(Exodus 16, 2-4 & 9-15; Ephesians 4,1-16; John 6,24-35)
If you invited me to dinner, and I turned up on your doorsteps with a loaf of bread as a gift, rather than the customary flowers, or wine, or box of chocolates, I don’t think you would be very impressed.
Yet today’s Gospel reading (along with that for last week, and those for the next three weeks) are from the long sixth chapter of John’s Gospel which is entirely concerned with a gift of bread: bread given to the multitude in the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, and the Bread of Life given to the world in the coming of Jesus.
That says a gift of bread is something special.
At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the saying: “I am the bread of life”, one of the ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel that are so comforting to many Christians. They are not, of course, words of the historical Jesus. John’s Gospel was probably composed by a community of Christians late in the 1st century, based around a book of miracles or ‘signs’ of Jesus. The ‘I am’ sayings are part of the discourses that the Gospel writers composed and placed on the lips of Jesus as a profound theological reflection on the person and mission of Jesus which the signs demonstrated.
In this, the writers of John were helping us to look at the miracles in what the Dean of St Albans says is the proper way. In his book ‘The Meaning in the Miracles”, Jeffrey John illustrates from his own schooldays our modern tendency to get hung up on explaining what happened in the miracles. He tells of two contrasting RE teachers: Mr Davies, who insisted the miracles happened exactly as described, and were demonstrations of Jesus’s divine power (i.e. the bread and fish were changed into enough food for everyone); and Miss Tomkins, who insisted nothing supernatural happened, but that the miracles were a demonstration of the influence of Jesus which brought out the best in everyone (i.e. people were prompted by the small boy’s example to share their food).
In contrast to these approaches, with their concentration on what happened, Jeffrey John guides us to look at the setting and background which informed the creation of the miracle stories, in order to try to understand what the writers are trying to tell us about what God is doing through Jesus, his words and his actions.
The Old Testament is the primary background for the Gospel writers, and, just as with the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, the stories of Jesus’s miracles are ‘midrash’ or ‘haggadah’ – writings which weave incidents from the Old Testament into the story of Jesus, to illustrate how he continues and perfects the work of God described in them. So the Feeding of the 5000 links back to the stories in Exodus of the manna in the desert, and in 2 Kings 4 of Elisha feeding 100 prophets with 20 loaves of bread, and shows that Jesus is both a new Moses and a new Elisha, but is also greater than both, and that his coming fulfils both the Law and the Prophets.
But there are richer meanings too.
In Deuteronomy, bread is used to stand for the Word of God, so the gift of bread for all also means the preaching of the Gospel to all. That is why the Synoptic Gospels contain two stories of the feeding of the multitude, one with symbolic numbers which show it refers to the preaching of the Gospel to the Jews, and the other referring to taking the Gospel to the Gentiles.
For the gospel writers, the bread in the miracle also refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, so the gift of bread is also the gift of the continuing presence of Jesus in the sacrament. For Christians today, depending whether their church tradition places more emphasis on meeting Christ in Word or in Sacrament, one or other of these will be more important – but both meanings are there in the richness of the story.
But the meaning in the scriptures is not confined to those that were seen by those who wrote them. As we continue to read them, inspired by the Holy Spirit and informed by two thousand years of Christian thought and study, we continue to find meaning in them related to our lives in the church and in the world today.
In the story we heard from Exodus, the Hebrews have been freed from slavery in Egypt by the power of God under the leadership of Moses. Their initial joy, however turns to grumbling when they realise they no longer have food and water readily available. So they complain, and wish themselves back under the yoke of their slavemasters, where they were at least guaranteed a regular food supply. God however provides for them in the form of quails and manna. The message for us too is that God will provide enough to satisfy our basic needs on a daily basis. There is no need for us to store up supplies, or exclude others to guarantee we have enough.
Spiritually, also, some of us are afraid of the freedom to study and interpret God’s word in the light of modern insights. Some would rather remain in the comparative security of slavery to someone else’s interpretation, rather than risk the freedom of the unknown.
The letter to the Ephesians also talks about resources, this time for the Christian community. This writer, too, repeats the message that God has provided enough for the needs of each church community. All that is needed is for people to make the resources available, with generosity and humility, in a way that builds up the unity of the community. This is what it means to “live a life worthy of our calling”.
If we view this letter through the lens of the discourse on the Bread of Life, we can see how we offer ourselves, as ordinary people, ‘bread’, and God takes what we offer and transforms it into the Bread of Life for those we serve and share the Gospel with.
This message is not just meant for those called to ordained or licensed ministry. All of us have a Christian vocation, though, as the letter points out, for each of us it will be different. When we offer our gifts to be used by the Body of Christ, and allow them to be used as the body decides is best for all, then our gifts will help to build up the church, and bring it to that maturity, that total obedience to the will of God we see in Jesus Christ.
What bread do you have to offer to build up the body today?
The reading from John’s Gospel, as always, speaks to us on two levels. The story tells how God, through Jesus, provided for the physical needs of the people. They come to demand, as did the Hebrews of old, that he does it again. But Jesus is reluctant to do so. Although in the gospels Jesus does do miracles, he is scathing about those who demand a supply of them before they will accept who he is.
So we can see that the bread of life is a metaphor for the complete trust we should have that God will meet all our needs both physical and spiritual. Within the physical world, God has provided enough to meet the physical needs of everyone. We just need to share it.
The majority of wars are not fought over religion (as so many people believe nowadays) but over control of resources: land and water, oil, minerals and transport routes. When we compete to control these resources, and keep them for ourselves and when we fail to care for the resources God has given us, some of us go hungry. It is only when we imitate Christ, in his life of simplicity, generosity and self-sacrifice that we find there is, in fact, enough to allow for everyone to flourish.
And in our personal lives, the gift of bread encourages us to reflect on what we need to satisfy us. We are encouraged by advertising to accumulate more and more ‘stuff’, the shiny technology, the latest thing, the newest miracle device. But do we actually need that? Could we not find more satisfaction in the simpler things of life, in simplicity of ‘bread’ and in sharing what we have with others, as Jesus did?
The Gospel also speaks of the way, through Jesus, God provides for our spiritual needs. The purpose of these signs is not to demonstrate God’s power over the physical world, but to bring people back into a relationship of faith, trust, and acceptance of God’s rule in their lives.
Through Jesus, God offers us a pattern for the way we should live in order to be satisfied spiritually. Jesus gives himself as the bread of life – an ordinary human being, transformed into something extraordinary and miraculous by the grace of God. He gives himself without limit. He gives himself without restriction, to the sinful and unworthy as much as to the faithful. He gives himself sacrificially, allowing himself to be ignored, abused and broken without retaliation.
If we adopt that way of living and believing, if we take Jesus into ourselves and feed on him in faith, then we will become like him, a gift to the whole world, the bread of life for others.