Bread of Life: Hunger Strike

August 5, 2018/John 6:24-35


It always comes back to the loaves and fishes.

In John’s telling of the story, a little boy has brought along five barley loaves and two fish.  But in the crowd of people that has swarmed around Jesus, his lunch seems a pitiful amount.  “What are they among so many?” Andrew asks Jesus.

You know how the story goes.  Jesus tells everyone to have a seat.  He takes the loaves and, after giving thanks, he passes the bread around.  He does the same thing with the fish, telling the people to take as much as they want, until they are satisfied.

And when the disciples gather up the leftovers, they have enough bread to fill twelve baskets.  As the hymn says, “pass the Word around: loaves abound!”[1]

You would think the people would have recognized who had fed them, after this little demonstration, wouldn’t you?  “Jesus had given a sign that discloses something about God, but all they saw was a miracle that satisfied their appetite.”[2]  As one person said at our Bible study last week, “I think if I saw Jesus walk on water, I’d believe.”

Would you?

In today’s reading from John, Jesus and the disciples have left the crowds behind, but not for long.  John says “they themselves … went … looking for Jesus.”  But when they catch up with him, Jesus accuses them of following him not because of the signs they have seen but because he has filled their bellies.  The people have set their sights too low, Jesus seems to be saying.  They are focused on food for their bodies, which will rot and spoil, rather than on food for their spirits, which will last forever.  St. Chrysostom wrote, “By his words to them He was all but saying this, ‘It is not the miracle of the loaves that has struck you with wonder, but the being filled.’”[3]

The folk seem to understand the direction of the conversation, though.  Oh yes, Jesus, they respond.  We know all about bread from heaven.  Our ancestors ate manna that Moses gave them in the wilderness.  What about you?  What are you going to do for us?  What miracle will you perform to make us believe in you?

Jesus’ answer is likely not what they were expecting.  Once again, he points out, they’ve focused on the food that will nourish their physical bodies.  The true bread from heaven “gives life to the world,” Jesus tells them.

Well, okay.  They can get behind another loaves and fishes miracle.  “Give us this bread always,” they say.  But then Jesus pushes his point home: “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

We read this story and think, boy, these folk were pretty dense.  How could they not understand what Jesus was saying?  How could they not believe, given all that they had seen and heard – given the very real bread they had eaten only the day before?  But I wonder, how many of us would have gotten the message?  How many of us would have followed Jesus just to get what we needed, rather than following because we understood that he offered something that we hadn’t known we needed?

“Jesus challenges the people following him, flatly stating that they want him to keep their stomachs full and that they are missing the larger picture.  If they’re coming to get something for themselves, they’re following the wrong leader.”[4]

What about us?  Is it possible we’re not all that different from the crowd that followed Jesus to Capernaum?  Jesus fed them because he had compassion for their deep needs.  “He is not chastising them for seeking bread.  He is telling them he has so much more to give them.”[5]  Jesus in his own person offers eternal life – a life beginning now in which spiritual hunger and thirst are satisfied, in which life is abundant and bountiful.  And they don’t have to do anything to get it – they need only believe.

“We look for signs when Jesus gives us his very self.  We want bread that perishes, of course, but Jesus gives his body, the bread of life.  We want water, of course, but Jesus gives us his blood.  We seek the person who satisfied our hunger, but when we believe in Jesus the deepest longings of our heart are sated, too.”[6]

During the early days of the Protestant Reformation, churches argued about the nature of Christ’s body and blood as bread and wine served in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  In their efforts to understand how Jesus was present in the sacrament, Catholics and Protestants threw around big theological terms like transubstantiation and consubstantiation and simpler but equally confusing terms like “the real presence.”  “When John Calvin was asked to explain the Eucharist, he said that he would ‘rather experience it than to understand it.’

“Faith means encounter with a person, one who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6).  The one who speaks to us in this peculiarly metaphorical way is the one who desires not only that we think about him but that we feed on him, ingest him, implying that we could starve to death without him.”[7]

So let us come to the table and be fed.

[1] “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ,” Glory to God, 526

[2] Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John, 74

[3] Saint John Chrysostom: Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, Homilies 1-47, 443

[4] Rev. Thia Reggio, “Bread of Life: A look at the Lectionary for August,” Presbyterian Foundation, July 5, 2018

[5] Jill Duffield, “Question and Answer Time with Jesus in John’s Gospel,” Looking into the Lectionary, Presbyterian Outlook, July 30, 2018

[6] Ibid.

[7] William H. Willimon, Feasting on the Word B/3, 311-313

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