Today’s gospel reading is part of a series on five consecutive Sundays from John 6. Richard began last week with vv1-21, the feeding of the 5,000 and one of the stories of Jesus walking on water. We then skip a couple of verses (22-23), and continue on today. We should have stopped at verse 35, but we continue on to verse 40 to get the complete passage. The next three weeks have recursive, overlapping readings, starting with today’s last verse and going on v69.
Clearly those who composed our lectionary think John 6 is important.
After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus had gone up on the Golan Heights on the east of the Sea of Galilee to pray and to escape from the people – who wanted to make him king, and the disciples had, rather strangely, set off by themselves back across the lake by boat to Capernaum on the Northwest corner of Galilee. Presumably Jesus had told them not to wait for him, but this is not recorded. Jesus then catches up with them, walking across the lake. Our reading starts next morning when the crowd realises Jesus and the disciples have left.
The first part of John 6 sets the scene for the rest of the chapter. Jesus has performed the miracle of multiplying bread and fish, and this leads on to todays theme: I am the bread of life.
Jesus ignores the crowd’s question about when he arrived (they had not seen him leave), and he confronts them, saying that they are not even following him because of miracles, but simply because he had fed them. When we were looking at children’s services here a few years back, I remember one parent saying that all you needed to keep kids engaged in worship was food, so perhaps we are not that different. But the crowd with Jesus were, at least, adults.
Jesus has been trying to engage with them spiritually. Work for food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. When they ask what that means, Jesus replies, What God wants you to do is to believe in the one he sent. Surprisingly, the crowd then says, What miracle will you perform so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, just as the scripture says, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat. It seems that they had forgotten what happened the day before.
But, there is more going on here. Jesus is claiming that he can give eternal life, something no-one before him, not the prophets or the kings, had claimed before. The Jews were waiting for a Messiah as God promised Moses Deuteronomy 1815: I will send them a prophet like you from among their own people. Like Moses, they expected the Messiah both to lead and provide for them. What Jesus had done in multiplying food was small beer compared with Moses, who had fed the people from nothing in a desert for 40 years. If Jesus was claiming to be the greater than Moses, the people wanted a sign.
Which Jesus does not give them. Manna came from God, not Moses, but now the people have the true bread from heaven. For the bread that God gives is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
So the people ask for this bread, still probably thinking in terms of their stomachs. Jesus replies with the famous verse, I am the bread of life, those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty. And, like a cliff hanger at the end of a television episode, you will have to wait till next week to find out what else he said. (Or pick up a Bible.)
I have long been puzzled by John 6. Jesus seems deliberately to antagonise, first the crowd, then the wider group of his followers. It ends with lots of his followers leaving him, at the end of Chapter 6 (not the 12 disciples, of course). If only he would say, look, this is a metaphor; I am not really talking about bread, it might have solved the problem. But he does not.
Why is he being obtuse? From all we know of Jesus, from the Bible, from personal experience, from the experience of others, you cannot just say he was having an off day, that he had lost patience with people, and he might have said it differently if he had had a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast. This must be what he meant.
So we need to see spiritually to come to God. Those who are intent purely on the physical, who do not lift their eyes above this world to the wonder and meaning and love behind it will not hear the message. Jesus hints at this: All those that the Father gives me will come to me (v37), and later People cannot come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me (v44). This seems strange to us, as from other passages we take it that God’s acceptance is open to anyone who comes to him. But there do seem to be times when people are blind, where no amount of reasoning will help them see, when they are closed off in themselves. There is an element to conversion that relies on the Spirit’s touch, and without that we can do nothing. Which is disturbing in some ways, and freeing in others.
Just this week, I saw something that struck me in Prayer Notes for INF, International Nepal Fellowship, the organisation the Galpins worked with, for August/September: “It has been estimated that three-quarters of Nepalis who have become Christians have done so as a result of witnessing healing or another form of miracle.” It reminded me of a time in our church homegroup in Butwal, Nepal, when people shared how they had become Christians. For by far the majority, it was because they had seen someone healed. And in their cases, they had not just seen the physical healing, but had been pointed by it to Jesus.
What is on offer from Jesus in John 6 is extraordinary. Six times in the chapter, Jesus says that he had come down from heaven. It is the first of the I AM passages in John, I am the bread of life, in which Jesus links himself to the name I AM WHO I AM that God used of himself to Moses. He claims that he will give eternal life to those who believe in him, that those who believe in him will never hunger or thirst; he will satisfy all your spiritual needs. He will never turn anyone away, nor will he lose them.
St. John & St. Stephen