Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst…
So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:35, 41–51)
In last week’s reading we saw that Jesus himself stands at the centre of Christianity. That, of course, should be no surprise to us since this is Christianity after all. All too often, though, people simply dismiss Jesus as a good teacher pointing to God. What they miss is the fact that Jesus is God. Or, as the creed puts it, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father”.
This is the issue in this week’s reading. The Jews thought Jesus was a good teacher, and spoke with authority, but when he claims to have come down from heaven that’s simply too much. They know his parents - he comes from Nazareth, not heaven. To be frank, isn’t he just going too far? He’s just a normal person, and one from an unfashionable part of the country.
And so they grumble.
It is in this context that Jesus makes his reply, and defends his words. In fact, if we allow Jesus to speak for himself we discover that he makes some truly extraordinary claims. He certainly did not think of himself as simply a religious teacher.
The first claim Jesus makes is that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”. Make no mistake, this is a saying which can cause offence since it diminishes our own abilities. In a society founded upon the idea of consumer choice, to be told that you cannot come unless God draws you is unpopular. And yet here it is: Jesus insists that the reason his hearers reject him is because they have not been drawn to him by the Father. Of course, Jesus continues, this is something foreseen there in the Scriptures - “it is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God’”. Ultimately this is all in the hands of the Father.
The second claim Jesus makes concerns those who have been drawn to him by the Father: “I will raise him up on the last day”. Now, to us “last day” sounds like the end of term, but to the listening Jews this has a deeply apocalyptic ring. The last day is the day of judgement, the day of reckoning. This is the “day of the Lord”, and for Jesus to claim a pivotal role in it is a mighty claim indeed. That he is the one who gives life, who ‘raises up’ people, is not the claim of a mere teacher from a small backwater town.
The third claim is equally incendiary: “not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father”. To claim to have seen the Father - to have seen God - is a staggering claim to Jewish ears. To be able to see God is to be equal to God in holiness. Even Moses was only permitted to see God’s back. Jewish tradition has it that Isaiah was sawn in two with a wooden saw for daring to claim he simply had a vision of God. For Jesus to claim that he is from God, and has seen God, would be outrageous to Jewish ears. Or, at least, to those who had not been drawn to Jesus by the Father.
There is yet more in this tightly-packed dialogue. Jesus continues that whoever believes has eternal life. He is the “the living bread that came down from heaven” and “if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever”. To believe in Jesus is to receive eternal life. He is the gateway, and the one to whom the Father ‘draws’ those who are to believe. He is the one who raises up people on the last day. He is the one who gives eternal life.
These claims are staggering. Jesus is not simply talking about God. He is God. He is the one through whom all things are restored to God, something seen in the final of Jesus’ claims: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”. It is his death which will reconcile the believer to God.
All of this suggests that the claims that Jesus is just a teacher, one amongst many, does not stand up. If Jesus is a good teacher then his words tell us he is more than just a teacher. If his words are misleading, then he is no longer a good teacher but a danger. He cannot both be a good teacher, and also one whose words can be dismissed. That is to commit an error in logic.
No. We would do well to allow Jesus to speak for himself, and to acknowledge the vast scope of the claims he makes about himself. As he himself will say much later: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). What words! What teaching.