CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: The Bread of Life
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
- John 6:35, 41-51
Have you ever received manna from heaven? In the stories from the Book of Exodus, the Israelites received food in the wilderness in the form of a mysterious powder. It tasted like cake sweetened with honey and gave them strength for a journey that lasted 40 years. The flakes appeared as a miracle one day, an answer to the prayers of a hungry people wandering far from home in an inhospitable desert. They called it manna, ma’n-hu, which means “what is it?” in Hebrew. Today, the word manna is associated with unexpected, even miraculous gifts of all kinds, but for the Jewish people of 2,000 years ago, it was “the bread that came down from heaven” to help their ancestors survive.
To us, the stories of manna speak of gift and blessing and miracle, but to the people who had to eat it day after day, week after week, year after year, it became less of a gift and more of a burden. They baked it into cakes, they formed it into loaves, they got as creative as they could with the never-ending gift of sweet, life-giving manna, but, in the end, they just got tired of the miracle of bread from heaven. They got tired, and (literally) fed up on the abundant manna. They would have eaten almost anything else for a break from the heavenly bread, and they complained.
The connections between the manna of the exodus and the bread from heaven that Jesus offered would not have gone unnoticed to those first disciples. There, on a hillside in Galilee, the people also complained. They had eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes at the miraculous feeding of more than 5,000 people (John 6:1-14), but they were still not satisfied, and they did not understand. They wanted more: more bread, more teaching and healing and miracle, more Jesus.
What is this bread that comes down from heaven? How can it possibly fill you so that you will never be hungry again? Or never die? How could something as simple as bread be the way to God? The crowds know that Jesus wasn’t talking about literally never needing to eat again. After all, many of them had eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes just the day before, and they were still hungry. The bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is not the 12 baskets left over after five loaves were taken, blessed, broken and shared. No, Jesus tells us it is his own self, his very flesh given for the life of the world.
By now, if you were a first-century Jew, you would be shocked and even scandalized at the thought of bread that is human flesh. So why did Jesus say this? Is it a metaphor? A mystery? Or a challenging saying, a way of getting people to think about how God feeds us? Over the centuries, Christians have responded by coming up with ways that the bread Jesus gives for the life of the world could possibly be his flesh. Some traditions answer this with transubstantiation – a word that simply means that, in the Eucharist, the bread and wine become the actual flesh and blood of Christ and are no longer bread or wine. For many of us, it is consubstantiation – bread and wine are both bread and wine AND the real presence of Christ. Still others see the Eucharist as a sacramental union of the nature of Christ and the matter of ordinary bread and wine, a divine mystery, even a memorial of his gift to his followers at the last supper – do this, share this holy meal together, in remembrance of me. No matter how you understand it, the living bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world is far more than a metaphor or challenging phrase. It is a sacred gift.
It’s been a difficult 16 months. For many of us, our daily (or weekly or monthly) bread of the Eucharist was replaced for long stretches with a eucharistic fast, with prayers for spiritual communion and a hunger for the real bread of life in Christian community. Even now, as we regather in worship, as we find new ways to be the church in a pandemic, our challenge is not abundance but scarcity. How do we feed our people, our communities, our world with the abundant hope of the bread that comes down from heaven?
Every story of God’s abundance begins with human need. Every story of heavenly bread begins with hunger. The manna in the wilderness is heavenly food for a hungry nation, and what starts as flecks on the ground becomes food for a generation. The five loaves and two fishes become a meal for 5,000 people, with 12 baskets left over. The body of Jesus becomes bread for the world.
In this pandemic season, there is much to be uncertain about. We all carry worries, anxiety and concerns. We worry about our loved ones and our communities. We are anxious about what is to come. We may even be concerned for our own selves. We do not always see the manna in the wilderness or the 12 baskets full of leftovers. We are ready for all this to be over. We might even be tempted to complain and wonder what is next. But God still feeds God’s people. God still offers the hope of manna in the wilderness and bread that comes down from heaven. As the Israelites and the disciples knew, the bread of life isn’t always what you expect, but it is what we need.
We are the body of Christ. May we take the blessing that has been given to us, break it open, and share God’s gift of the bread of life. Amen.
The Rev. Canon Sally French is a canon for regional ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.
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