Preacher Revd Neil Summers
In John’s Gospel, there are several ‘I am’ sayings attributed to Jesus – I am the door, the good shepherd, the vine, the resurrection and the life and, today, I am the bread of life. Few images would have been more potent than bread for John’s audience. And, because John probably had the beginnings of a sacramental approach to bread in mind, foreshadowing the Eucharist, few images are as potent for succeeding generations of Christians also. In John, Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst’.
Now according to this Gospel writer, people often misunderstood what Jesus said, and they repeatedly asked the wrong questions. Some commentators see this as simply a literary device, John’s unique way of telling his story. He portrays most people as getting hold of the wrong end of the stick, with Jesus then putting them right; that’s the way he keeps his Gospel account moving. It’s certainly the case that John recasts the story of Jesus in his own style: his Gospel is markedly different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. However inventive his method, though, the crowd’s failure to grasp what Jesus means is surely not something John just makes up. There would be something quite condescending in seeing the role of the crowds as fodder, there merely to ask daft questions and make inept comments, effectively turning them into comedians’ stooges – as if we knew any better what Jesus means when he says, ‘I am the bread of life’.
Having witnessed the feeding of 5000, the crowd now seek out Jesus in the hope of something more – that is, a steady supply of miraculous food. No wonder they were drawn by the thought of miracle bread that would last forever – the ultimate in long-life bread. After an extensive amount of Jesus talking about one thing and the people thinking he is talking about another, eventually Jesus reveals that what he is really talking about is himself: not bread that you can carry off, hide in a breadbin and use for yourself, but something that provides ongoing sustenance. What he seems to be challenging the crowd to think about is what it is that truly sustains their lives and the world around them – a challenge that equally lies before us today. The crowd had become excited and pursued Jesus after experiencing the loaves and fish, but that nourishment would soon pass, causing them to be hungry again. Maybe Jesus was trying to show the crowd that their vision was too small, too short-term, and therefore ultimately unsatisfying. He was urging them to think beyond lunchtime, leading them towards an entirely different kind of food – metaphorical, maybe, but best quality, eternally lasting, deeply sustaining. And since he refers to himself as the bread of life, the obvious implication is that it is a life lived in the Jesus way that provides real nourishment for individuals and for the world.
Of course, the problem is that then, as now, we can be notoriously bad at choosing quality, tempted instead by convenient fast food options. It is an odd quirk of the human make-up that many of us often seem almost congenitally unable to choose those things that are best for us. Even saying that phrase – ‘best for us’ – instils a desire to rebel against the nanny state and the health experts, whose opinions and advice seem to change as often as the direction of the wind anyway!
So often, the stuff that promises comfort turns out to be unsatisfying, leaving in its wake a sense of deep emptiness which just grows and grows. What the crowd thought they most needed was physical nourishment; what Jesus was apparently trying to get them to see was that food is symbolic of a greater need. The sustenance that he provides is not instead of normal food, but over and beyond it. John’s point is that the nourishment that Jesus offers fills that broader hunger that lies deep down at the very core of many of our lives and the problems that beset us.
Jesus, the bread of life, puts an alternative before us. Now I’m not trying to suggest, in a saccharine way, that Jesus will solve our problems and make us happy. I don’t think that is John’s point either. Instead, what I think that Jesus was trying to draw our attention to is this deeper question about nourishment. We, like the crowd that followed Jesus, can so easily be tempted towards those things that cannot, with the best will in the world, fill the nagging hungers that lie deep within us. To the crowd who pursued Jesus with such passion, and to us here today, two questions resound: What is it that makes us achingly hungry? And what might fill our need? Jesus did provide an answer, in the somewhat enigmatic words: ‘I am the bread of life’. It is symbolic language, pointing to a life centred not on what we want, or even think we need, but on Jesus himself, who sets before us the bread of life. His life was one which enabled the people around him to flourish, because he championed a more just society that prioritised the welfare of others, and enabled people to overcome the things that held them back from achieving their full human potential. If we allow our lives to be fed by his life, the world could be a very different place and we will discover – sometimes to our surprise – our deepest needs met, our yearnings fulfilled and our hunger satisfied on every level.
The crowd’s misconceived questions are our questions, too, not least that key one, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus’s response is brief and apparently simple: What matters is that you believe in the one God has sent to you, with all that implies for how you live your life, treat other people and order your society. I reckon, therefore, Jesus’s words are more than just a statement of who he is. They are telling us, his aspiring followers, what to do.