Friday market where I live there is a wonderful bread stall. Every variety is there, piled high. It always looks and smells delicious. It is, I freely admit, my idea of heaven.
Think for a moment of what goes into that loaf on your kitchen table. Sun, rain, soil, seed. Sowing, harvesting, processing and baking. Transporting, shopping and buying. All of life goes into it.
Bread is sometimes called the stuff of life. It is certainly one of the most ancient staple foods. We know Egyptians were baking it C20 BCE. We call a wage earner a ‘bread winner’. Bread has sometimes been an alternative name for money. ‘Bread and water’ expresses the most basic, unadorned sustenance we need for life. So when Jesus teaches us to pray for our ‘daily bread’ it is about our most necessary day to day provision, no more, no less. And when he uses bread as an illustration of the life of his Kingdom he is telling us there is nothing more basic that we need – Jesus is the bread of life.
But Jesus also speaks of himself as bread and encourages his followers to eat him – using poetic and sacramental language that shocked and puzzled his hearers. ‘I am the bread of life’. When he broke bread at the last supper he said ‘this is my body’. Jesus tells us he is the true bread that will feed, sustain and utterly satisfy us. ‘Feed me now and ever more’, we sing to him.
But in the stories of Jesus there was the recurring scandal of who he broke bread with, who he sat at table with. Someone once said ‘Jesus was killed because of who he ate with’. The bread is for the hungry. It is food for sinners, outcasts, the unloved and the outsiders.
This fortnight of reflections on bread and Jesus is happening in the midst of a world where many are hungry and go without. To follow Jesus means to share life as he shares it, breaking our bread with others generously, restlessly and discontentedly until all find welcome at the table in his Kingdom and are filled at last.
Day 1: Bread in the wilderness
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. Jn 6.1-4
These verses introduce an extended passage of ministry and teaching about Jesus. Through word, sign – and not without some confusion and fierce disagreement – Jesus is revealing who he really is. And again and again bread will be at the centre of the drama.
John begins by setting the scene very carefully. Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee to the far side. He is followed by a large crowd. He goes up a mountain and begins to teach. (and we know he will shortly be miraculously feeding 5,000 people in that wilderness place). John also gives us some significant background information. It is near the feast of the Passover at which bread is broken and shared and the story of the deliverance out of slavery in Egypt is re-lived.
We are meant to be making some connections here. Who else do we know who crossed a sea, led the crowd on the other side, gave them miraculous food in the wilderness and went up a mountain and taught? (Of course it was Moses). The connection between Moses and Jesus is one that all the gospels make in different ways. John is saying that Moses and the story of the Exodus and Passover was actually a sign and foreshowing of a greater story of salvation. The time has now come when everything the Exodus story pointed too is coming to fulfillment. Jesus is the ‘true’ Moses. And Jesus, in his sacrifice on the cross, becomes the true Passover. He is the bread of life.
So it is not only the Passover that is near in this story. In a much deeper and more significant way Jesus is near too. He always is.
As this series begins – what is your prayer to Jesus?
Day 2: What are we going to do?
When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ Jn 6.5-7
‘What are we going to do?’ The question must have startled the disciples. ‘You are asking us?’ But John is clear that Jesus is not asking the question because he needs help. He already knows. He is testing them. And not for the first time the disciples discover that following Jesus leads into situations that are beyond their faith, understanding and imagination. But the test was not to trip them up and leave them embarrassed. They were not expected to solve the problem themselves. The challenge they faced was to trust in God, like Jesus. The effect of their own helplessness is to make an utterly vivid contrast with Jesus’s own faith and power to transform the situation.
Philip failed the test emphatically. He could only think in the most practical terms of the money and material resources. That will sound all too familiar to many churches today wondering how to respond to the huge challenges of our times and where to find enough to offer ‘the crowds’ of our day. But the only real failure is not to learn. As Philip looked back on this conversation from the other side of the miracle that was about to happen, surrounded by crowds full of food and running out of baskets to gather all the left overs in, we might wonder what he had learned.
That the challenge is not to look at the size of the crowd? That the size of a bank balance is not relevant either? That it is not about us at all?
