John 6: Bread of The People

Sunday 29th July 2012
Year B, The Eighth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
John 6:1-21

When I was seven, I made my First Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Church, uncomfortably dressed in my best school uniform. It was a joyful celebration if somewhat austere but still a recognisable precursor of the First Communion celebrations, notably in Ireland, which rival Barmitzvahs in terms of elaboration and cost. The host was administered from the hand of the priest to the mouth of the kneeling communicant while an altar server held a large silver plate below the chin in case of an accident, which was further prevented by starched housling cloths over the foot-wide platform which topped the altar rails. The solemn High Mass, said and sung in Latin, was designed to engender mystery and awe; and I never went to the earliest and lowest of Masses without feeling the mystery and the awe; indeed, one of the aspects of the Church of England which most shocked me when I migrated, for reasons totally unconnected with matters sacramental, or even theological for that matter, was the sometimes casual and even sloppy approach to the Eucharist which I found.

What a contrast, then, between the high ceremony of my First Communion and the miraculous feeding by Jesus of some thousands of people in a field in Palestine which is difficult for us to grasp with our particular tradition of Bible writing and Bible reading. In the ancient world the lavish descriptive facility of Homer was not widely emulated and so the bulk of our Bible is cryptic and descriptively sparse except for the meetings of Moses with Yahweh and some spectacular passages in Ezekiel, Daniel and the Book of Revelation; and, even where the Bible is dramatic, our tradition is to read it undramatically in public or to read it privately in a quiet room. The point I am making is that feeding thousands of hungry people would have been a very noisy and joyful event, made noisier yet when word got round that the diners were all encompassed in a mighty act of God, the ordinary quotient of sweat and clamour heightened by exaltation and perhaps a little fear; and fragments all over the place, so large they were worth collecting into baskets, perhaps for the poor around and about. Such a contrast with the silk chasuble and the starched housling cloth, the quiet intonation and the flashing silver plate.

Now to get to the heart of the matter we need to confront the widely held view that this miraculous feeding, the only major event outside Holy Week recorded in all four Gospels, has deeply Eucharistic undertones; and whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke can only be said to imply this, the account in John which we have just read is the precursor to a lengthy elaboration of Jesus as food and drink, of his flesh and blood being literally the food and drink of eternal life.

For some Christians of the Protestant tradition Chapter 6 of John presents deeply troubling material only exceeded by the words of Institution in Matthew (23.26-29), Mark (14.22-24), Luke (21.19-20) and 1 Corinthians (11.23-26). John does not report Jesus as saying that if we could somehow find a way of allegorically eating his flesh and drinking his blood we would have the food of eternal life. If you read Chapter 6 and subsequent Chapters you will see how often Jesus repeats the injunction; this cannot be some accidental slip of the reporter. Likewise, the four accounts of the Institution of the Eucharist are remarkably similar in the use of the term "is" - as in "this is my body" - as opposed to Jesus saying that what he did with the bread and wine was some kind of allegory or a piece of theatre that must be repeated by way of a reminder of things past. The Last Supper is not a Proustian moment that ricochets in the mind as some trigger of supernatural sensibility. Whether we are in the Upper Room or out in the field, this act of blessing, breaking and giving was Jesus giving himself to all people until the end of time.

But the problem for some of the Protestant tradition is that they are enjoined, tendentiously and sometimes even perversely, to take the words of the Bible at face value, without assigning analogous or allegorical meaning. On that basis, they have no escape from the literal meaning of the words of Jesus out in the field, before the Temple and in the Upper Room.

And the tradition of understanding the Eucharist of some Catholics is also deeply flawed. If, as some Catholics are apt to claim more coherently and strongly than Protestants, the feeding of the masses was a foretaste of the institution of the  Eucharist, then the feature of the event that stands out is its non exclusive nature. When Jesus was made aware of the dilemma of the people - surely a rhetorical device as he was as alive as anybody to what was going on around him - he blessed and broke the bread and fish and distributed them to those who were there, right in front of him. He didn't instruct his disciples to erect a massive enclosure with entrance gates where people were quizzed about their theology or the state of their souls. Jesus did not instruct his disciples to exclude women, or small children, or known shady characters who had come along for the spectacle, nor even did he exclude the Temple's not so secret police.

And so if those of the Catholic tradition hold onto the idea that the mass feedings of Jesus are Eucharistic typologies, then why was I dressed in my finery, aged seven, receiving the host for the first time? The answer surely is that the emerging sect of Christianity took to itself the initiation rites of Judaism and of near Eastern religions at the time, possibly in good faith as a means of establishing some sort of base line adherence and understanding, but surely and sadly sub consciously, as a way of exercising the power of inclusion and exclusion.

In summary, then, both the tradition on the one hand of down-grading the Eucharist to one of the recorded highlights of the life of Jesus and on the other of confining its enjoyment to those who have undergone a process of initiation respectively fly in the face of what Jesus said and what Jesus did.

There has been some amusing discussion lately about the misuse of the word "literally" as in: "I have just literally flown down the street to be with you" or "I was literally frightened to death when I saw you looking so pale", so be aware of how carefully I am using the word "literally": Jesus literally gave himself on the Cross and literally gave himself in bread and wine literally for the whole world.