This coming Sunday is the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year B of our lectionary cycle. We have been following the Gospel of Mark’s narrative sequence of the life and ministry of Jesus. In the gospel from the previous Sunday, Jesus had urged his disciples to “come away and rest a while.” But the crowds of people followed – some 5,000 or so. Jesus taught them until it became time to eat. Mark’s gospel continues on to tell us about the Miracle of Feeding the 5,000 (Mark 6:34-44), but our lectionary will take a side trip over these five weeks. On this and the following four Sundays, we will hear the Gospel of John proclaim the miracle feeding. This comes from Chapter 6, the Bread of Life Discourse. Let us consider some context for what St. John will describe.John 6 marks the beginning of a new section in the Fourth Gospel narrative. In 2:1-5:47 there was a cycle which includes the revelation of Jesus’ glory and the rejection of that glory. These chapters contain miracles and discourses by Jesus that point to the authority of Jesus’ words and works—the wine miracle at Cana (2:1–11); the cleansing of the Temple (2:13–22); two healing miracles (4:46–54; 5:1–9); Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus (3:1–21) and the Samaritan woman (4:4–42)—and so fulfill his promise to his disciples that they would see “greater things” (1:50). Yet this cycle also contains the first story of Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities (5:9–47), a conflict that includes the decision to kill Jesus (5:18). This first cycle establishes the themes and tensions that characterize Jesus’ public ministry in John—from the manifestation of Jesus’ glory (2:1–11) to the rejection of that glory (5:9–47).
The second cycle of Jesus’ public ministry follows the same pattern as the first—it begins with a miracle in Galilee, the feeding of the five thousand (6:1–15), and concludes with hostility to Jesus and renewed intention to kill him (10:31–39). The difference between the two cycles is that the urgency of that question is highlighted as the hostility to Jesus increases. There are no new theological themes introduced, instead the same themes are replayed in a new context: Jesus’ authority and relationship to God, Jesus’ ability to give life and judge, the consequences of faith or unbelief. [O’Day, 519] And, as you might imagine, the antagonism in response to Jesus’ words and deeds only grows. The second cycle poses the same basic question as the first: Will people receive the revelation of God in Jesus?
For the this and the following four Sundays our gospel is taken from John 6. So, perhaps it is best to see what lays ahead:
John 6 follows the same basic pattern noted in chapter 5: miracle/dialogue/discourse. This pattern is more intricate in John 6 because the chapter narrates Jesus’ self-revelation to two groups: the crowd and his disciples. As such John 6 contains two miracles: one performed before the crowd and the disciples (6:1–15) and one performed in front of the disciples alone (6:16–21). John moves the people, the disciples, and the readers closer to a decision point about their commitment to Jesus.
Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996)