Bread of life

Pentecost 11

John 6:35, 41-51 

Marian Free

In the name of God who sustains and fulfils us. Amen.

 Some years ago there was an advertisement for a (then) popular deodorant. The ad featured a beautiful woman holding up various essential items and saying things like: “I can do without my iPhone, I can do without my hair dryer, I can do without my first cup of coffee, but I can’t do without my Mum.” Of course, it’s a play on words. Our minds immediately leap to the conclusion that she can’t do without her mother, but in fact Mum is the brand name of the deodorant that she is promoting! It was a clever piece of advertising – not only because obviously I still remember it, but also because for a while, the phrase: “I can’t do without” passed into common use.

In the scale of things, deodorant is a particularly superficial item to be unable to go without. People are starving and dying of disease every day, surely we can go without something that is not vital to our well-being, but only to our vanity. However, the goal of advertising is to convince us that we simply cannot do without the latest fashion, the latest kitchen items, the latest phone or computer. Many of us today have lives cluttered with things that we do not absolutely need, but which seemed a good idea at the time. It gives pause for thought. What do we really require for a reasonable life? What things are absolutely essential for our well-being and what things are essentially luxuries?

Some of the things we need are obvious. We simply cannot survive without water, oxygen and a certain amount of food. Warmth and shelter are also good but not necessary. In 1943 a man named Abraham Maslow published a seminal paper in which he identified a hierarchy of needs. All these years later psychology students would be familiar, if not with his work, then with the hierarchy to which he gave his name. The hierarchy he developed suggests that a person’s basic needs must be met in order for them to be creative and moral. So at the bottom of the hierarchy are things like breathing, food, water, sex. When those needs are met a person may becomes aware of the need for safety (both physical and economic). When one is fed and safe, love and belonging become important for happiness. These are followed, Maslow would say, by the need for self-esteem (confidence, achievement, respect form others). It is only when all these underlying needs are met, he claims, that a person is able to achieve self-actualisation – creativity, spontaneity, lack of prejudice and so on.

There are some flaws in Maslow’s argument. A number of creative people are creative, not because they have reached some higher dimension of existence, but precisely because their needs for love or something else have not been met. Their art is drawn not from their self-fulfilment, but from their suffering. Likewise we often witness people who to us, seem to be living in the most dire of circumstances and yet who are able to express surprising joy and inclusiveness.

Today’s gospel is part of a long discourse on bread in which Jesus claims to be both the bread of life and the living bread that has come down from heaven. For many people bread is one of the staples of life. Jesus appears to be claiming that he is both essential for life and that a relationship with him is the key to eternal life. In contrast to Maslow’s hierarchy, Jesus places himself at the bottom of the pyramid and implies that all else in life is built on faith in him.

As he does so often, Jesus seems to be challenging his audience to consider where their priorities lie and where they place their relationship with him in comparison to their other needs and wants. By claiming to be the bread of life and by comparing himself with the manna in the wilderness, Jesus is suggesting that his listeners need to place him at the centre of their lives, to have the confidence that if they put him at the heart, all else will fall into place. Jesus is claiming that faith in him is essential to the well-being of all people. It is not an optional extra that can be drawn on only when it is absolutely needed, rather it is the central requirement for a life that is rich and satisfying.

This is more difficult that it appears – especially for Jesus listeners. Many of them have known him all his life, they know his parents and they know that he didn’t come down from heaven, but was born in the usual way. For Jesus’ audience accepting that he was who he said he was meant suspending their rational minds and allowing themselves to trust that what Jesus said was indeed true and that he could supply all their wants. Further, it meant letting go what they had believed until now and trusting that God was indeed doing something new in Jesus, that they faith they had held was being enlarged to include all that Jesus did and taught. For many this was an impossible task. They simply could not make the leap. They could accept Jesus as a miracle worker, but not as the source of their being or the most essential part of their lives.

This sort of faith is no easier for our generation. Faith still does involve a suspension of the rational and a belief in something that ultimately cannot be proven. The faith that Jesus demands is not new to us as it was to Jesus’ first century listeners. We are not caught by surprise as they were. However, that does not mean that it is easy. For ourselves, accepting Jesus as the bread of life entails trusting Jesus with one’s whole life and not just with part of it. It means relying on Jesus (and not on our own strength) when things get tough. It means learning to be grateful for all that we have and knowing that Jesus will give us those things that we really need. It means that Jesus is the one thing in life that we simply cannot do without.

What is the one thing in life that you cannot do without? Is your answer Jesus?

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