Give us this bread
John 6 v 33 – 35
33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto
34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.
35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never
hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.
Here is gospel with much to chew over, starting with our daily bread, then serving
up the astonishing and profound affirmation of who Jesus is in the first of the I AM
statements that structure John’s Christology.
Jesus had compassion for hungry people. Feeding the 5000 with 5 barley loaves and 2 small fishes, followed by collection of 12 baskets of leftovers, is the sole miracle reported across all 4 gospels except for the final miracle of resurrection and ascension. Heading the list of supplications within the Lord’s Prayer is “give us this day our daily bread”. At the heart of our worship is commemoration of the Last Supper. The importance of taking time to eat, breaking bread together, preparation and participation in feasts and celebrations are abiding themes throughout Jesus’ ministry. Certainly they are features of our community life we are longing to restore fully as Covid restrictions are lifted. John gives us insight into the meta meaning of bread, the staff of life, with the first of Jesus’ seven statements of identity, the “I AM” affirmations which link him not only with Moses and the sweep of the Old Testament – they identify him as the incarnate son of the living God.
Today’s reading begins soon after impromptu catering for a hungry multitude of
Passover pilgrims chasing Jesus and his disciples from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. They had seen or heard of demons cast out, loved ones brought back from the dead, the sick and lame made whole, so had reason to travel in anticipation of miraculous goodies on offer. To evade them and to gain time to rest and regroup, Jesus retired to the mountain whilst his disciples set off on another dangerous nighttime sailing, heightened when Jesus re-joined the struggling crew mid-sea by walking across turbulent waves.
It was a short-lived escape. His pursuers would seek Jesus in Capernaum, where he was known in the synagogue for teaching a dazzling metaphysic, fearless in the face of religious authorities and received tradition. They now knew he is also capable of providing a free meal, more than anyone could eat in a single sitting! No need to murmur against him as their ancestors had against their leaders during the Exodus, before Moses’ parlay with Yahweh resulted in daily deliveries of manna. Surely, then, Jesus is a prophet, in direct contact with God Almighty. Perhaps one who may prove equal to the foundational prophet of Jewish tradition, Moses? No wonder they sought him to make him King, the one who could free them of bondage to the Roman empire, provide for their needs, make the chosen people great again. The time was right. The approach to Jerusalem for Passover meant that families and villages were on the move in their tens of thousands. They had the numbers, the time and the psychological atmosphere conducive to political uprising. All they had to do was find him.
They may have had another free meal in mind, but clearly weren’t expecting the True Bread from Heaven.
When they did find him, what they received was a rebuke for being hungry for the wrong food, for seeking “…meat which perisheth” instead of spiritual sustenance that endures unto everlasting life. Jesus identifies himself, the “Son of man”, as the very bread of life because he is the Son of God, “…for him hath God the Father sealed”: approved and commissioned to directly bestow God’s grace. By his descent and sojourn on earth, he is literally transforming our spiritual destiny.
You can hear incomprehension in their next question: “What shall we do, that we
may work the works of God?” What they understand is a reality based upon doing – ritual and obligation, procedure and hierarchy. These structures and practices had forged a nation from 12 tribes and sustained them across centuries marked by exile, slavery, occupation, judgment. What is difficult to get their heads around, despite all the times they are reminded of the prophecies, is the outright gift of God amongst them bringing salvation that is bestowed, not earned. What is unimaginable is a relationship with God where He does the work so that his people can benefit through belief, where the concept of personal righteousness is made irrelevant by the power of grace; it is over-ridden by the love of God for his people. “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” True connection to God and everlasting life is an altogether more present state; receiving Jesus as the bread of life releases a creative and dynamic force in your life and the ones around you. Just look at how it galvanised the first Christians to spread his word and continues to inspire and structure acts of care and kindness in his name. John always uses a verb form for believe (from pisteuo), not the abstract noun (pistis): belief and faith require active commitment.
I occasionally bump into Reverend Canon Thomas Woodhouse, Chaplain of the
Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy and known to this congregation whilst taking walks by the River Thames, most recently last Thursday when we congratulated each other on taking advantage of a stretch of dry weather to put some steps in our fitness banks. We briefly discussed the subject of this sermon, and he noted that the business of ministry is “to keep on keeping on”. Faith is not a navel-gazing, one-and-done sort of practice. Hear how many times Jesus must say and demonstrate the same message, over and over, finding fresh ways and words to reach out to those mired in their personal and ancestral past, in unhelpful habits of thought and life.
For his questioners were not ready to receive the message. Before they can allow
themselves to think along those lines, they need more evidence. OK so you fed the
multitude once. Didn’t Moses provide bread from heaven with a double portion to
tide them over the Sabbath for 40 years? “What sign shewest thou then, that we
may see, and believe thee? What does thou work?” Jesus was ever on the receiving end of requests to flex his superpowers to satisfy the doubters.
Like every good and patient teacher, Jesus goes back to basics, using the most
emphatic form of oath available: “Amen, amen” translated as double “verily” here,to affirm that only God the Father gives the bread of heaven. This is not something Moses did or could do alone. God sent manna then and as he promised, has now sent his son, the true bread from heaven, the bread of God, to give life unto the world.
Here he is, standing right before them, whilst they continue to ask for what they have already been offered. Evermore give us this bread.
This request elicits the first I AM of John’s gospel – “I am the bread of life”. Next,
we learn the only way to receive the bread of life is to come to him, to the son of
God. Come to him. The gentlest of invitations to intimacy, the tenderest wooing, no
hint of transaction, coercion, demand. Do this, and never again be hungry. Believe
on him and never thirst.
One evening during the Diocese in Europe pilgrimage I was fortunate to join in 2018, we gathered beneath St. Peter Gallicantu, a possible site of Caiaphas’ Palace, scene of Jesus’ interrogation by the Elders and of the underground pit in which Jesus may have spent his last night. William distributed copies of poems from “The Witnesses” by Clive Sansom, and mine was “The Woman of Samaria”, the lone woman who went to Jacob’s well at blazing midday and there encountered a travel-worn and dusty Jesus. Even as she gave him water from her jug to ease his thirst, she experienced the gift of living water, springing up into everlasting life through the forgiveness of sin. In John chapter 4, the story is shaped by an extraordinary dialogue and parallel discussion to living bread from our chapter 6 text, though far more thoughtful than the one in Capernaum. She goes back to her town, and John tells us that “many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman”.
In Exodus 3:14, when God spoke from the burning bush, he revealed his identity “I AM WHO I AM” in response to Moses asking what should say to the Hebrews when they ask him. For the prophet knew of the inquisitive nature of his people and wanted to be prepared. Henceforth, they would know this as a name for their God. Theologians such as W N Clarke call it the ‘aseity of God’, the principle that God is completely independent and self-sufficient, uncaused and not reliant upon any other being or reason for his existence. Simply, when Jesus makes “I am” statements, he identifies himself with the eternal, perfect, living God. His Jewish audience would know this, and we learn later in John chapter 6 that it made many troubled and angry that an individual like themselves, from nowhere special, who worked a trade, whose immediate and extended family they knew, could stand up and make such a claim.
The incarnation of bread from heaven was hard for many to swallow…even with an everlasting supply of living water to hand. Those who stayed with Jesus were put on notice that their discipleship was just beginning to unfold its complexity and mystery. After all, they know that they are in the company of the incarnate God. From now on, they will operate ever closer to the spiritual realm, where they are drawn and desired although not everyone can see or feel God drawing them to him. And some may flat-out belong to the devil. With eternal life at stake, there is all to work for. In John 6, we are assured of divine nourishment for the struggle on offer in the person of Jesus Christ.