1 Kings 19: 4-8
John 6. 35, 41-51
Canon David Stranack
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.’ John's Gospel reading today continues with the reactions of the people to the feeding of the five thousand which was our Gospel reading for the Sunday before last. Then last week we heard how the crowd followed Jesus to the other side of the lake. But Jesus knew what was in their minds, that they followed him because they had their fill of loaves and fish. He saw that they were more interested in their physical needs and did not realize that spiritually they were starving. Jesus wanted them to understand that mankind has a far deeper need even than physical food. In the same way we also need his spiritual food to feed our souls and to prevent us from becoming spiritually weak and even facing spiritual death. He said to them, ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ (John 6.27) They replied, (v.28) ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus tells them that they must ‘believe in the one he has sent.’
But they still aren’t sure about Jesus. They wanted a sign: ‘What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? ‘Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Jesus replied, ‘…it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ (v.33) Whether the crowd in the Gospel fully understood what he meant is doubtful but it certainly sounded good to them so they exclaimed, ‘Sir, from now on give us this bread.’
And then, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses one of those ‘I am’ phrases which would have reminded his listeners of the words that God spoke to Moses at the burning bush when God said, ‘I am who I am’. So Jesus said, (v.35) ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.’ After that, we are told, the Jews began to complain about Jesus because they could not, or would not, believe that this Jesus, whom they had known and whose parents they knew, they could not believe his claim to have come down from God the Father as heavenly bread to give life to mankind.
How easy it is for people to start complaining without looking deeper into what was actually happening. Moses had the same trouble in the wilderness when the people complained to him instead of learning to trust in Moses and in the God whom he served. It is a very human attitude to complain and in society today it seems to be one of the most popular pass-times and not just in the media. When we complain it can make us sound superior, as if we know better. But in so doing we can often miss out on some other important facts, and that is just what the crowd facing Jesus were doing. They had not learnt to trust Jesus and so did not realize the significance of what he was offering them. To believe in him was to receive eternal life. The person who receives and eats the special bread he offers will not die. Then (v.51) Jesus says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’
In the next part of that same chapter, which is the Gospel reading next week Jesus emphasizes this message even more strongly and I know that some people find this language difficult just as they did when Jesus first used it. I believe it is helpful therefore to see his words very much in the context of the Last Supper and therefore the Holy Communion service which is so important for us as Christians. Each Sunday in Holy Communion, we receive the bread and (in normal times) the wine as the body and blood of Christ. At the Last Supper Jesus was celebrating the Passover with his disciples on the eve of his own crucifixion. We are told that at the end of the meal he took the bread and broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ Now we need to remember that, although the Passover meal is unfamiliar to us today, the disciples were totally familiar with it. They would have celebrated it in their own homes even from their childhood. It was the sacred Passover meal to celebrate the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Every type of food, every word and every tradition at that meal held a deep meaning and was part of their sacred story. It reminded them of God’s loving act of deliverance and of the old covenant promises that God was to be their God and that he would bring them into a new and wonderful land ‘flowing with milk and honey’.
Early in this meal a piece of the unleven bread was wrapped up in a napkin by the person who presided, and was then hidden from sight. Towards the end of the meal any children in the home were sent to hunt for this hidden bread which was called the ‘afikomen’. Once found it was returned to the table unwrapped and shared with all those present and they would all eat that bread. The meaning of this tradition is that the hidden bread represented the hopes of Israel that one day God would send his Messiah, his Christ, to rescue his people again. They would have to search and look out for him just as at every Passover they search for the hidden bread. Now, it would have been this bread that Jesus would have taken into his hands and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you.’ In other words, he was saying, this bread represents me, I am the promised Christ for whom you have been longing. Then, when Jesus says, (v.51) ‘This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ He is also referring to the sacrifice he will make on the cross.
He is therefore calling us to accept his sacrifice in faith as his means of rescuing us from sin and death. So then for us, by receiving the bread, we are welcoming Christ Jesus into our very selves, wanting his life and his spiritual strength to dwell in our lives. And we are also showing that we are putting our faith in him as our Saviour. To receive that bread, as we do in this service, is a most sacred moment when we renew
our commitment to God in Christ Jesus and he renews us with his spiritual life and strength for our daily lives as Christians . Jesus also refers to receiving his ‘blood’. Again it is important to remember the
background tradition in Jewish thinking. For the Jews, blood represents the life of a person and life is of course a sacred gift from God. Jesus, by saying that we are to dink his blood, is saying that we are to take his life into the very centre of our hearts and souls. It is also another pointer to his sacrifice for us upon the cross. So we see that the action of offering himself through the bread and wine representing his body and blood, at the Last Supper, are all part of his offering of himself, his life, for each of us upon the cross as a sacrifice by which he overcomes sin and death itself.
What we do here Sunday by Sunday is far more than a mere reminder of what Jesus has done for us. It is a time when we are wonderfully and individually involved with the person of Christ in a sacramental way, and it is a renewal of that covenant relationship which we enter through our faith, by baptism and confirmation. Jesus is for us therefore the bread of life, and the life that he offers us is eternal life, or in other words, life now and after death, lived to the full because through him we can become fully spiritually alive for ever. So, Jesus says to us, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ As we receive him in this sacrament of Holy Communion remember that he is coming to each one of us to give us his spiritual strength and to fill us with his new life. And as you leave this house of prayer after the service you will not be going out alone but with Christ our Saviour within you to share your hopes and dreams as well as your worries and fears. And because he is within you, he can inspire you to become more Christ-like and more loving and compassionate day by day. What a wonderful and amazing gift.
Thanks be to God. Amen.