Bread of life

Pentecost 9
John 6:24-35
Marian Free

In the name of God source of our life and ground of our being. Amen.

There is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion in John’s gospel. For one thing, the Jesus of John’s gospel speaks in riddles – speaking of being born again, walking in the light and not the dark, saying that they know where he comes from when it is clear that they do not. He often speaks indirectly about himself, speaking in the third person of the one sent by God, the one who came down from heaven. In this gospel, the expectations of the people don’t match up with who Jesus is and what he is trying to do. The Jesus of John is trying to reveal spiritual truths but his hearers misunderstand and think that he is going to meet their physical needs. They are interested in signs and wonders that Jesus performs, but not so ready to accept what those signs reveal about who he is.

We see this confusion and misunderstanding amply demonstrated in today’s gospel. The author of the gospel has taken a piece of the story of Jesus – the feeding of the five thousand – and has developed a discourse around it. In this instance, he has used the image of bread to link Jesus with the Passover feast, a Jewish festival which celebrated both the escape from Egypt and the journey in the wilderness. The original listeners would have picked up themes which are no longer accessible to us. For example, in the first century, the manna from heaven was associated with the law of Moses and keeping the law of Moses was the “work” that one did to inherit eternal life. First century listeners would also have picked up the patterns which frame different parts of the discourse. For instance, there are a number of discrete sections, each of which is introduced by a question or statement from those with whom the conversation is being held. “When did you come here?” “What must we do to perform the works of God?” “What sign are you going to give us?” All of which allow the author to introduce another point.

The crowds who have followed because of the signs that he did, have become distracted by the miracle of the loaves – so much so that Jesus can accuse them of being interested in meeting only their superficial bodily needs rather than their inner spiritual needs. Jesus challenges them to search for something more substantial, something which will last forever – eternal life. Don’t work for that which perishes he says. So they ask what they must do – they associate “work” with the Jewish understanding of the law. The law is a work that they have to do for God. Jesus responds that “works” in that sense are no longer relevant. Inheriting life now depends on belief in the one whom God has sent. Faith not works is key to the new revelation which Jesus represents.

The hearers seem to grasp this, but are not prepared to give in so easily. How do they know Jesus is who he implies he is? How can they have confidence in him? Is he of the same class as Moses, can he perform miracles in the wilderness by providing manna to eat? (Intriguingly, they appear to have already forgotten the miracles of the loaves. Equally interesting is the fact that they seem to understand that when Jesus speaks of the one sent by God is referring to himself.)
Jesus corrects their misunderstanding, God, not Moses gave the manna, and God has given them a sign – the true bread from heaven. Like the woman at the well, his hearers think that Jesus is speaking of physical sustenance – and they are eager to partake. They have missed Jesus’ true meaning – that faith in him provides a deeper meaning and satisfaction, than anything which the world is able to offer. They are distracted by the possibility that he can provide them with something real, something that will make life easier for them.

It is not surprising that the people misunderstand Jesus – not only is he vague in the extreme about who he is, but he is changing the rules, he is taking the rug out from under their feet. Up until now, it was relatively easy to know if they were keeping the faith. Moses gave the law and if one obeyed the law all would be well. The law was something tangible and measurable. You knew where you stood.  Changing the dynamic to belief in Jesus is not only confusing, it is full of uncertainty. How can they be sure that Jesus is the one sent by God? What does it really mean that he is the bread of life? Has he replaced the law as the means to be in relationship with God? As we will see, it was easier for many of the people to continue in the way that they had always lived. They could not place their trust in Jesus, they did not feel that they could depend on him; they did not understand what it all meant.

In saying that he is the bread of life, Jesus is claiming that faith in him will go to the heart of people’s deepest needs, that if only they can let go of their expectations, if only they can put their trust in him, they will find a peace that all their striving will not achieve.

Many people today have similar problems to those of first century Palestine. They find it difficult to believe in God or in Jesus without physical proof that God exists. They want God to demonstrate his existence by a number of different proofs and when those proofs are not forthcoming they give up looking. Others expect God to constantly intervene in their lives such that they are miraculously spared suffering and misfortune. If God fails to deliver, that is evidence of God’s non-existence or ineffectiveness. Still others are unable to have confidence that God will in fact give their lives meaning. It is much easier for these people to believe in the things that can be seen, to place one’s trust and one’s hope in the material, physical world to provide comfort and protection. Others again, want to believe that God expects something from them, that there is a standard they have reach in order to please God. So they spend their lives striving to be accepted by a God who has already said that they are acceptable.

In this elaboration of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus is encouraging us to reconsider our values, to ask ourselves in what we place our trust and reminding us that if we have the courage to let go and to have faith in him, we will discover that he will satisfy our deepest longing and meet our strongest desires.

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