If Jesus was a loaf of bread today, what kind would he be? Mother’s pride? King’s Mill? Son blest? Best of both (human and divine)? I’d better not push that any further, or I shall be toast!
The immediate question that Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life raises for me is how much he means this in a physical sense, and how much in a spiritual sense?
It’s very easy for well-fed and well-heeled Christians in the west to simply see passages like this in a spiritual sense, yet Christians in other parts of the world who struggle to feed themselves and their families see it rather differently. Indeed, I well remember someone homeless standing at the rail for Communion one evening in a central London church, and asking the Minister for a large piece of bread because he was very hungry.
Like the world God has created for us, food isn’t simply functional. Of course, it’s essential for life, but it can also bring great pleasure. Beyond the food itself, eating can be a very sociable activity. Many of us go out for a meal to celebrate, but the finest meal in the best hotel doesn’t amount to much if it’s eaten alone in a hotel room. So, food is much more than something functional which we take merely to keep us alive. It’s also something which binds us together, something which we share as human beings, something which can give enormous pleasure and which tells us we belong.
One aspect of life after death pictured in the Bible is that of a great feast. Jesus told a story about a banquet given by God where the table groans under the weight of good food, and glasses overflow with good wine. It isn’t a meal taken alone. What we see is a long table, with many people enjoying themselves, the food and the social interaction. It’s open to anyone who chooses to come, because those for whom it was originally intended didn’t want to eat that way.
In today’s gospel reading, when the people came searching for Jesus, he knew they were looking for more miracles. “Very truly,” he said, “I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” These were people who lived off what they were able to grow, so they knew all too easily what is was to be hungry because the crop had failed, so it surely meant something to them that Jesus had produced their lunch seemingly from almost nothing. Naturally, they were concentrating on the miracle, and were wanting more food, more miracles.
This is the point where Jesus is rather cheesed off with the crowd. He wanted them to look beyond the miracle and the food, but nevertheless that’s where he starts, building on that awareness by trying to move their understanding more in God’s direction, as God has provided the food. He goes on to say, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” and it’s then that the penny begins to drop: God might provide for them in a hitherto unsuspected way. Perhaps they can have all this bread for themselves, when Jesus isn’t there? So they ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”
His answer isn’t what they expect, because he tells them that they don’t have to do anything. His whole point is that God’s gift is always there, freely available. All they have to do is believe, nothing else. It’s still the same today. In order to receive God’s good gifts we still don’t need to do anything. All we have to do is believe.
If we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life, it’s just that. He’s not a fillet steak, or a tiramisu, or a black forest gateaux. Most of us enjoy luxury foods sometimes, some of us too often, but we need bread every day. Bread gives us what we need to stay alive, and if we skip it we grow thin and emaciated and lose our energy, and if we eat too many luxuries instead we grow too large.
When Jesus describes himself as the Bread of Life, perhaps he’s also suggesting Christianity’s also about community. We may eat good food alone, and it can certainly keep us alive, but we lose the pleasure. To really enjoy the best of of the Bread of Life, we need to eat it together.
Bread comes in many different shapes and sizes, made of different kinds of flour, and with or without yeast. There is bread to suit everybody, no matter what their tastes and what their dietary requirements, so we can all eat together. That’s all very well if we have plenty of food, but when those who don’t pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and believe in Jesus as the Bread of Life, does it mean they’ll never be physically hungry again?
Perhaps it ought to, if we’re doing the very best we can to sustain and renew the life of this planet while it’s in our care. But while we wait for enough food for everyone, maybe believing in Jesus as the Bread of Life gives physically hungry people the inner resources to cope? Maybe Christians on the breadline, near and far away, are spiritually well-fed and don’t know what it is to starve? Let’s hope we have enough to eat aren’t suffering from spiritual anorexia, because we’re trying to exist on just the luxury foods.