The Bread of Life
Our passage today from the Gospel of John describes an event that took place the day after Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. At this point in the story, Jesus and the disciples have crossed the Sea of Galilee and gone over to the town of Capernaum. When the crowd realizes that Jesus and the disciples are gone, they get in boat and go looking for him. But as is often the case, Jesus knows what’s really going on at the heart level. So he says, “You’re not interested in me for who I am, but only for what I can do for you. You just want more bread!” He tells them in verse 27: “Do not work for the food – the bread – that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
The image of bread runs straight through this passage. Bread is a staple food. It is one of the most common ways that we satisfy our hunger. But Jesus reveals at a deeper level that bread represents ways in which we seek to satisfy our hunger for more in life. As modern people, we tend to think the bread we need is something we work for – it is something we buy, achieve or produce. Think of the expressions we use. One’s “bread and butter” is the primary way in which a person makes a living. The “breadwinner” is the person who principally provides for one’s family. “Dough” refers to money. Just this past week at the lemonade stand, someone asked Olivia: “How much dough do you have?” If you are “on the breadline,” it means you are poor. But if you are part of the “upper crust,” that means you are fabulously wealthy.
Let me tell you a story. My first job out of college was as a sales analyst at an investment bank in New York City. Believe it or not, this really happened. The hiring manager was a woman with whom I am still friends to this day. She is classic New Yorker who immediately sat we down in her office and started firing away with questions. The first question she asked me was: “Do you love money?” In response, I said, “Well, I think money is important; it makes the world go around. It is certainly better than a barter system. I’m glad we don’t trade in cows anymore. But no, I can’t say that I love money.”
This was probably not the answer she was expecting. Then she asked me a second question: “Are you wild and crazy?” (She could probably tell that I wasn’t.) “Do you remember that old skit from Saturday Night Live with Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin, Two Wild and Crazy Guys? People around here work hard and play hard. So are you wild and crazy like that?” I responded, “I think I have a pretty good sense of humor, but no I’m probably not wild and crazy in the way you are thinking.”
(Clearly this interview was not going well.) So now she asked me a third question. “Can you sell? This is a sales job, Jason. I have to know if you can sell. Can you sell.” I knew this was a bit of a stretch, but I explained that I had recently encouraged a few classmates to join me in a trip to Rwanda, Africa shortly after the genocide. But she said: “Jason, that’s not selling.” And I said, “I know, but I figured it was worth a shot.”
Finally, she asked me one last question: “Who’s your idol?” Now at this point, I am sure she was hoping that I would climb my way out of this ditch and explain that Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet or Bill Gates was my idol. I should have said “Jesus,” but I figured that would be too much. But Mother Teresa would be a safe bet. I had recently read a few books by Mother Teresa in preparation for that trip to Rwanda, so I said “Mother Teresa.” At this, she shot up out of her chair and flew out of the office. It seems I had said something that set her off. I assumed the interview was over, but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to leave or stay. I was left scratching my head, trying to figure out how Mother Teresa could possibly be offensive - I thought she was the safe choice!
But a few minutes later, the hiring manager came back into her office with a book by Mother Teresa in her hands, and she explained, “I just gave this book to a woman down the hall this morning. Mother Teresa is my idol, too!” And that’s when she decided to hire me. And that’s how I landed my first job before I went to seminary.
Now I’d like you to consider the questions I was asked: Do you love money? Are you wild and crazy? Who’s your idol? What she was really asking me was: What are you living for? What makes you tick? What is your central ambition in life? What gives your life meaning and purpose?
Consider the many – often conflicting – messages we receive from our broader culture from the earliest age about how to answer those questions. We’re told to bring home A’s. You’ve got to get good grades, so you get into a good school, so you can get a good job and make a lot of money. You have to work hard – but not too hard because you also have to be yourself. You have to know how to let loose and have fun. And while it’s cool to be smart, it’s not enough to be smart. You also have to be attractive. You have to be beautiful. You have to be physically fit. And you have to do something with your life. Make a difference. Work for a mission-driven organization. Change the world.
As a result, we think the bread we need – the way to be happy, satisfied and fulfilled in life – is acquired through our achievements. So we devote ever more time and energy to achieving more wealth, power, status and recognition. But there’s a problem with trying to derive our meaning and satisfaction from our achievements. It’s not only exhausting, but it’s never enough. If you are what you produce, then you are only as good as your last accomplishment. Inevitably it all comes back to the question: What have you done for me lately?
Jesus exposes the lie. The bread we hunger for is not an accomplishment we achieve, but a gift we receive. Verse 4 at the beginning of this chapter tells us that Passover was near. And when Jesus produces the bread, it reminds people of the Exodus. That’s what the Old Testament readings today from Exodus 16 and Psalm 78 are all about. When Moses led the people through the desert following the liberation from their bondage in Egypt, God provided manna. In Hebrew, “manna” literally means: “What is it?”
“What is it?” Manna was a flake-like substance that would appear on the ground every morning. The people would gather it up and use it to make bread. That’s why they called it “the bread from heaven.” When Jesus provides bread, the people assume he must be a prophet like Moses who will provide them with food and lead them to freedom.
The problem is that the people do not want Jesus for who he is, but only for what he can provide. How many of us do the same? We may not want to invest in a relationship with God, but we want him to be there for us if we need him in a pinch. And if he can give us good health, good relationships, and good times – all the better! The early church leader Augustine said that it is easy to want gifts from God and yet not want God himself – as if the gifts could ever be better than the giver. Imagine a man who gets down on one knee, presents an engagement ring and proposes to the woman he loves: “Will you marry me?” But she responds by saying: “Thank you. I’m not interested in a relationship with you. I don’t want to marry you. But I’ll keep the ring! Thank you very much.” Yet, that’s how many of us respond to God.
Jesus presses us to seek him not because of what he can do for us, but because of who he is. In verse 35, he says, “I do not merely provide the bread of life. I am the bread of life.” “I am the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives his life for the world.” Jesus came down. He was born in Bethlehem, and do you know what Bethlehem means? It means “city of bread.” And on the cross – as we celebrate in the eucharist – Jesus’ body, like bread, was broken to pieces in order to feed our starving souls. Jesus is not merely a means to an end. He is the end. He doesn’t just give you what you need. He is what you need.
In closing, let me give you a few thoughts for reflection.
Ask yourself: if you experience a hunger that no thing and no one in this life can satisfy, is it at least possible that you were made for something else? Is it possible that you were made for someone else?
If you reach the point where you believe Jesus is the bread we most need, how do you get it? In verse 28, the crowds asks: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” But Jesus undermines this achievement mindset when it comes to God. He says in verse 29 that “the work” God requires is not a work at all. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” But Jesus is not talking about believing in a cold, abstract, intellectual way. In fact, believing in Jesus in a little bit like eating a piece of bread. Just as you eat a piece of bread and take it into yourself, so you take Jesus into your life. You allow his words, his values, his priorities, his ways of thinking and seeing and living become your own.
And this is not something you do once. Imagine you sit down to eat a meal at the dinner table and after eating a piece of bread you say: “Thank goodness; I never need to do that again!” Just as you must continually eat in order to repair your body, so you must continually take Jesus into yourself in order to nourish and sustain your life.
Take Jesus into your life and be filled. Come to him and you will never hunger. Believe in him and you will never thirst.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.