The challenge is to have faith in God. And to trust that now, as then, Jesus knows what he is going to do.
Lord help us to trust and have faith as you did.
Day 3: When it all feels inadequate
One of his disciples, Andrew, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ So they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them, so also the fish, as much as they wanted. John 6. 8-11 (1)
After Philip’s financial despair Andrew comes to Jesus. He has found a boy in the crowd with some food. All the gospels tell the miracle of the feeding of the crowd. Only John’s account mentions this ‘lad’. Perhaps it was his packed lunch. Some suggest he was a vendor. If this is so then he has nearly sold out. Barley loaves were the very cheapest kind of bread. The fish described would have been small – dried or pickled. It is a meager offering. This is the food of the poor and barely sufficient even then. So even when some food supplies are found they are of impoverished quality and, as Andrew acknowledges, completely inadequate for what is needed.
What the little boy makes of all this we are not told. He may only be aware that someone is after his food. Imagine him standing before Jesus with his few loaves and fishes with huge, hungry crowd are surrounding them. But Jesus does not laugh or mock at what has been brought to him. Considering what an amazing miracle this is, John’s telling of it is so matter-of-fact. Jesus just takes the food says grace and gives it out to 5,000 people! And from that tiny offering, received and blessed with divine gratitude, all are fed and satisfied.
There are few churches today that cannot relate to Andrew’s awareness that what he has to offer is painfully inadequate for the needs of the moment. It is very easy to be discouraged and lose heart. But Jesus receives our hesitant, limited offerings
as he received the little boy’s. He says thank you for it. And would you believe? – it is more than enough.
Today Lord, I offer you the little I feel I have.
Day 4: Divine improvisation
One of his disciples, Andrew, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ So they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them, so also the fish, as much as they wanted. John 6. 8-11 (2)
When did you last have to prepare a meal in a hurry for unexpected visitors? Mild panic and quick thinking? An anxious look in the fridge or cupboard. Adapting, improvising and hoping there will be enough to go round. Well this even happens to Jesus it seems. The other gospel accounts make clear that the reason Jesus and the disciples had gone to the other side of the lake was to get some quiet and rest. They were exhausted. But it didn’t work. The crowd found them. And one result of this was the urgent need for food for a very large number of people.
A study of Christian discipleship and ministry describes it as being a work of ‘faithful improvisation’. I like that. Life rarely happens in ideal circumstances. It requires the willingness and ability to work faithfully with whatever is to hand.
I love the thought that Jesus is an improviser too. He too is willing and able to work with whatever is to hand. He does it here. In the face of the unexpected crowd (and one they had been trying to avoid) he lovingly improvises. Working with pitifully inadequate resources, Jesus provides more than enough for all.
This is a more exciting way of thinking of God’s presence and work in the world and in our lives than if he simply knows everything in advance. For someone who can improvise all things are possible. Imagination and flexibility is all. ‘Let there be …’ said God in the creation story. But was that really the work of a prearranged fixed agenda? Or was this the generous, divine imagination out of which all things are possible from whatever is offered?
Today Lord may I improvise with your imaginative love
Day 5: More than enough
When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ They filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew by himself.’ John 6.12-15
The meal is over and everyone is full up. With a crowd that size it might have taken a while to realise something extraordinary had been happening. The food just kept coming, But where from out here in the middle of nowhere? The word goes round that it is Jesus who has done this.
‘Gather up the fragments left over’ says Jesus. The word used here was used in the Exodus story when the people gathered up the manna in the wilderness. What is this about? Twelve baskets probably symbolise the twelve tribes – the whole people of God. His concern is not litter. Nothing must perish. In other places in his ministry Jesus expresses his longing that no one is lost or perishes. In John the focus of his ministry is also described as a gathering together – uniting all in the love he and Father share.
That so much is left over after everyone had more than enough emphasizes the wonderful generosity of Jesus. The extravagance of God is where John’s gospel starts. The first sign Jesus did at a wedding was to turn a huge quantity of water into wine after they had all drunk their fill. God’s feeding and sustaining is for all. None must be left to perish. There is more than enough. All must be gathered in.
