The readings for today can be found here:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
You know, we people, we the people of God, have a funny relationship with food. We have a biblical relationship with food. And it goes back a long, long way. When we were expelled from the garden of Eden, it was because we wanted to eat the food that God had not blessed for our use. Reaching far back into the Bible, both human and divine covenants were sealed with a ritual meal. The principle Old Testament story of deliverance, the Exodus, is celebrated in the ritual meal of the Passover.
Some of us really like to eat, some of us can’t stand to eat, and some of us are eating ourselves to death. And when we don’t eat, even at the cellular level, our body sends us a message: “We are dying here.” Remember back in the book of Genesis, when Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright? Essau comes in from working in the field, and smells the red stew his brother has prepared. He is famished and says, “I am dying.”
I have a confession to make to you. And it’s something of which I’m not very proud. I have never been hungry in my life. Oh sure, there’ve been moments when I wanted to eat. But there was always food there. Even when I’ve fasted for a day or so, there’s always been food there. I may have abstained from eating for a while, but I’ve never been more than a few steps away from a meal.
It was not so in Jesus’ time for most people. Most people not only knew real hunger; it was their constant companion. That’s what it means to live in a subsistence economy—never being more than a meal or two away from serious trouble. And that’s why the feeding of the 5,000 and the story of Jesus healing and teaching there had such a powerful appeal to the earliest Christians. And thus, all four gospel writers included that story in their attempts to explain who Jesus was. For people who lived their lives plagued by hunger, that’s a big deal. That’s…well, that’s dinner and a show. And today’s gospel takes place right after the feeding of the multitudes.
I have another confession to make to you. I think John’s gospel may well be my favorite among the four gospels. It’s the most poetic, it’s the most philosophical, and it’s the richest, with one layer of meaning piled onto another. And in John’s gospel, the conversation is never really about what the conversation is about.
So, when John tells the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus and this woman have a conversation about water, but it’s not. And today, although the conversation is about bread, that’s not really what Jesus is talking about. In today’s Gospel, as in last week’s, we find the people looking for Jesus. And I think many of us today are still looking for him. We look for him to come down and stop all this nonsense. We look for him to stop the church burnings, stop us from treating this fragile planet like a toilet, stop the demonizing of the poor. Lord, when are you going to stop us from shooting the lions? When are you going to stop us from shooting the people? And we wonder, “Lord, where are you?” And just like us, the people in this gospel have a lot of questions.
A good deal of today’s reading is about questions and answers. And often, the question Jesus answers is not the question they asked. I don’t think that arises because Jesus didn’t understand them. I think they, like us, were often asking the wrong questions. Jesus has fed the five thousand, and the people are still struggling to figure out what all this means. But as they ask questions, and Jesus answers, we get the feeling they aren’t really talking about the same thing.
For example, the people ask Jesus when he crossed the sea, when he got there. Jesus answers them, kind of. He says, you’re not looking for me because you saw signs of the Kingdom of God, but because you ate your fill of food. They’re following Jesus, but he invites them to examine why they’re doing that. He invites them to examine their motives. It calls to mind something the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Murder in the Cathedral about the perpetual shortcoming of us religious people: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
Jesus tells them, “Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that will endure forever.” I think we all spend a lot of our time working for the food that perishes. We work to pay for houses that will crumble, cars that will rust, clothes that will be packed away or thrown out. Like that crowd, we want security. Maybe that’s what we expect from our religion, too. But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus is offering us. How much of our work do we devote to eternity, to the life of the Spirit which we received at baptism?
And so the people want to know, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Again, Jesus’ answer suggests a conversational near-miss. He tells them, God’s work consists in believing in the one God sent. In other words, it’s not so much about what you have to do, it’s more about who you trust, who you’re willing to become.
And so, the people ask for a sign: if we’re going to believe in you, you need to show us a sign that you’re the one God sent. Now, it’s worth putting this request in context. By this point, Jesus has already changed the water into wine in Cana, healed a boy in Capernaum, healed a lame man at the pool near the Sheep Gate, fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and walked across the sea in a storm. We might wonder, “Exactly what kind of a sign are you looking for?” In John’s gospel, the signs largely go unseen. But that’s part of the richness of this gospel: people watch what Jesus is doing, but they don’t have any idea what it means. They look, but they don’t understand—they don’t really see.
And then the people suggest, you know, we’re looking for a real sign, something like Moses did. And Jesus reminds them about the manna in the desert: Moses didn’t do that at all. That came from God. Jesus tells them, “It is my father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” Everything we are, everything we have: it all comes from God. And until we get that, we’re never really going to understand Jesus.
Because then, just like now, the bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And Jesus isn’t really talking about bread here at all. I don’t think we can understand this passage without reading it along with the 4th chapter of John. You remember, the Samaritan woman who has a talk with Jesus about the water in the well.
And Jesus tells her, if you drink that, you’ll just be thirsty again later. But he offers her something else, something called “living water,” and says “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
And remember what she says? She says “Sir, give me this water.” So, when Jesus tells the people in today’s gospel that the bread of God gives life to the world what do the people respond? “Sir, give us this bread always.” But, something tells me they still don’t get it. Something tells me they still want that bread they had up on the mountaintop. They might want the bread, and think he can give them the bread, but they’re not ready to accept that he is the bread.
Jesus tells them, “I am the bread of life.” And when he says that, it resonates with the echo of the God who told Moses, I am who I am. Just like that crowd that day, we might question why we’re seeking Jesus. What are we looking for? In what ways are we just using Jesus, rather than getting to know him and learning to love him. The Jesus of today’s gospel is a gift from God that offers us new life.
Too often, we live for security: the comfort of a full belly and a wallet flush with cash. But there’s another way to live, in which we turn toward a real home, a place to abide. The living God is the only response to our souls, which are not just a little peckish, not just hollow, not just hungry, but are starving for new way to live. There is a way to live that looks beyond wealth and power and taking care of ourselves. It’s amazing how many people have climbed to the top of that heap and found it to be profoundly empty. If we let him, God will take this emptiness and fill our lives. There is a way to live that values two things above all else: loving God and loving his children. That way lies life, and life in abundance.
There is a way to live that sets asides our own concerns and looks to the needs of others and the needs of the world. That was the way of Jesus, the way he taught. And if we share in that life, we have a real communion with our Lord. Then, we will find a real, holy communion.
So, when we’re called up to this altar in just a few moments, take and eat. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2015 James R. Dennis