John 6: 24-35
Colleen D. Hartung
Bread and its importance to the wellbeing of human communities is a dominant image in today’s readings. In an iconic episode from Exodus, Yahweh “rains [lifesaving] bread from heaven for the [hungry] Israelites.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the crowd who pursued him after they had eaten “their fill of loaves” when he feed the 5000, “I am the bread of life.” The actions of the people in these stories underscore the significand of bread to human life. In fact, there is no food more universal or more essential than bread. Archeological studies show that prehistoric hunter-gathers started baking bread at least 30,000 years ago. In 1200 BCE, people in Egypt depended on bread and beer for sustenance. In the Middle Ages, while wealthy people had access to meat, the poor survived on bread and cheese. And still, after thousands of years, bread, prepared in a vast variety of different forms in very distant parts of the globe, remains the most regularly consumed food in the world.
In the first century context of John’s Gospel, bread constituted over one-half of the caloric intake for the those in the crowds who gathered to hear Jesus speak. Most of these people where peasants, struggling to put food on the table. They ate black bread – the barley loaves shared by the young boy on the shores of Galilea – because barley, though it was considered inferior to wheat, was easier and therefor cheaper to grow in the arid Mediterranean climate. Milling and baking the grain for bread was a time-consuming task. Milling enough grain for the daily bread for a family of six required three hours of labor. The grain was milled at night so the bread dough could be taken to the village baker in the morning. For the crowd pursuing Jesus, bread was life. Its nutrition sustained their biological existence. And much of their time was occupied by earning the money needed to purchase the grain and by the labor required to produce the bread needed to feed their families.
And so, it makes sense that the crowd pursued Jesus after he feed 5000 people with the offering of only 5 loaves of barley bread. In the wake of this amazing feat where all who gathered were feed, many in the crowd believed Jesus was a prophet and were ready to make him king. The signs Jesus performs in John’s Gospel – healing the sick and feeding the hungry – sparked in his followers a hope for a world formed by a sense of justice that included them; a reign of God where basic needs like bread, water, shelter and healing were accessible for all and where abundance rather than scarcity would be the hallmark of their existence, their life.
Jesus empathizes with this desire for material abundance and security born of a daily struggle that was often a matter of life and death. But Jesus also sees what they do not, at least in that moment… that justice is not only or even primarily about basic needs. Jesus’ horizon is larger than that, reaching toward the ultimate fulfillment of human potential. He sees that the justice these seekers yearn for will always be just out of reach as long as they are singularly focused on the day to day scramble for food, water and healing. He is nudging them toward the realization that it is this desperate preoccupation that keeps them confined and marginalized within corrupt religious and political systems where power is wielded by controlling and manipulating access to basic necessities. Jesus tells them, almost pleads with them, “Do not work for the food that perishes but [work] for the food that endures for eternal life.”
And then the crowd asks an astute question signaling an opening. “What must we do to perform [these] works of God?” And Jesus’ response; “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one whom God has sent.” In John, believing in Jesus is the point of the whole gospel. It is the key to eternal life in the here and now. From John’s perspective, Jesus embodies, in the present moment, not only the possibility but the actuality of a different way of being in the world. Believing in Jesus brings his followers into relationship with him and includes them in the circle of divine love that brings everything into being. It also brings them into relationship with other believers. And for John, it is this divine, beloved communion that actualizes eternal life, both in the present moment and in the reign to come. Believing in the possibility of such love brings it into being.
The crowd is still not convinced. They remind Jesus that God gave their ancestors manna in the wilderness and they want to know what sign he will give them so that they may believe. And it is then that Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” In other words, I am the sign you are seeking; I am the sign of what is possible. Here Jesus is the model for a way of being with each other where all are fed, where they are all invited to believe and where all are welcomed into the community of believers regardless of status. And it is believing that makes one part of this communion. Through believing they can be fed and filled and fulfilled in a way that endures. Jesus is asking them to transform their way of seeing and their way of being. He wants them to believe themselves into the possibility that life is more than a daily struggle for basic rights. That in their love for Jesus and each other they can be fed and sustained through good times and through bad. Here relationality, not their dependance on a benevolent leader, is the source of the justice they seek. This is a deeper, broader justice than they sought in their pursuit of Jesus. This restorative justice does not consign them, as believers, to a tyrannizing pursuit of basic needs. Instead, it acknowledges, celebrates and nurtures the divine potential at the heart of each person; a potential that is often thwarted and denied by powerful people and institutions. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus is the manna from heaven – the bread of life — that rains down to nurture this potential into being.
Bringing this reflection to its ending, let me consider for a moment what this Gospel reading might speak into our own times of hunger and thirst where injustice seems to rule the day and where so many feel confined and trapped within systems where their energy is consumed by the often futile pursuit of substandard food, shelter, healthcare, education and more? The life of civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis who died a year ago in July might give us a clue. His early work as a young civil rights activist which almost ended in his death in 1965 on the Edmond Pettis Bridge during the Bloody Sunday Protest March and his dedication to voting rights for all Americans across his years as a congressman were informed by a deep belief in the beloved community described in scriptures. Believing into this reality was the defining action of Lewis’ life. In an interview with Krista Tippet for her book Being Wise, he says “And you live as if you’re already there, that you’re already in that community, part of that sense of one family, one house. If you visualize it, if you can even have faith that it’s there, for you it is already there.” Biblical stories like today’s gospel were food for Lewis’ journey and pursuit of justice. Following Lewis, we are invited to let today’s gospel rain down on us like the bread of life; to let it nurture us, inform us and help us to believe ourselves into the possibilities lifted up in the life of Jesus.