But here, as elsewhere, the miracle becomes a distraction and his ministry is misunderstood. No one is listening. He cannot be on demand. They must lose their image of a messiah who just fills their hunger and meets their need – and so must we. If there are times he must withdraw it is for our sake.
Lord, thank you for being so generous to us.
Day 6: Into the storm
In the evening, his disciples embarked on the boat across the lake to Capernaum. Darkness had fallen and Jesus had not returned to them. A strong wind sprang up and the water grew very rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water, coming towards the boat, and they were terrified. But he spoke to them, “Don’t be afraid: it is I myself.” They gladly took him aboard, and at once the boat reached the shore they were making for. John 6.16-20
In the middle of a passage about Jesus and bread is a story about the disciples getting caught in a storm at night. The sea that the disciples had so recently crossed with Jesus, and without incident, has now turned dark, stormy and frightening without him. They are even terrified when Jesus appears. Nothing is secure. And they are unable to reach the shore.
Finding this story in the midst of important teaching about Jesus and who he is, is surely significant. The disciple’s struggle to cross the sea offers a dramatic parable for the journey of following and understanding they are embarked on. It is our journey too. We can speak too carelessly about conversion and following Jesus as if it is an experience of light, joy and understanding. That is certainly part of it. But by contrast the writer CS Lewis wrote of ‘the harrowing operation of conversion’. This story reminds us how often following Jesus left the disciples frightened, confused, bewildered and in the dark.
The Christian journey of faith and discipleship involves such a total change of heart and mind that we should not be surprised if we feel like the disciples in that boat at times. The journey can be turbulent and dark and we feel lost and powerless. For such times the message of this story is both uncompromisingly honest but very reassuring. It is only with Jesus the disciples reach the journey’s end safely. They had begun the journey without him actually. And where is Jesus? He is there – in the midst of the storm, walking towards them.
Lord when it is stormy and dark, help me to trust you.
Day 7: Coming back for more
‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you’. Jn 6.25-27 (1)
The crowd have come back for more. Are we surprised? They had been wonderfully fed the last time. The miracle was amazing. Exciting things happen when this person Jesus is around. But they were only after more of the same. They could not see beyond the sign to the greater reality it pointed to. ‘You just want to be filled again’, says Jesus. It is thoughtless behavior.
Does this sounds familiar? Our Western lifestyle has been described as one ‘living on the compass of our excitement’. We go looking wherever the needle points to new excitement or satisfaction. And it changes regularly. We get bored quickly and are easily distracted. It means our appetites live on a constant level of over stimulation. We are compulsive consumers and we find it hard to sustain concentration for any length of time. Even approaches to church can be shaped around what I want, enjoy and find exciting.
An important mark of coming to maturity involves learning to practise what psychologists call ‘delayed gratification’. An earliest memory of this challenge was the awful struggle on school outings not to eat my packed lunch before the coach had even left the school car park. Life demands the willingness and ability to deny ourselves more immediate, short-term satisfactions without which we will never become part of the bigger, more glorious story God has for us.
One of the temptations Jesus wrestled with in his humanity was not to be driven by a search for immediate satisfaction and immediate needs. Being hungry and needing food to eat is not wrong. But there are times it must wait. He knew his deepest hunger and priority must be for the food only God can give. He must put God first. And we must learn the same.
Lord teach me to wait beyond my short term excitements and appetites
Date 8: Learning to wait
‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you’. Jn 6.25-27 (2)
Do not work for what cannot last, says Jesus. Elsewhere Jesus teaches us to be very practical in praying for our ‘daily bread’. That too is within God loving concern. But if that is all we focus on for we will be missing what will give our lives it richest and most glorious meaning. There is a food that endures, says Jesus.
The ancient discipline of fasting has always been a practical ways of practicing this. The motive is important. We do not deny ourselves food because this appetite is wrong or sinful. When we fast we are saying that our earthly appetites and desires have their place. There is a time and place for them. But they must not be allowed to control or distract us. By not immediately satisfying them with what perishes, our longings can deepen for what is most truly enduring. Fasting can take different forms. It could be time away from TV or social media as well as food. It is often only when we fast we discover how deeply our life habits have become our drivers.
