The Bread of Life II – Ninth Sunday after Trinity 2012

Our Gospel today follows on from the story of the feeding of the 5000, and its result: the crowd are looking for Jesus to make him King by force. They want him because he has filled them without their having to labour. For most people for most of the world’s history life has literally been hand to mouth – constant labour in order to survive at subsistence level. One wonders in what circumstances 5000 men had leisure to come out into the wilderness to listen to a preacher. A Sabbath? A festival day? A quiet period in the agricultural year? Our “holiday” comes from the old reality that only Sundays and feast days, holy days, offered general leisure; like the Jewish Sabbath, holiday with its freedom from the burdens of incessant labour can act as a foretaste of God’s kingdom. Experiencing full stomachs, healed injuries and rested limbs is not just “materialist” – it is a foretaste of paradise, a touch of God’s rule. Underlying the very human desire for good things is an equally human if less obvious desire for the Giver of good things. Jesus now moves to make explicit this deeper hunger and to develop the discussion from self-centred satisfaction to God-centred fulfilment.

 

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life

 

“Do not work for the food that perishes” is a bit of a tall order. All our lives we must work for the food that perishes – perforce we must keep ourselves alive with food that is quickly consumed and must be replaced. But perhaps the meaning here is that we should not become over-absorbed with material consumption. “Do not worry about what you shall eat, or drink, or what clothes you shall put on. Your heavenly Father knows that you need these things”.  The majority of those who first heard these words will hardly have known the level of choice that we all take for granted. “What we shall eat” really meant “Will we have anything to eat?” They more than us had every excuse for being absorbed in questions of daily survival. Yet Jesus has no qualms about directing their thoughts to spiritual hunger: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you”.

 

 “The food that endures for eternal life” – two contrasts here. This food endures: it is not consumed and must be replaced, it is an unfailing supply. No matter how much we eat, there is always some left over. So to eat this bread means one never goes hungry again; to drink from this spring means one never will thirst again. Again those OT stories of unfailing generous supply are evoked, like the manna, which appeared every morning without fail.

 

This food sustains “eternal life” – it makes us live the life of God, which abides when bread and water and flesh and blood fail and perish. The whole tenor of the Gospel is that we are not really alive apart from union with God: to be cut off from him because we have chosen darkness is to be dead, even with all the material goods one might desire.

 

It’s not really about rich and poor. You can have very little materially, and be hostile to God (perhaps not surprisingly); or be poor and have a very close dependence on God (also perhaps not surprisingly). You can be wealthy, and see no need of God; or be wealthy and use one’s resources as a God-given trust. Both wealth and poverty bring their own peculiar problems, which is why the Proverbs say, “Give me neither poverty or riches”. But whatever our circumstances, Jesus in the Gospel invites us to recognise and to satisfy the deeper hunger of our nature which the desire for God. Only with God are we complete. The sign of the well-fed 5000 is a pointer to the fulfilment of knowing and loving God.

 

So how are we to go about getting, earning, working for, this food that endures? What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.

 

So they say, OK, if we are to believe in you, what sign are you going to do, what mighty work, so that belief becomes inevitable? It’s a question that sits oddly with what has gone before. Was not the feeding of the 5000 an adequate sign? It led them to want to make him King, albeit mistakenly. Perhaps this request (or challenge) for a sign is the opposite of faith, a kind of distraction, a religious excuse for not facing up to the personal decision of believing or not believing, trusting or not. Is Jesus God’s word to the world, or should we look elsewhere? Is this really what God is? Is this really the life laid out for us? Are we in fact incomplete without God, and does Jesus make up that want?

 

“Moses gave us the bread from heaven; every day without fail; never had to be hungry. Can you match that? Loaves and fishes everyday?” Jesus counters by arguing that the manna was not really bread of heaven. Insofar as it was merely food for the body (however wonderfully provided), and had to be consumed and collected afresh every day, it is essentially “food that perishes”, not food that endures for eternal life, not heavenly in the true sense. What does “bread of heaven” really mean? That which comes down from God and gives life to the world. “Bread” because it gives and sustains life, “of heaven” because it is the gift of God. The Greek can also be read as, “the one who comes down from God”, a person rather than a thing. Whom does God send?  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.”

 

 

The Holy Communion is obviously a sign of bread of heaven, and the old images of the manna and the loaves and fishes come into play here. But the hidden reality is Jesus Christ, the one who comes down from God and gives life to the world. The whole service of the Eucharist is about encounter, meeting with Jesus Christ; meeting him in the gathering in his Name of the two or three, listening to him as we attend to the gospel, making the solemn memorial of the once-for-all sacrifice, and opening ourselves to receive him by faith. By faith we offer the service; by faith we perceive the Lord of lords; by faith we are fed with all we need to live the life of God.

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