The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13), Year B.
The next day, when the people who remained after the feeding of the five thousand saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”John 6:24-35
It’s bread month y’all. But before you get your hopes up too high, I need to note that I’m not talking about sourdough, banana, rye, or ciabatta. And no, before you ask, I am not announcing that we have changed from our immutable communion wafers in favor of homemade bread. We’ve reached that quirk in lectionary Year B where for the next few weeks we are going to be hearing “I am the bread of life” over and over again.
You may have noticed that we switched gospels last week, and really our month of bread began last week with the story of the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish. For those who may not be familiar, our Sunday readings come from what is called “The Revised Common Lectionary”. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year reading cycle, called Year A, B, and C. Each year draws most of its Gospel readings from one of the Synoptic Gospels: Year A is Matthew, B Mark, and C Luke. Currently, we are in Year B, so most of our readings this year have been from Mark. However, starting last Sunday, and for the next three Sundays, our Gospel readings are from John. So why the switch? In our lectionary cycle, John’s gospel is usually reserved for high holy days and special occasions, which we are quite distant from. Why all this maneuvering for this obscure part of our liturgical calendar? The switch from Mark to John is for us to really examine this metaphor Jesus uses: “I am the bread of life”.
One of the most unique aspects of John’s gospel is how it reads much like a stage-play. It can be thought of in terms of “scenes” where Jesus will say something profound, offensive, or let’s be honest, usually both, and the scene will play out as people react to Him or His teaching. John’s gospel spends a lot of time on just a few moments, really a short conversation, and the complex web of human reaction to divine insight. All this is to say that over the next few weeks as we sit with this strange and difficult teaching from Jesus, “I am the bread of life”, listen, see, and play your part in the scene as people encounter Jesus and His teaching. The interaction between the audience and Jesus is just as educational as the teaching itself.
With all that introduction to keep in the back of your mind for the next month, let us return to what we all came here for: bread. Like many of Jesus’ teachings to a crowd of people living in the ancient middle-east, if we strip away the many centuries of interpretation by preachers, claiming to be the “bread of life” is a strange metaphor. At least, it strikes us as modern Americans as a strange metaphor.
I don’t know about you, but I have a rather complicated relationship with bread. I love the stuff in all it’s gluten and carbohydrate-ridden glory. At the same time, bread deceived me. There are not enough words to describe the sense of betrayal I felt when I learned (far later in life than I care to admit) that as far as our digestion is concerned, bread is essentially sugar. I trusted bread, I believed that old food pyramid that had bread as the foundation of a balanced diet. Something that I trusted and understood so simply, that a sandwich was the pinnacle of a nutritionally balanced meal, turned out to be little more than the foul and beguiling temptation of lobbyist groups trying to sell more bread and cheese. For many of us, bread is something to be avoided, or perhaps occasionally indulged in.
This complicated relationship with bread confounds us when hearing Jesus call Himself the “bread of life”. How is the bread of life good for us when bread, at least in the amounts we would prefer to eat it, is generally bad for us?
This is where we must remember that Jesus is not only speaking to us in this scene. The audience in front of him is a rabble whose life in the most basic sense depends on bread. While bread may not be good for us in our modern calorie-dense world, for ancient people who lead very physically active lives, especially for the poor who had far less access to meat, fruits, vegetables, and spices, bread was life. What makes bread so bad for us, being calorie-dense and effectively sugar, is what made it so good for our ancestors. It was cheap, portable, and added much-needed calories to otherwise meager meals.
This is why Jesus’ claim “I am the bread of life” was so offensive and confounding to His audience. Jesus is challenging His audience’s entire worldview with this claim. He is telling people not to “work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Imagine what kind of reaction you would get if you went into a soup kitchen full of hungry people and told them that what they really need is not the food that they need to get through the day, but meditations on dense theological claims. Yeah, that would go over about as well as it does in this chapter of John.
This passage, this metaphor, it can seem rather tone-deaf. On the surface it seems like Jesus is calling us to have blind faith that “God will provide” for us without any other substance to back it up. We hold back from believing in Jesus, because we know that if we just sit and hope that “God will provide” we will starve. “That’s not how the world works”.
Of course, we have forgotten something rather important. God will provide. God has provided. How easily and quickly we, much like Jesus’ audience, forget what just happened: Jesus fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. And as much as sensationalists, eugenicists, and fear-mongers tell us that there isn’t enough to go around, there is. There is enough food, enough land, enough resources for everyone to have their needs met, and even thrive. God has provided. The thing is, in our fear of scarcity, in our selfishness, much of the great abundance is unequally distributed. God has provided for humanity, but it is us who have withheld from our neighbor.
This first part of the scene is somewhat comical, where the people who Jesus just fed start asking for Jesus’ eternal-life-bread. They make their relationship with Jesus transactional: “What is the work of God that we must do?” Jesus answers: “Believe in me.” “Why should we believe in you? What work will you give us?” They ask. They even try to leverage their common tradition against Jesus. “Well, Moses gave the Israelites mana in the desert, can you do that?” Jesus is quick to correct them: Moses didn’t give the Israelites bread from heaven, God did.
Make no mistake, we are no different than the crowd in this scene. Even moreso than the crowd we frame our relationship with Jesus as transactional. Ok, I’ll go to Church, love my neighbor and the poor starving children halfway around the world, I’ll take the wafer, and for that you’ll look past all of my sins and let me see grandma in heaven, ok? Great, thanks Jesus. I’m sorry to say that that is not enough. That is not believing in Jesus, and why we are left hungry.
As a society, we have a habit of seeing all our relationships as transactional. Though we prefer not to say it aloud, we value people primarily by their ability to contribute to the economy. Those who cannot work, we would prefer that they starve, though we do make some concessions to feel good about ourselves. We tend to view others in terms of their social, political, or economic capital, what they can provide for us, should we invest our time and energy into them. Those who do not fit neatly into what we have deemed as valuable or marketable, are pushed aside or viewed as a drain of resources. Even the parts of ourselves that are not explicitly marketable we put away, relegate to nights and weekends, or don’t invest in at all. Because we view each other in terms of capital and our world as one of scarce resources, we value self-reliance. By falsely believing that we don’t need anyone other than ourselves, we can keep all our capital. By hoarding we think we won’t be pushed aside like the others who aren’t marketable, we’ll have enough to get by. We’ll never go hungry because we’ve stored up more bread than we could ever eat!
Except we are hungry. We are starved of human connection and starving ourselves of God’s love by believing that we can do it all on our own. No one is fully self-reliant, we need God and we need each other. Something the crowd forgot to mention when they brought up the mana story was that mana doesn’t keep. It dissolved overnight, being replaced with new mana in the morning. What the people forgot about the mana was that it was the most obvious reminder that we are wholly dependent on God for life. God feeds us, gives us what we need, gave us everything beautiful and wonderful in this world. At the same time, we need each other. Not in the warm-fuzzy “world peace” kind of need, but in the most basic survival sense. It is too much labor for a single person to create all the goods and services we all need to survive and thrive. By working together, we give each other freedom to thrive and invest in flourishing beyond “marketable” skills. This is the bread that will fill us and never let us go hungry: Jesus. Believe in Jesus and the Good News that He brings, and you will always be filled. Today is the first step into belief: see that God has given us what we need, and we need each other. When we understand that we need God and each other, we will begin to love one another. Take this bread in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on Him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.