John 6:35, 41-51
Today’s gospel reading is the third in a series of five which takes us on a journey through chapter six of St John’s gospel. Two weeks ago we began with the story of Jesus feeding five thousand people from a modest offering of five loaves and two fishes. Last week we heard Jesus saying that we should work for the spiritual food that brings eternal life. We ended that reading with Jesus’ words “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.
Those words also begin our reading this morning and Jesus goes on to expand that theme, identifying himself as the living bread from heaven and saying that to believe in him is to have eternal life.
For me, this chapter is about an epic spiritual journey to faith in our living Lord who offers himself to us so that we may have eternal life. It’s about a journey that Jesus first invites his Jewish listeners to take.
The story is set at the time of the Passover – a significant time when the people of Israel remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and their great leader, Moses, who also gave them God’s commandments. Freed from Egypt, Israel spent forty years in the wilderness. When they were hungry they were fed with manna from heaven.
Especially at this time of Passover, the significance of Jesus feeding a crowd of five thousand while up in a mountain would not be missed and indeed many thought that Jesus was a prophet, or saw him as a new Moses come to deliver his people once again.
The manna from heaven came to be recognised as a symbol for the word of God and it was said that God fed them with manna “in order to make them understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”.
Again, these words would have been familiar to the people who heard Jesus say that they should not work for the bread which only satisfies their physical hunger but for the living bread of eternal life – God’s word.
We who know John’s Gospel will also make the link between John’s opening verses when he talks of the Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Now we hear Jesus saying that he is the living bread, that living word of God.
When Jesus feeds the five thousand from just five loaves the Jewish people would also be reminded of Elisha, the prophet who feds a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley. The people ate and had some left over.
Thus Jesus is identified with the law and the prophets of Israel.
Last Wednesday we celebrated the feast of the transfiguration when Jesus meets with Moses (representing the law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) on the mountain top. So we too think of Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.
We also know that the final days of Jesus’ life will be lived out during the time of Passover.
We recognise the way in which Jesus takes bread, gives thanks and shares it as being identical to the way he will share bread with his disciples at the last supper.
When Jesus says that the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh we understand from our knowledge of what is to come the true cost of the sacrificial nature of his giving.
But what does all of this say about the way we live out our Christian faith?
We don’t know what it’s like to be in slavery in Egypt but we may well know what it is to be in different kinds of slavery. Lots of things can curtail our freedom to be who we really are. The circumstances of our lives, the worries and cares we carry, wounds from past hurts and the burden of guilt which we cannot lay to rest. These and other things can hold us captive.
Moses called God’s people and led them out of slavery so that they could journey to the Promised Land.
Jesus calls us today to lead us out of our slavery, whatever that is, into his eternal life.
The people of Israel could have refused to listen to Moses. They might not have believed it possible to escape from Egypt, they might have been frightened of venturing out into the unknown or they might have been quite happy where they were, seeing no need to uproot themselves.
We too could refuse to listen to Jesus. We might not believe it’s possible, or dare to believe it’s possible, to escape from the burdens weighing us down, we might be afraid of what life would be like without them -we might think that we’re better off with the familiar –at least we know what we’re dealing with and we wouldn’t risk disappointment.
Jesus calls us to dare to believe in him as he dares to offer himself to us as the living bread which can satisfy our spiritual hunger and free us from the past.
The Jews were given the commandments by Moses and believed that they earned God’s favour by keeping those commandments faithfully – failure to do so would lead to God’s displeasure and punishment.
We may not have written rules which we have to follow in order to please God but I think many of us have them written in our minds and suffer from guilt and anxiety when we fail to live up to them.
Somewhere buried deep many of us have a belief that we’re not good enough and somehow we need to earn God’s love.
Jesus calls us to believe in him – that’s all, that’s enough. It’s enough because God loves us and draws us to himself.
Jesus says that whoever comes to him does so in response to God’s call. He also says, in this same chapter, although we don’t read this verse, that when someone is sent to him by the Father there is not the remotest possibility that he or she will be sent away – that just won’t happen.
We can’t earn God’s love or the right to eternal life. God’s love is gift, pure and simple.
When we respond to that love and follow Jesus we will find in him, not a master who compels us to follow rules and regulations, but a companion, a friend, who walks alongside us and shows us how to live by his example. And if that is how God calls us, accepts us and loves us then not only will we, in time, learn to accept ourselves we will also learn to accept others who are also called, accepted and loved by God.
I thought five weeks seemed a long time to spend on one chapter about Jesus as the bread of life. But, as I said earlier, I now see it as an epic journey of faith taking us from the first Passover to Passiontide and the new covenant between God and his people; from freedom from the slavery of Egypt to freedom from the slavery of sin, weaknesses and failures; from manna, or the word of God to the living word revealed in Jesus and from salvation through obedience to a written law to salvation through faith in Jesus which in itself brings eternal life.
As we continue our journey over the next two weeks we can reflect on what Jesus is saying, on the ways in which we resist his call to freedom and eternal life, and on the ways in which we still try to earn God’s love. We can reflect on what it means for us to be taking that journey into a more simple faith, taking Jesus at his word, trusting fully in him as the living word of God who will never send us away and feeding on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. Amen.