It wouldn’t be an exaggeration for me to say that I spent several hours contemplating today’s Gospel before I even began to think about writing my sermon. I really struggle with this passage from John. I struggle because Jesus seems to berate the crowd who followed him. They were poor folk who struggled to make ends meet, and would be familiar with hunger. The previous day, Jesus had fed them, miraculously, with bread and fish. Clearly, today they were hoping for a repeat performance – they were getting hungry again. Who can blame them? Jesus says, ‘You’re only following me because you got free food’. You need to be looking for the sort of bread that, when you eat it, you’ll never be hungry again.
When the hungry people ask for some of this food, Jesus says that it’s him ‘I am the bread of life. If you eat me you won’t be hungry.’ So he’s talking about spiritual food – the bread of the Eucharist. It seems to me to be distasteful to be talking about spiritual food to people who are physically hungry. It’s also quite confusing – as if Jesus is twisting their words and deliberately giving the wrong answers. I’ve never been comfortable with the sort of faith which is abstracted from everyday life.
So, how can we make sense of what is being said?
The gospel readings at this time of year in this particular cycle of readings (year B) are a spiritual and mystical reflection on the Eucharist from John’s Gospel.
Last week, we celebrated the feast day of St James, so we missed out on the story of the feeding of the five thousand. It’s a familiar story – perhaps so familiar that we forget how miraculous and amazing it is. The gift of a small child blessed and broken and shared with thousands, with plenty left over.
That event is the foundation of today’s reading, when the crowd comes hoping for more bread but gets something different.
So, how to unpick it all.
I think we need to remember that Jesus has already fed the crowd. He has already shown us that he is concerned about poverty and hunger. On the story of the feeding of the five thousand is based 2000 years of Christian concern for feeding the hungry. We can see the beginnings of this in the pages of the New Testament itself, with a collection for the poor and hungry church in Jerusalem. Our patron, St Oswald gave from his wealth to give to the poor people at his door. The monastic communities of the middle ages gave food to anyone who came to their doors, and medicine for the sick. This Christian practice has found its way into our culture – compassion is still generally held to be a virtue, even if you’re not a believer. Remember Band Aid? Think of Children in Need. This tradition is now, perhaps under threat – people tend to believe in looking after themselves and their own. Our government has just cut the aid budget by 28%. No matter what our views on this, there is no doubt that it is a departure from Jesus’ practice, and from the Christian and humanitarian traditions that have grown from it.
So, Jesus has already shown us his practical concern the feeding of the hungry. In today’s reading the theme of bread is developed. Essentially Jesus is saying, ‘I’m concerned for your physical wellbeing, but I’m also concerned for your spiritual wellbeing.’ But what he gives isn’t anything like a popular self-help book about how to become more self-fulfilled. Ultimately what he gives is himself. But what he gives today is a challenge: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. Yes, he’s saying, food is important – essential, but it’s not everything. There’s something else. There’s your spirit, your soul. How will you feed that?
This is a moment of challenge for the crowd. They ask for a sign, which tends to make us shake our heads in disbelief. Jesus has just fed 5 thousand people from 5 bread rolls. How many signs do you need? They ask, What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? Something is lost in translation here. What is actually said is, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe into you? This is to do with what we might call ‘belonging’, to do with allegiance. For the crowd, following Jesus wasn’t as simple as going to church on Sunday. They were asking for a sign, because they were being presented with a decision – were they going to become followers of Jesus, not just because he could feed them with miraculous bread, but because of what the implications of this were.
Were they going to cast their lot for this man who claimed to be sent by God, the one who claimed he could give food for eternal life.’ Or no? Believing ‘into’ was to do with becoming a member of a new group of people in a prevailing culture where you normally only belonged to the group of people you were born into. Anything else was either presumptuous (getting ideas above your station) or unfortunate (becoming a leper). Believing ‘into’ was a big step for these folk, and they wanted to make double sure before they took it.
It’s worth reflecting on that ourselves, from time to time. Although feeding the hungry is important, indeed an essential part of our faith, it isn’t the whole story. We are also the followers of the man who called himself the Bread of Life, the True Bread, the Living Bread, the Son of God. We are the followers of the man who gave himself on the cross for our salvation: the one who died and rose again: the one who forgives our sins: the one who gives eternal life.
In general we know that material things are important but not everything – to base life entirely on material things leaves one empty and looking for more. But occasionally we need to revisit the ‘particular’ which is Jesus – he is the one we have decided to follow ‘into’, the one we must actively choose: he is the Bread from Heaven, who meets us in the most simple but most profound bread of our Eucharist – our Holy Communion.