Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
– John 6:35, 41-51
Today’s gospel is a continuation of last week’s. It is the day after the feeding of the 5000. The 5000 have followed Jesus to a new location. Additionally, a new crowd has shown up and today we hear that the Jews have shown up. It is important to remember that when John speaks of “the Jews” he is referring to the religious authorities. He is not referring to the Jewish people, either individually or collectively. He is referring more to a status. He is describing the religious insiders of the day.
It is to this bunch of people – the 5000, the new crowd, and the Jews – that Jesus begins to explain the loaves and fish. The 5000 ate their fill of five loaves and two fish. What they did not realize is that Jesus was giving them himself in that bread and fish. The fullness of God’s life was contained in those five loaves and two fish. God’s life was placed in their hands and taken into their bodies. The very life of God satisfied, sustained, and nourished them. And yet they failed to make the connection between God’s presence and the loaves and fish.
So Jesus gets pretty direct with them. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” And this makes the Jews – the religious insiders – angry. They do not go to Jesus with their questions, or to seek an explanation or understanding. Instead they go to one another and begin complaining, grumbling, and murmuring about Jesus. “Can you believe what he said? Who does he think he is? Where does he come up with that stuff – claiming some heavenly connection? We know him – that is Jesus, Joseph’s boy. We know his mom and dad. He is not from heaven. He is from Nazareth.”
They are right. They do know him. Bu they know him through his parents and his hometown. They only know him through historical facts. Now there is nothing wrong with history. We need to know the facts but too often historical facts – about Jesus, another person, even our self – are used to control, narrow, and limit possibilities. The past is idealized and then projected as an ideal future.
You can almost hear the Jews saying, “We’ve never done it like this before. We have never seen or heard anything like this before. We have never tasted the bread of life. This just can’t be. You cannot say these things Jesus – we know you.” It is both amazing and sad that it is the Jews, the religious insiders, who do this. They go to synagogue, say their prayers, follow the law, and try to live faithfully. And yet they are the ones most resistant to free bread – the bread of grace, love, mercy; the bread of union, reconciliation, forgiveness; the bread of intimacy with God through Jesus Christ. Their historical knowledge has limited not just their understanding but also narrowed their world and life.
I wonder how often that happens to us. How often have we used the facts of history to limit or control Jesus, the life of another, or our own life?
Maybe it is a history of the things we have done and left undone or said and left unsaid that prevents us or another from eating the bread of life. Or perhaps we have a history of a particular way of thinking, believing, seeing the world, each other or ourselves. We live that pattern over and over. After a while that history says to us there is no other bread. Just keep eating the same old manna your ancestors ate in the wilderness. Sometimes the history of our fears, anxieties, guilt, regrets, pain, and losses become so established we are deceived into believing that we are not even hungry.
All of those histories are grounded in our separation from God, each other, and our selves – grounded in our sinfulness. That is not, however, the end of the story. St Gregory of Nyssa says
“The bread of life is the antidote for having eaten the forbidden fruit.”
The bread of life releases us from our history and frees us from the past. To eat the bread of life is to seek a knowledge of and relationship with Christ that is bigger than the historical facts. It is a knowledge that does not simply inform (a knowledge the Jews had) but one that transforms. It is based not on past facts but on love. The bread of life nourishes us with new life, new hope, and new possibilities.
Every time we take Christ’s life into us. Every time we see as he sees, think as he thinks, act as he acts, relate as he relates, love as he loves – every time this happens we have feasted on the bread of life; we have tasted eternal life.
“Do not complain among yourselves,” Jesus tells us. “A feast of life has been prepared for you. The table is full, ready and waiting. Your history neither brings you to this table nor can it keep you away. My Father is drawing, pulling, wooing, and loving you to the table. So hurry; come eat, before it gets cold.”