Although each of the gospel writers deals with some common material, each has their own style and each has somewhat different intentions in telling their story. John for example is strongly attracted to metaphor and seems to delight in poetic expression. Unlike the other gospel writers, he is attracted to the more obscure miracles, spending far less time on Jesus’ direct teaching and more on conveying the important truths by relating Jesus’ enigmatic answers to simplistic questions.
The passage for today is vintage John. The scene finds Jesus almost literally pursued by a crowd who simply can’t seem to get enough of him, yet this same crowd is portrayed as including those who seem strangely naive in their questions. The crowd may or may not have witnessed the feeding of the five thousand but, at least according to John, apparently they have heard about it. From the way John tells it, they have probably at least also heard the rumours of Jesus calming the sea and walking on water, but their questions suggest they are simply baffled by his actions and words.
For example the crowd cannot even believe how he is now on the other side of the lake, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” they ask. Jesus tells them in effect they are missing the signs because as he sees it all they have really cared about is that he recently organized to feed them. This, Jesus says, is not the sort of food they should really be after, since ordinary food doesn’t last. Rather, he says, the focus for their quest should really be “for the food that endures for eternal life.” Again the crowd appears to misunderstand and instead wonder what they might do to achieve the same results as Jesus with his strange and wonderful acts.
Again Jesus is anything but direct. “Believe in the one God has sent” is in effect his answer. “Can you show signs like our ancestors received?” they persist. “Like for instance Moses giving them manna in the desert.” “That wasn’t Moses” says Jesus, “that was God acting. Anyway, the true bread from heaven is the bread that gives life.” “And how do we get that?” comes the inevitable question.
Then comes Jesus’ extraordinary and memorable answer.
“I am the bread of life”, says Jesus “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry”.
It might be a mistake to rush too quickly to assume those questions John says came from the crowd are necessarily the questions of the stupid or slow witted. Think about it. Questions like “Who is this man really?” and “Can we have a share in his same gifts?” are actually standard typical questions that still appear to (and I even think should) puzzle many, even today. The standard answers to these questions that we often hear like: Jesus is the son of God – and – we will be saved by our faith and/or perhaps – known by our works – may well have scriptural verses to support them and may indeed sound good in Church but those same answers can become curiously irrelevant when we are at work or down at the shopping centre.
Which brings us to Jesus and the statement: “I am the bread of life”
Although it may sound at first hearing that Jesus is deliberately evading the questions with his obscure answers, there is another way of thinking of his words. The crowd has after all discerned that Jesus has something in his actions that sets him apart. When he says he does not so much bring bread but rather is the bread what I suspect he is really saying is that he doesn’t so much bring the message as he is the message. There is a ring of authenticity about that.
A televangelist who thunders about sin but has an affair with his secretary or siphons off the donations of the faithful into his own bank account, may in fact be using direct quotations from the Jesus and the writers of the Bible in his public address, yet despite using exactly the same words as Jesus, he or she is rightly dismissed as a hypocrite because they are not living my their message. The quiet little old lady who is thoughtful, kind and loving to her neighbours may not have a hope of getting all her Bible quotes word perfect, and may well be unable to use a microphone at all, let alone address a TV audience with confidence, yet her witness will be seen as authentic because she is her message.
Living in what for much of the rest of the world sees as luxury, we in the wealthy West probably don’t really grasp what bread meant to those in Jesus’ audience. In a typical Western supermarket, the shelves are stacked with a huge variety of food. Yet in many places of the world there is only one staple food. In much of Asia the food for necessity is rice – usually brown, unpolished rice. In first century Palestine it was mainly unleavened bread. In New Guinea it is often yams, or for the lucky, pork, coconut and fish. But whatever the staple food – it is the food that keeps starvation at bay.
There is of course one part of Jesus message which can be and often is misinterpreted. When Jesus says don’t work for the food which is perishable, in context he is almost certainly not saying, therefore forget about perishable food. After all a little earlier in John’s gospel he is recorded as feeding the five thousand. Fish and bread are indeed perishable food. On another occasion he was recorded as cooking fish on the seashore for his disciples.
What however he seems to be reminding us, is that food – particularly basic food in a physical sense – may be fine in its place but like other things we might seek, when the merely physical becomes our main focus and we see it as the main or even the only purpose of our effort, we are in danger of losing our perspective. Whatever takes our main focus and attention becomes our life.
You may be familiar with the old Danish folktale of the greedy spider. The spider in the barn spun this magnificent web. First he dropped a thread from the ceiling and from there set out to weave the most magnificent web. Initially the web trapped only a few flies so the spider made the web a little bigger – and as more insects were trapped the spider got fatter and fatter. The food gathering became an obsession and every day the greedy spider would figure out new ways of making the web more efficient and larger. He would remove any ineffective parts that were not working as food gatherers and place new threads where they were most likely to succeed. Finally one day the spider looked up at the thread hanging from the ceiling. Never once has this caught an insect, he said to himself. Reaching up he cut the thread. The web collapsed along with the spider who fell to the floor where he died, crushed under the hoof of the farmer’s horse.
I am sure we can all think of a human equivalent. Perhaps the most obvious equivalent of that hungry spider are simply those who forget the direction of the most important source of life, of action and of support, and instead focus on feeding their appetites with whatever comes to hand.
Traditionally politicians who wish to stay in power exploit this greed. Back in the times of the early Christian Church the Roman Emperors distracted the attention of the crowds with bread and circuses. Today the more subtle version is to woo and distract the electorate with visions of improved amenities, offer tax breaks for the rich and set up trade barriers and immigration barriers to prevent third world countries from sharing our wealth.
Jesus appears to be inviting us to change the direction of our attention, and instead put our main search into everything he stands for as our principal goal and purpose. To work for the food that offers eternal life may be metaphor but in no way can it be interpreted as passive. When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” and tells us that we should work for that bread, it then becomes a call to action.
In one sense, attention to the bread of life or for that matter directing our focus to the heaven directed supportive thread should also help attend to some day-to-day realities. Working towards a goal does not in practice mean that we should expect to reach that goal completely. The real world is a little short on those fully deserving the title of saint. Yet short of shutting ourselves away from the world as a hermit saint, in practice it seems that without being fanatical it should be possible at least settle on attempting to live with a positive direction rather than chasing the illusion of rainbows of self gratification.
This is not to say we shouldn’t be taking a good hard look at areas of real life where a re-orientation is sorely needed. It is simply a fact that more than enough food is able to be produced to sustain the world’s population yet it is also true that many starve.
And why? Simply I guess it is that too many of us are focused on our own appetites rather than on the needs of others, or for that matter, seriously working for the other principles that Jesus lived. To partake of what Jesus called heavenly food is to take Jesus and all he stands for into our thinking and living and that includes accepting his attitudes to others. The challenge is to make that thinking our thinking. I have seen that same message in the lives of some others and I guess you have too, but the real question for my conscience is what others will see in me. For whatever I am is my message, just as whatever you are will speak more convincingly than any words.
Jesus called himself the bread of life and when we seek communion we seek to partake of that same bread. Jesus is the bread of life, and looking at his example and the example of those who have taken him at his word we can see it is a form of sustenance worth working for. How we now react to his offer to seek this bread and to the extent we allow it to become part of our lives will be our offer to others.