There was a time when Christians were taught to fast before receiving communion at church on Sundays. It might be a discipline to re-learn. It expresses what we put first in our lives. Other hungers must wait. There is food, there is sustenance, that earthly food and satisfactions are no substitute for. We must fast for the bread that comes down from heaven and endures.
I remember an older Christian telling me how much it meant to him that the first food that passed his lips each Sunday was the bread of life – the body of Christ. In that moment he was expressing the heart of his faith – the priority of living from what God alone can give.
Lord help me to put you first
Day 9: Food for the journey
Jesus said to them, ‘It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. John 6.32-35
In the Lord of the Rings, the Elves give the company a special food for the journey. It is called Lembas – a light ‘waybread’ for sustaining travellers on the way. It is no ordinary bread. One cake is enough for a whole day’s march. It is marvellously sustaining. It does not just satisfy physical hunger. A piece of this and strength and hope are renewed in even the most desperate places. Lembas is offensive to evil creatures. Offered compassionately to Gollum he chokes on a crumb of it and would rather starve than eat it. Without faith it is bitter and inedible. In the older Catholic tradition communion was called viaticum, meaning ‘for the way’. Communion bread is the spiritual food for the Christian’s arduous journey through earthly life to heaven.
Today around the world bread for the way is being broken and shared – at high altars, in a prison cell, in refugee camps, beside hospital beds. Christ, the true bread will be present, renewing life, will and hope.
Lord, feed me for the way today.
Day 10: Heaven and earth
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ John 6.41
We do not know what it was like to be living in Jesus’s village when he was growing up. Some ‘unofficial’ accounts of his childhood tell stories of him effortlessly creating birds and animals out of the dust of the earth and such like. But his critics here speak as if he has not stood out in any way, though we know from other stories that by the age of 12 he was showing exceptional wisdom.
At what point did Jesus know he was ‘from above’ – to use the imagery in John’s gospel? Was he aware from day one of his life – `I am God. I am the Messiah’? Or did he grow up always knowing the love of his heavenly Father and the life of the Spirit alongside that of his earthly family? Perhaps he became slowly and painfully aware that what was so utterly natural and obvious to him was not apparent at all to those around him at all.
The story is told of a world in which everyone has eyes but cannot see. This happened so long ago there is no memory or awareness of what sight is. Their sightless world is ‘normal’. Into this world comes someone who can see. He lives, speaks and acts out of a whole dimension of awareness that others simply didn’t have and cannot understand. They cannot accept him and he is violently expelled from the land.
In another story of Jesus people’s eyes were opened to new life when he broke bread with them. In this passage bread from heaven is a poetic way of expressing the life he came down to offer through sharing of his own flesh and blood. His life is the food which opens eyes, awakens hearts and breaks open the sightless life of earth to the vision of heaven.
Lord thank you for enduring misunderstanding and scorn for us
Day 11: This is my body
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ John 6.56-58
Earlier in this chapter Jesus provided the food to eat. Now the language changes quite dramatically. Jesus is now the food itself. Those listening to him found the idea of eating his flesh and blood utterly shocking. By the end of this teaching even some of his disciples will have given up following him. How does this language leave you feeling?
The early Christians were accused of cannibalism because they spoke of eating the flesh of Jesus. But it is Jesus himself who teaches this. It means the heart of our faith is this. It is a participation in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. This language links the communion meal totally and unmistakably with the cross. Those who eat his flesh and blood and identified with one who suffered, died and was raised. One of the traditional names for the communion service is the Lord’s Supper. With this language Jesus is saying ‘Yes, it is my supper. And I am the meal. It is my flesh and blood you eat and drink. This is my body’.
There is another reflection to offer on this uncomfortable passage. We expect the food we eat to become part of us. But Jesus feeds us with his own flesh and blood so that we might become part of him, united with him. Jesus calls this ‘abiding’. It is a tender image that expresses a sense of being deeply at home in a place or relationship. Jesus would unite us in his own body. If the language of flesh and blood reveals the cost of this gift of himself to us, the word ‘abiding’, expresses the gift itself.
