Apparently in the first or early 2nd century BC Roman politicians figured out that the easiest way to gain and keep political power was by bringing in a form of unemployment benefit. Free bread for the plebians, along with mass entertainment, kept them from getting too dissatisfied with the political classes who used their power to serve their own ends. It was the Roman poet Juvenal, around the end of the first century AD, who coined the famous phrase, bread and circuses. Juvenal complained that with full bellies and endless distraction in the Colosseum, the lower classes had succumbed to laziness and ignorance - they were no longer interested in engaging with the issues of the day.
This phrase came to my mind when I read the Gospel for today, with Jesus leading the crowd towards an understanding of bread not just as what fills your tummy but as the food you need for your soul. Because it’s a reading that raises some real questions in a world where too many people are missing out on both kinds.
Although it is the year of Mark we have digressed, and are in our first of five weeks working our way through chapter six of John’s Gospel: yes, five weeks of reading about bread! You will remember that last week we heard Mark’s version of the feeding of the 5,000 and now we have skipped over into John’s Gospel for a reflection on what it all means. Theologically.
I might have mentioned before that in John’s Gospel a miracle is not just a miracle because it always has a deep structure that reveals something about who Jesus is. In the Fourth Gospel miracles are described as signs. The bread is not just bread. But at the same time, as we read through the Chapter of Bread in St John’s Gospel, we come to an understanding of the God we not just believe in, but taste and see and smell and touch. Because the heart of the matter is not God in the abstract but the Incarnation - the God who becomes flesh who we encounter in the physical realities of our lives. So perhaps the bread of heaven really is bread!
In today’s passage Jesus is unpacking the meaning of the sign, and maybe the easiest way of understanding what is happening in this conversation is to remember that two chapters earlier, in chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, we heard a very similar conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well. There the conversation was about living water.
But to begin at the beginning, the crowd that Jesus has just fed - or some of them at least - get in their boats and cross the Sea of Galilee trying to track him down. And Jesus tells them they’ve got it all wrong. Did you come here because you want more bread? No, what you really want is not just the food that fills your belly but the food that gives eternal life. First he tells them he can give them this bread, then he says that to have the food that gives eternal life they must believe in the one sent by God. It sounds as though he is shifting their understanding away from the physical to a spiritual sort of bread. But their response shows they are starting to understand because they make the connection between Jesus’ miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes with God’s provision to their ancestors of manna in the desert. This is the same sort of halfway understanding that the woman of Samaria came to when she remembered the miracle of Jacob who found water in the desert.1
Both the Samaritan woman and the crowd in today’s story start to make the link to who Jesus is for them by remembering stories of God’s faithfulness in the history of their people. But Jesus needs them to see that in the Word made flesh God is up to something new. And so he nudges them forward again: "Remember? The bread your ancestors ate was from God. The bread that comes from God gives life to the world." It’s much the same thing that Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in the story in chapter four, "the water that I will give you will give eternal life." And like the woman of Samaria, the crowd now recognise that Jesus has something they need. "Oh", they say, again echoing the words of the woman at the well, "give us this bread always"!
And then Jesus says to them, raising the stakes: "I AM the bread of life." Notice the "I AM"? Which as we know by now in this Gospel is always a shorthand way of indicating that here we are witnessing the oneness of Jesus with his Father whose personal name in the Hebrew Bible is "I AM". The bread of life is the bread of heaven, and we receive it in the person of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.
And then, in a final echo of the woman at the well, "whoever believes in me will never be hungry or thirsty." What the stories of their ancestors tell them God provided in the desert - water and bread - are given a new meaning and a new reality in Jesus. And here actually is both the promise and the problem with this passage in a world where all too many people are literally hungry and thirsty - a world where every day thousands of women, men and children die of hunger. Both the world of the first century and the world of the 21st century are worlds of inequality, of gross overindulgence and desperate need. Offering spiritual food, however well-meant, is worse than useless to people who don’t have enough to meet their daily needs.
So, how is this text good news to those who don’t have enough? Because if it isn’t good news to them, then it isn’t good news at all. Theologian William Willimon offers both inspiration and a wise note of caution, reminding us that Jesus the bread of heaven is not just the Word of God but the Word made flesh. What this means, he says, is that "the spiritual is incarnational, tied to the stuff of this life, made present, right here and now." He suggests that we come to the table hungry in more ways than one, and leave it commanded to feed a world that is hungry in more ways than one.
The God who comes to us in our own flesh and blood promises to meet our deepest need, as human creatures whose desires and needs are always experienced bodily. Souls are not separate from bodies, not in the ancient world and not in our 21st century world either. As Jesus was inseparably both truly God and truly human, so are we creatures truly made both in the image both of God and of the earth. When Willimon claims that Christian spirituality is incarnational, what that means is that the bread of heaven also needs our hands to share and serve it.
Have you ever noticed that in John’s Gospel there is no story of Jesus breaking the bread and pouring the wine at the Last Supper? We get that story in the other Gospels, and a different version of it in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But today’s passage is central to our understanding of the Eucharist, because it shows us the depth of meaning in the claim that the bread we share is the body of Christ. It shows us the depth of self-giving love that is behind this claim, and it reminds us that as we share the bread of heaven at the Lord’s table we receive his life. We are reminded that in sharing the bread of life we are joined to one another - not just intellectually, or as a moral duty, but organically. And in the same way we are joined with all who hunger for the bread of life.
Perhaps it sounds as though too much is being asked? The need is overwhelming and nothing we could do would ever be enough. But the other good news about incarnation - ours as well as Jesus’ - is that we can only be in one place at a time. We need to serve those whose lives intersect with our own, we need to think about how we can serve the community around us. We are just being asked to love, one person at a time, in ways that are useful and practical. Bread is bread.
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1 John 4.12
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