Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”John 6:35
The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel offers us a fascinating, complex, multi-layered teaching on what it means that Jesus is our “bread of life.” Passages from this chapter will comprise our (Revised Common Lectionary) gospel reading for the next five Sundays. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d share a few general thoughts on this chapter, before diving into my preparation of this Sunday’s sermon (on John 6:1-21).
At the very beginning of John 6, we learn that “a large crowd kept following [Jesus], because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick” (John 6:2). But by the end of the chapter (spoiler alert!): “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). In response to their turning back, Jesus asks the twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?” And in Peter’s answer, we hear the destination that faithfully pondering this chapter leads us to: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). Such a beautiful, heartfelt confession of faith! And peeling away the layers of this story will lead us to this core, to this realization that there is nowhere else to go than to Jesus himself.
But that is getting ahead of the story. Back at the beginning of this chapter, with the large crowd enthusiastically following him, Jesus “went up the mountain” in a manner reminiscent of Moses, a comparison that sneaks into this story throughout. Jesus, knowing what he is getting ready to do (miraculously feed this crowd of five thousand), asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5). This question would also bring up thoughts of Moses, who once said to God, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” (Numbers 11:13). But there is a difference – Moses turned to God, while Jesus will show himself to be more even than Moses, by feeding the crowd himself. This miracle is so important to understanding Jesus that it will be the only one recorded in all four gospels.
Seeing Jesus perform this amazing miracle, the crowd realizes that Jesus has great power, so they try to “take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15). But Jesus cannot be taken by force, and he cannot be “made” king. Not by us. He can only be received for who he is. The crowd, in other words, still has much to learn.
The (Only) Food that Endures for Eternal Life
Jesus gets back to teaching them: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26-27). The crowd wants a free lunch, someone who will magically fill their bellies. They think they have found it, and try to capture this “golden goose.” But Jesus came to offer them so much more than a free lunch! Food that will fill their souls, food that endures for eternal life! And they do not have to work for this food, or capture it, or do anything other than simply “believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).
It seems so easy. Just believe! But believing and trusting in something that we cannot see or control is never easy. Even when it is believing and trusting in Jesus. And so, the crowd responds predictably: “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” (John 6:30). The crowd wants a sign, beyond Jesus miraculously feeding the five thousand, and healing their sick. What sign will be enough for them? They still, it seems, have much to learn!
The Living Bread that Came Down from Heaven
Jesus continues his teaching, turning the crowd’s thoughts back to Moses again. “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). Manna in the wilderness was not from Moses, but from God. Is this manna the bread of God? No. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died” (John 6:49). Jesus has come to offer the bread of God which is the bread of life. And what is this bread of life? It is Jesus himself. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
So, the conversation has now deepened. No longer are they talking about signs and bread, but of life and flesh. They are no longer talking about what Jesus does, but who Jesus is. Moses was a great prophet. Jesus is something far greater. He himself is the living bread, the manna from heaven. And this manna, this bread of life, is so much more than just manna. It doesn’t perish in a day, and it doesn’t simply fill our bellies. It feeds our hungry souls, and offers us eternal life.
Eat My Flesh and Drink My Blood
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:54). Jesus is still teaching, still peeling away the layers at what all of this means. But now we arrive at the layer most difficult for the crowd to swallow. Eat my flesh and drink my blood? This is too much! After all, they have long been taught that drinking blood goes against the will of God. Leviticus is very clear about that. One should not drink even the blood of the Passover lamb. But Jesus doubles down on this strange teaching, saying “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56).
So, what is Jesus getting at here? He can’t literally be referring to eating his flesh and drinking his blood, can he? Although this whole dialogue takes place before the institution of the Lord’s Supper, it is almost impossible for us to read these words and not think about holy communion, isn’t it? But even more than that, this part of the dialogue deepens the awareness that what Jesus offers us is he himself. They cannot be separated. Jesus does not give us the bread of life; he is the bread of life. He does not simply offer us resurrection and eternal life; he is the resurrection and the life. He does not show us the way; he is the way. He does not shine God’s light into the world; he is the light of the world. Come to Jesus, abide in him, and hunger no more. Because he is the bread of life, and his own flesh and blood are the means by which we abide in him, and he in us. This is a mystery, to be sure, but a holy mystery, and a wonderful one.
Lord, to Whom Shall We Go?
The crowd, of course, doesn’t like mystery, any more than they like to be invited to believe. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60). And as a result of this difficult teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). Which brings me back to the question that Jesus asks of the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67).
The twelve don’t fully understand Jesus’s teaching. (Do we?) They will continue to stumble along behind Jesus, not sure where he is leading them, or even what it all means. (Like us?) But the twelve know this: that Jesus alone has “the words of eternal life.” They believe that he alone is the “Holy One of God.” And that is enough. Through the eyes of faith, they can see that they have found what they are looking for, what we all are looking for. They have found the true bread from heaven, which alone can feed their hungry souls. Even though they (and we) have much to learn, and some of what Jesus teaches will be difficult to understand or accept, where else can they go? Where else would they want to go? Where else would we want to go? There is no other way to feed our hungry souls than to come to Jesus, and hunger no more. And how blessed we are that he invites us to do just that.
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.John 6:68-69