Lord as you offer yourself to me, make me like you.
Day 12: Betrayal
I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfil the scripture, “The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” John 13.18
The quotation is from Psalm 49. We do not know the story but the psalmist is grieving over a betrayal by a close companion. The image of the lifted heel comes from the rural life. Imagine you have a horse that you have raised, cared for, groomed and loved. Then one day, inexplicably, as you turn to leave after feeding it, it lefts its back leg and kicks out at you viciously.
If nothing else this quotation expresses how closely Jesus feels he has shared his life with Judas, who is now about to betray him. The word ‘companion’ actually comes from two Latin words ‘com’ and ‘panis’ – literally ‘with bread’. A friend is one you break bread with.
Perhaps you have experienced a relationship painfully breaking down like this? For Christians this can be the more devastating. Aren’t we called to love each other? For several periods of my life I have lived in Christian communities. I recall how shared living starts with high idealism – ‘if we can’t live the gospel here where can it be lived?’ But we soon discover how easily love runs out, how complex our motives are, how misguided our best intentions – and we must learn the way of forgiveness. A faith with a cross at its centre surely warns us this must be so. We must never underestimate the depths from which we need redeeming.
When a friendship broke down I felt my faith had completely failed and that I should not be even be receiving communion. But it was there God spoke to me. It was in the moment in the service when the bread is broken and we say ‘we break this bread to share in the body of Christ’. We meet and receive Christ in the brokenness of things – in all the fragility of human love and belonging. We meet in the breaking of the bread. There is nowhere else.
Lord meet me in broken things today
Day 13: Honouring
Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘One of you will betray me.’ One of his disciples asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. Jesus answered, ‘The one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas. John 13.21-26
At a certain point in the meal Jesus becomes visibly distressed. The word was used of him by Lazarus’s grave and then when he contemplating his own death in Gethsemane. Here it is the knowledge he is about to be betrayed by one of his own disciples.
And what happens next? In Passover meals there is a moment when the host takes a piece of bread, dips it into the sauce of one of the dishes and offers it to a guest who may be present or perhaps to their spouse. It is a gesture of honouring and respect. Jesus now dips the bread and offers it to – Judas. At one level it changes nothing. Judas goes straight out to arrange his betrayal. But it means that in the last moment Judas shares with Jesus before he does so, Jesus reaches out to him in companionship, with a gesture that expresses love, acceptance and honour. His betrayer is still his beloved.
We do not know what led Judas to do what he did. But how amazing that even his betrayal, like human sin, comes to serve the purposes of God. That is why in the ancient Easter liturgy the church cries out, ‘O happy fault that won for us so great a salvation!’
A few verses later, as Jesus hangs on the cross he is heard to pray, ‘Father forgive, they do not know what they are doing’. That prayer of love surely included Judas as he descended into his own terrible turmoil and despair.
Lord, thank you for where your word of forgiveness will be heard today
Day 14: The restoration of Peter
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus …. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them. John 21.9
This is a particularly poignant scene. It is the other side of Easter. But the disciples have been unable to grasp what has happened. Bewildered and confused, some of them, led by Peter, have gone back to fishing, but have caught nothing. Even their old way of life is empty. They are caught between life and death and at home in neither.
But the story now focuses on Peter. A stranger on the shore tells them to fish on ‘the other side’ and now their nets nearly burst. When Peter learns it is Jesus he is desperately eager to reach him. He dresses and jumps into the water leaving the rest to follow. What was he feeling? This is a man who had betrayed and deserted Jesus just days before.
There on the shore two things are specifically mentioned. A charcoal fire. The word for this fire is the same one used of the fire Peter was standing by at the High Priest’s house as he denied knowing Jesus three times. Peter must come to that fire again. He must return to the place of his betrayal. He must face what he has done. There is no running away if we wish to receive God’s love. We must bring it all – even our betrayal and faithlessness.
And there is the bread. It would awaken memories of the last supper – this is my body; and of others meals and miracles and teachings. As this fortnight comes to a close why not take a piece of bread and ask yourself in what new ways it now speaks of you of Jesus, the bread of life.