Bread. Think about all the different types of bread there are—the mundane, for example, the ironically-named “wonder bread.” Or what passes for bread in our celebrations of the eucharist—little discs of hard, tasteless, baked wheat. Think of the best bread you’ve ever had—home-baked right out of the oven, or crusty French baguette, eaten with olive oil and a glass of wine. Bread comes in many shapes and sizes, made with thousands of different ingredients, deriving from vastly different cultures and culinary traditions. Life without bread is unimaginable, even for those who are gluten-intolerant, or have celiac disease. There are breads made for them as well. Like wonder bread or the hosts we use in the Eucharist, bread can be industrialized and standardized. But at its best bread reflects the baker, the ingredients, the oven, and the community in which it is baked and the community which, when bread is broken, it creates.
In the first lesson, the reading from Exodus, we encounter a very strange kind of bread. The Israelites have fled from Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and now they are camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai (called Horeb) in this text, where they will receive the 10 commandments and other laws. But they aren’t happy campers. Things are rough, and some of them are looking back with nostalgia on the life they left behind in Egypt. Yes, they may have been slaves, but at least they had food, drink and shelter. Never mind that the God who called them out of Egypt had unleashed a series of deadly plagues, fought on their behalf at the Red Sea drowning the Egyptian army. The present was difficult, the future uncertain, and the people were hungry, thirsty, and tired. No doubt if you’ve ever been camping with your family, you know this dynamic.
In response, God provides them with their daily bread and with quails for sustenance. The bread is called manna, which is derived from the Hebrew words for “What is it?”—the question they asked when they saw it for the first time in the morning. The manna appeared six days a week, with enough on the sixth day to provide food for the Sabbath as well. When the Hebrews experimented by gathering more than they needed for one day, they discovered that it spoiled overnight. Thus, the theme in John 6 about the bread that perishes and the bread that lives forever.
In the Psalm, we see reflection on that earlier story:
So mortals ate the bread of angels; *
he provided for them food enough.
Later, it reads, God gave them what they craved. In the ancient world, where what we call food insecurity was the reality, not for 20 or 30% of the population, but probably for 90%, the notion of having enough food to eat, eating and being filled, was a powerful image indeed. The petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread” was not pious platitude; it was necessary. In John 6, the crowd had good reason to follow after Jesus—it wasn’t just their desire to see another miracle, or get a free meal, it was the prospect of once again, eating until they were full.
As another example of the way John works with texts from the Hebrew Bible, this discussion of the miraculous appearance of manna provides a backdrop for the dialogue between Jesus and the crowd. And in the course of it, Jesus points out the obvious, it wasn’t Moses who fed the Hebrews in the wilderness, it was God.
Let’s recap, yesterday (to use the gospel’s chronology, but last Sunday for us), Jesus miraculously fed 5000 people. In response, the crowd proclaimed first that Jesus was the prophet, “the one who was to come into the world” and then decided to proclaim him king. Overnight, there was another miracle or sign, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water as they crossed back over the Sea of Galilee, and when they arrived on the shore, he was already there.
Today, the crowd has caught up to him. Why wouldn’t they chase after him? After all, they got a free meal the day before, and who knows, he might do the same thing today> And as crowds so often are, not just in scripture but in real life, this crowd is rather fickle. Yesterday, they called Jesus prophet and king. Today, it’s just rabbi—although that’s an important term in itself. Teacher, it means literally in Hebrew, especially, teacher, or scholar of the law. But it’s a contemporary term, an emerging contemporary title, not an ancient one, not one with the traditional authority of prophet or king. So it’s rather a come-down.
Typical of dialogues in the Gospel of John, the dialogue here is rather confusing. It’s pretty clear that the crowd and Jesus are talking past each other. At the same time, the words on the page have multiple meanings and are interpreted differently by the different parties in the conversation.
Jesus responds to the crowd’s first question with a put-down of his own. Basically, he says, “you’ve come after me, not because of what I said or did, but because you got a free lunch.”
Jesus pushes them to reflect on the miracle, on himself, and on God. But as is so often the case, the crowd, like we ourselves, wants easy answers. We want spectacle, no meaning; we want our immediate needs satisfied. We want proof. So the crowd asks, “What sign will you give us?”—forgetting that, twenty-four hours earlier, they had eaten and had been satisfied.
How often are we like the crowd, in our prayers asking God to give us something, basing our faith on God’s delivering us what we want? How often does is our faith shaken when things don’t go the way we want them, when we struggle while others succeed? How often do we want God to give us a sign?
But Jesus pushes the crowd, and us. “You want bread?” he asks. “Here is the bread: But the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Those of us reading the gospel are invited to reflect not just on these words but on the very beginning of the gospel—“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Jesus is, of course, speaking of himself, but the crowd doesn’t get it. Nor should they, really. It’s not like Jesus is speaking clearly. Rather, like so much of what Jesus says in John, his words are full of meaning, fairly bursting with meaning, like freshly baked bread bursting with flavor.
And the crowd doesn’t really get it, even though they know there’s something in what Jesus is saying that beckons them—So they ask, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Their request is an echo of what the Samaritan woman said to Jesus at the well a couple of chapters earlier, when she and Jesus were talking about water. He was speaking of the water that springs up to eternal life, and she responded with a plea that he give her that water so that she would never be thirsty or have to come to the well to get it.
Here Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Think about bread. About those ordinary ingredients—flour, yeast, water that transform into a delicious crusty loaf. Think of how it sounds as you break open a loaf, the crumbs falling away to reveal the soft interior. Think of it as you put it in your mouth, the crunch of the crust, the chewiness of it. Think of the conversation around a table as bread is broken and conversation shared. Bread is daily life, food. It represents our physical needs, but it also represents so much more.
I am the Bread of life, Jesus says. An ordinary image from daily life, transformed, filled with meaning. We can’t figure it out. We can’t fix its meaning once and for all. Jesus invites us to his table. He offers us bread. Sometimes, it’s just bread, but it may also be much more. He invites us to taste and see, to experience, to open ourselves to encounter with him, to the bread of life. Sometimes, the bread we eat is the bread of angels. Can we taste it? Will it nourish us?