Bread: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Eleventh Week after Pentecost
Eleventh Week after Pentecost (Year B): John 6:24-35
1) This is the second of a five-week series of readings walking through a single chapter in John. Last week was John’s version of the feeding of the five thousand - and this week that story continues, with the crowds hungry for more and Jesus challenging them (and us!) to move beyond the marvelous meal on the hillside to the even more marvelous “bread of life.” This is the bread Jesus gives, and at the same time the bread Jesus is. As one mystery leads to another, we move even closer to John’s portrait of the essence of Christian faith.
2) John presents this dialogue as a companion to the earlier one between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). The woman asks Jesus for water (the crowds ask for bread); Jesus responds that there is another, more deeply nourishing water (“living water” in 4:10; compare “true bread” in 6:32); misunderstanding this special water as physical, the woman asks for it, saying, “Sir, give me this water” (likewise misunderstanding, the crowds say, “Sir, give us this bread” (4:15; 6:34)); and then, with an “I am” statement, Jesus declares his identity (4:26; 6:35). In this way, John highlights this basic choreography - encounter, misunderstanding, invitation to deeper insight - as paradigmatic for the learning involved in discipleship (from the Latin discipulus, “student”). Jesus calls us, too, to move beyond too narrowly focusing on “signs” and broaden our perspective into wider, deeper forms of trust in God.
3) In the background here is the exodus story, and in particular the story of the Israelites, Moses, and the manna in the wilderness. Accordingly, this passage in John is sometimes interpreted (with more than a whiff of anti-Judaism) as Jesus declaring himself as the “true bread” as opposed to the manna. But Jesus doesn’t denigrate the manna, much less the exodus story! On the contrary, his point here is to correct the crowds’ misunderstandings a) that Moses gave the Israelites the manna (for on the contrary, God did), and b) that the crowds lack a convincing sign, such as the ancient “bread from heaven” (for on the contrary, Jesus himself is the bread).
1) Far from a bucolic scene of feeding and teaching, the underlying dynamic in this story is of a mob chasing Jesus across the landscape. Remember, they arrived uninvited in the first place, and after the astounding meal, they seek to take Jesus forcibly and make him their king (6:1-5; 6:15). Jesus withdraws and crosses to the other side of the Sea of Galilee - and the crowds, at once aggravated and desperate, commandeer boats to pursue him (6:24). The atmosphere is a tense, simmering brew of anxiety and need, laced with menace (“they were about to come and take him by force” (6:15)).
2) As verses 22-24 make clear, the mob is confounded as to how Jesus has traveled across the sea - and they suspect some wondrous explanation, asking, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” But Jesus changes the subject; this group is too focused on astounding physical wonders, so he omits any description of walking on the water. He has already gotten their attention with such marvels, of course, but now he wants to draw them into deeper, more important matters.
3) And so he challenges them to take another step. It’s as if he says, Physical food has its place, but there’s another kind of nourishment even more essential to your wellbeing, and God means to provide it for you, just as any mother or father provides for their children. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus puts it this way, again quoting the exodus story: “Humanity does not live on bread alone” (Mt 4:4; Deut 8:3). There is another form of food, a deeper nourishment, a heavenly “bread” that human beings require in order to thrive - and Jesus has come, he says, in order to provide it. Matthew and Deuteronomy call this nourishment “every word that comes from the mouth of God”; John calls it “the Word” that was with God, and was God, all the way back to the beginning (John 1:1).
4) Jesus calls this deep nourishment “the food that endures for eternal life” - literally, “the food that remains (menei) into (eis) eternal life.” Please note, Jesus does not say, “the food that gives you life after death.” Afterlife is not his subject; for him, “eternal life” is a life of intimate, mutual indwelling with God that can begin here and now. Precisely as intimacy with God, it cannot be limited by death - but the key point is not that “eternal life” is a longer life, but rather that it's a life with and in God. In other words, as Jesus presents it in John, “eternal life” is a matter of quality of life, not “quantity” of life. After all, “eternal” doesn’t mean “lasting a very, very, very long time” - since even the longest time is still temporal. “Eternal life” means a life of intimacy with God that transcends time altogether, in that sense a “timeless” life of beauty and grace.
5) And yet - the anxious, desperate crowds remain skeptical, still hung up on “signs and wonders.” “What sign will you give us,” they ask, “so we can trust you?” The question betrays its own feeble foundations: Jesus has just yesterday performed an astounding sign! Indeed, the need for such supposed “proof” is insatiable; no matter how many wonders we may see, we’ll always ask for one more. In fact, the more wondrous the wonder, the more we’ll be tempted to request an encore, one more hit, just to be sure… In this way, the story dramatizes the idea that our faith, our trust, our deepest sense of assurance must have other foundations. It can’t rely on the ultimately flimsy ground of “signs and wonders.” It must find bedrock elsewhere.
6) Likewise, the crowds anxiously focus on their own capacities and works: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28). They seek control, power, protection against their vulnerabilities - and they see themselves as the proper agent of that power and control. Their trust is rooted - in themselves. And so Jesus responds by saying, in effect, When it comes to your most fundamental nourishment, root your trust not in yourselves but in God, the God of love who cares for you. This is the “work” of God for you to do: put your trust in God, not in your own works. I am the one God has sent to you, so come to me; trust in me. You seek a sign so you can trust me - but I am the sign! I am the bread from heaven, the bread of God, the bread of life! (John 6:32-35).
7) Finally, John’s “cosmic Christ” perspective is worth bearing in mind here. For John, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, and the whole cosmos comes into being through the Word (John 1:1-3). And so when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he’s not carving out a narrow, privileged space for himself in the midst of a perishable creation; rather, he’s revealing his identity as the broad and deep wellspring of life throughout creation, as if to say, "Where there is life, I am there, creating and sustaining and nourishing - I am the bread of life!"
1) At its heart, this is a story about hunger and thirst: physical, yes, and also the many other kinds of hunger and thirst that drive our daily lives. The crowds are ravenous - for food, for health, for protection, for a king, for power, for righteousness, for salvation - and they accordingly misinterpret Jesus, first as a potential monarch and then as a wonderworker who will show them how to “perform the works of God.” Jesus has another kind of nourishment in mind. He wants to draw them into a higher, deeper, more genuine form of human life and health, a life abiding in God, even as God abides in us. This is the life we are made for. This is the life for which we hunger and thirst, right down to our toes. And we sense, however dimly, our disconnection from this genuine form of human-life-in-God, of God-with-us, this mutual intimacy into which Jesus calls us every day.
2) For John, this is what “faith” truly means: not merely intellectual assent to some particular set of claims, but rather a deeply relational, emotional, intellectual, existential trust in God, a bone-deep sense that God loves us and cares for us. The feeding of the five thousand turns out to be an icon and entryway into an even wider invitation: God gives us not only our “daily bread,” but also the bread of heaven, the bread of life itself. Humanity doesn’t live on physical bread alone. There’s another bread, another food that God provides, another Manna in the wilderness. Hearing this, we might well say, with the crowds: Give us this bread always! And Jesus replies, I am that bread - come to me, and trust in me, and be fed, and thrive. For just as Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, he is also God’s love made tangible, the bread that “gives life to the world” (John 6:33).