Today’s Gospel is the first of four readings from John’s “Bread Discourse” (6:25-69) in which Jesus explains the deeper significance of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-15) we considered last week. Bread takes on a profound symbolic meaning as Jesus proclaims, “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:35).
The crowd that follows Jesus still seems to think of him as a potential nationalist leader like Moses, who will lead them in the struggle for liberation. Jesus is acutely aware that their motives are misdirected, and that they have misinterpreted the dramatic sign of the feeding miracle. Thus, Jesus skillfully guides their understanding of the provision of food to make his point: that material bread is a perishable commodity. Even the manna of Moses in the wilderness would not keep beyond a day.
Furthermore, Jesus declares that his hearers must not work for food of no enduring value, but for the eternal sustenance that the Son of Man can provide. Manna had come to represent the essence of life in the world to come. But here the Gospel says that it is through Jesus that the true and enduring manna of God is manifested. Jesus, the Messiah upon whom Abba the Father has set his seal, is that heavenly food (6:27).
The crowd then asks Jesus what they must do to “perform the works of God” (v. 28). Jesus responds with the revolutionary teaching that the works of God consist not in actions but in committing oneself to the revelation that God has sent in Christ Jesus (v. 29). Thus, the indispensable work of God is believing in Jesus Christ. It cannot be achieved but is to be received by faith — and only this leads to eternal life.
Once again, the crowd asks for a visible sign, as they recall the remarkable provision of manna to their ancestors in the wilderness (Ex. 16:4). Manna was seen as bread from heaven and was further identified with God’s law that provided nourishment to the Jewish people.
Jesus reminds them that it was not Moses but God the Father who gave them bread from heaven to eat. Moreover, the manna in the wilderness was no more than an expedient provision for a temporary need until they reached the Promised Land. Everyone who ate the manna, even Moses, had died. In contrast, the “true bread from heaven” (v. 32) gives eternal life to the world. “Sir, give us this bread always” (6:34). The crowd is ready to accept the fact that Jesus might offer it; but they are still thinking of a material substance, as Jesus proclaims: “I am the bread of life” (v. 35a).
And he promises: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35b). As the bread of life, Jesus will satisfy the deep hunger of all people for all eternity. The miracle here is one of faith, as the pursuit of temporary, temporal concerns gives way to a radically new pattern of life embodied in Jesus.
After their liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites began their journey across the Sinai wilderness. But within a month, their jubilation turned to discontent, and they began to grumble against Moses and Aaron about the lack of water (Ex. 15:23-25) and the scarcity of food. Forgetting the burdens and hopelessness of their former slavery, they accused Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to starve; at least in Egypt they had had enough to eat.
The Lord recognized the needs of the people and told Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you. … In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instructions or not” (Ex. 16:4). At God’s command, Moses and Aaron gathered the people together. As the presence of the Lord appeared in the pillar of cloud that had led them out of Egypt, Moses proclaimed that the Lord would provide food for them.
Thus, in the evening quail appeared; and in the morning the ground was covered with manna, “a fine flaky substance” (v. 14). Quail would have been migrating across the Sinai at the springtime of year; and manna was likely derived from the secretion of scale insects that fed on tamarisk plants. The Israelites were initially puzzled by the appearance of the manna and asked what it could be. Moses replied, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” (v. 15). Throughout their sojourn in the wilderness, this daily provision of manna would sustain them.
However, the Israelites direct their demands to Moses and Aaron, not realizing that it is the Lord who provides for them. The bread that appears with the dawn is bread from heaven that comes from God. This is the God of abundance who enters into a covenantal relationship with the people, hears their cries, and responds to their needs. By this they “shall know that I am the Lord your God” (v. 12).
In our epistle reading from the fourth chapter of Ephesians begins a section on what is expected of those who would follow Jesus. Today’s reading focuses on unity in the community of faith. All followers of Jesus have received a vocation from God, and thus are called to a life of true humility worthy of this call (4:1-2). We must always bear with one another in love, seeking the bond of peace that unites us.
Our individual vocations are to serve the community, since we are a single body animated and guided by the Sprit. We acknowledge “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (vv. 5-6)
As we gather to hear this word from John 6, especially as we’re gathering at the Table, then our readings offer us the opportunity to explore and meditate on the meaning of the Eucharist. We are invited to meditation and contemplation of not just the bread and wine, but how our life together reflects God’s abundant grace. The passage offers us the opportunity to ask how these seemingly bare elements — just common food and drink — can communicate to us the life-giving presence of Jesus.