There is food that perishes and food that endures. In our age there are many ways to preserve food. From tin cans and jars to fridges and freeze drying. Still I occasionally discover things in my fridge that are too old to be used safely. Or even worse, other members of the family sometimes point them out to me.
Foods are perishable and so is the feeling of satisfaction that they cause. Before you know it you are hungry and thirsty again. Now there is nothing wrong with this. It is the way we were created and the way we are able to enjoy life, if we have enough, that is. Suppose one meal would last us for the rest of our life. We would not be able to enjoy other flavours and smells and textures and colours. But perhaps that is a luxury problem. I suppose the really hungry would be glad to have such a meal that stilled their hunger once and for all.
Now the story that is told about Jesus and the bread of heaven is clearly not about ordinary food. It is about spiritual food and salvation. As Jesus will explain in verse 63, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life”. So let us examine the characteristics of our spiritual hunger and this spiritual food.
The scene is set by the fact that Jesus has just been feeding the 5000. The crowd had been following Jesus to see the signs that he was doing. And John acknowledges in his gospel that the feeding of the 5000 was yet another sign. The crowd was so impressed that they were about to force Jesus to become their king. And Jesus ran away.
Now why was that? Was he not the promised Messiah, descendant of David? Yes he was. But to understand this, we must go back right to the installation of the first king. The people of Israel had asked for a king because the neighbouring peoples had one. They thought it would offer them more protection and welfare, guidance and stability. We know from history that that would not always be the case. Hence God only reluctantly allowed kings to take the place of the prophets and the judges.
When we describe God or Jesus as our king, we sometimes forget this. The word “king” is only a title, an image, that may have good or bad connotations. It is supplemented by many other images, for instance that of father and son. In any case, Christ made it clear that he is a totally different kind of king. In Luke 22 he says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” And Jesus practiced what he preached, because his behaviour was more that of a servant than that of a king. Apart from the signs he performed he seemed so ordinary that he was constantly underestimated. Sometimes his own disciples needed to get a glimpse of his divinity. In our lectionary, tomorrow is the day we remember the Transfiguration. I could have chosen that as our theme for today. But the danger of focussing too much on the transfiguration is that we think this finally reveals to us the real Jesus. Whereas Jesus as servant or teacher is just as real and just as important. And isn’t it interesting that in the story of the mount of transfiguration Jesus appears not as king, but as one of the great prophets, besides Moses and Elijah? Jesus is not concerned so much with being called a king or a benefactor. He is concerned with being a benefactor.
Now let us return to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. When the crowds finally catch up with Jesus they ask him how long he has been hiding. He looks into their hearts and knows that they have come for material reasons. Although our story says they were looking for signs, they did not actually see any signs. To them, the miracle had no meaning apart from taking away their literal hunger.
Then Jesus tells them to work for the food that endures for eternal life, which he will give. Note that this food is both a gift and something we must work for. But not work in the usual sense. Jesus explains that this work consists of faith in him. To have faith can sometimes be hard work indeed. For as soon as Jesus asks for faith, the people ask for another sign, showing again that they have not seen the sign that Jesus performed before their very eyes. Not as a real sign, anyway.
So what, according to them, is a real sign? They come up with the example of Moses and the manna in the desert.
(1) First of all the manna was given for a much longer period than the bread for the 5000.
(2) Secondly, it looked mysterious, which you could not say about Jesus’ bread.
(3) Thirdly, it came from Moses, who was an actual leader for the whole people of Israel.
Unfortunately they are getting all these things wrong. They are making some old and really fundamental mistakes, which keep coming back. To think that blessings come from charismatic leaders or from a (church) organisation. Sometimes such leaders are treated as infallible emissaries of God.
Nowadays devout Jews still regard Moses as a symbol and prime example of spirituality.
But in difficult times people can also treat such leaders as the cause of all their misery,
as our first reading from Exodus shows. And yet other times such leaders may even seriously disgrace the message they preach by their conduct.
Jesus corrects the crowd: “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven”. Notice there is both a shift from Moses to the Father of our Lord and from the past to the present tense.
The true bread from heaven is given much longer than the 40 years in the desert. And the true bread from heaven is much more mysterious than the feeding of the 5000 suggests.
Finally, it is never a human invention, but originates from the eternal creator himself.
But the most difficult part for the crowd was perhaps when Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. It effectually forced them to make up their mind about the spiritual food Jesus provided there and then. They were not allowed to dwell too much on the history of their people. They were not allowed to dwell too much on their possible future hunger. They were drawn to the mysterious Christ, fountain and channel of eternal sustenance here and now.
Yet this truth was already foreshadowed in the events during the 40 years the desert. As you will remember, the manna could not be kept until the next day. It taught the people to rely on God’s mercies day by day. Whoever thought they could somehow gather more than they needed and form a supply would be sorely disappointed. It simply was not possible to get guarantees for the future.
And so it is today, both materially and spiritually. People who withdraw vast amounts of money from the economy, will find sooner or later that it doesn’t make anyone happy. People who wish to survive on spiritual lessons from the past only, and not be continually fed by the Holy Spirit and inspired by the mysterious rain of wisdom that is still falling all around us, will find that the worms have eaten their most precious insights and traditions. The only way to cash in on Jesus’ promise that we will never be hungry is to keep believing that He will provide ever new insights and strength and miracles. It is this trust in Him which is at the heart of our own development.
Finally, I believe it is no accident that our lectionary has given us the letter to the Ephesians
to go with the story of the manna and the bread of heaven. St. Paul starts by acknowledging “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all”.
But then he explains that after Jesus ascended to heaven, there was a shower of gifts on his people. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
And so we are meant to grow partly but significantly through the gifts of others. We cannot survive on lessons from the past alone, or on our own discoveries alone, or on physical bread alone. When Jesus is tempted by the devil, he quotes from Deuteromy 8: “Men shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” This refers to old and new prophets and teachers. God still speaks to us in many ways.
And this is not an optional extra to keep us entertained. It is our essential nurture.
It is the way to stay spiritually alert and alive. My God grant that we will ever remain receptive and recognize the bread of heaven in the scriptures, in the sacraments, in creation, in prayer and contemplation, and in the lives and words of our faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who are part of the body Christ, given for us.