The Bread of Life
|The Gathering of Mann by Francesco Bacchiacca (16th century)|
Trinity 9 B John 6 24-35
For most human beings in the world life is a struggle to provide sufficient food. The first pre-occupation is to survive – if we do not eat we cease to live. Food temporarily provides us with life, but we need more food to live a little longer. We do not have life in ourselves but have to constantly depend upon others for what is necessary to maintain life. The food we eat gives us a little more life. Yet one day this food will be insufficient and we will lose our grip on life.
This understanding of the relationship between food and life helps us to understand what Jesus is talking about in this chapter.
Last week I spoke about the word “life” as the central idea in what Jesus is communicating, and central to the purpose of Jesus' ministry: “that they may have life, life that is abundant.” And that this “abundance” reaches to the divine life that eternal. Now we need to link that with food. There is an intrinsic connection between food and life. The type of food we eat, and the type of drink we drink, affects the life we live. Earthly food and drink gives us life temporarily; so we must hunger and thirst for food and drink which imparts eternal life.
When one looks at a passage from Scripture, like John 6, over a few weeks, one needs to think of ways of connecting the different sections together. One of the first connections we should notice is how frequently the word “bread” or “loaf” occurs. In today's gospel alone it occurs 7 times. In the remainder of the chapter it occurs 7 more times, and before our gospel today it has occurred 7 times already. “Bread” is clearly important in John chapter 6. And if we look for a common phrase, we will find one that occurs seven times in the chapter. It occurs only once in today's gospel but will occur 6 more times over the next few weeks, and that phrase is “which came down from heaven” or “which comes down from heaven”. And either it is “bread” which comes down from heaven, or our Lord is referring to Himself and saying “I have come down from heaven”.
“Do not labour for the food that perishes...” Jesus is saying that if we remain short-sighted and our primary goal is to obtain this food that only gives us life temporarily, then one day we are going to perish. As this food is eaten, broken down and turned to waste, so that is what will happen to us too. Rather, Jesus teaches, labour for the food that endures to eternal life.
When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness and began to starve through lack of food, at the intercession of Moses, God gave them a provisional meal, the manna (cf. first reading). They had to give thanks to Him for that gift. Alas when God is only our Benefactor, and we go to Him seeking favours, it is all too easy to be concerned merely with what we can get from God. We end up hardly thanking Him, and then also complaining about it! This is exactly what happened. God provided what they needed to survive, the Israelites grumbled and complained, then they rebelled against God and then those who rebelled perished in the wilderness. This earthly food, even if it is a divine gift, does not make us better and cannot give us true life. The Manna, miraculous though it was, was merely a sign and a foretaste, just as the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand was a sign and a foretaste of something more complete and which brings the fullness of life.
The bread that “comes down from heaven” is not something but someone. The bread that “comes down from heaven” is Christ Himself. He alone communicates eternal life for us, for He is divine, for He is the Son of God. He is the Bread of Life!
But in order to receive this Bread of Life, it is not possible to merely consume it. If we just received eternal life like the Israelites received manna from heaven, then nothing would have changed, and like them we would end up grumbling, complaining and finally rebelling. No something is required from us if we are to receive eternal life – that is faith.
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” It is not sufficient for us to take and eat, we must believe. And this becomes our work. Our primary occupation becomes growing in faith.
In October the whole Catholic Church begins a Year of Faith at the behest of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict. Faith is absolutely central yet how often do we labour over this bread? We rather labour over the food that does not last. If we truly want to grow in faith in this Year of Faith we need to decide now that we are going to take it seriously and give it the necessary time it needs. The Year of Faith is no temporary fad or vain project (that we saw so often from those diocesan initiatives as Anglicans - or even some we invented ourselves!) – this is truly from God – it is a God-given opportunity ; will we use it?
They said to Him, “Give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”