Moses led the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. He was the first prophet to speak the word of God to the people, and his authority was confirmed by the miracles which he worked. Now, long after the Exodus, in the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were again enslaved. Their country was occupied by Roman forces and they were looking for deliverance. Their scriptures told them that God’s salvation would arrive during a future Passover festival, when a prophet like Moses would return to lead the people away from political oppression. A time when God would feed them once more, by giving them manna from heaven.
And this was now happening. But, the crowds in today’s gospel reading seem to have forgotten much of their tradition, and their main interest in Jesus was due to the food which he gave them to eat.
However Jesus quickly brought them back to the point that they were looking for him for the wrong reasons. He used their scriptures to teach them that he is himself the most important gift from God. They’d been fed physically, but they’d missed the spiritual portion completely. They imagined that food was God’s most important gift, but he told them not to work for the food that will eventually go bad. Instead, he said they should seek the food which will always last.
And this food was himself, Jesus, God’s Christ, the Son of the Father, the I AM, who is God’s life for the world.
The conversation between Jesus and the people has two levels of meaning. Jesus was talking in metaphors about God’s truth, but the people heard and thought in earthly terms. As readers of this Gospel we stand in a privileged position between Jesus and the people. We know far less than Jesus who teaches us, but far more than the people who never seemed to have a clue about their ignorance, or Jesus’s meanings.
If we allow ourselves to stand with the people in this story, but also use our capacity to hear and understand Jesus then we can learn a very profound lesson indeed.
Like the people, we wonder about Jesus. Who is he? Where did he come from and what’s he doing here? As we listen to his voice in this gospel story he gives us the answer to these questions and to more. We have a tendency to come to Jesus for the wrong reasons. Most often to get something from him that is far less than he’s willing to give. Our limited understanding gives us small expectations. Perhaps we seek things that are able to make life easier or more acceptable; like the manna which came through Moses.
The sad thing about this is that we may become so content with it that we never experience the freedom which comes from faith in Jesus.
The miracle of the feeding, and the discussion which goes with it, holds together two things. The people are fed to the full and they are shown Christ, the light of the world.
The people were fed with bread and fish but there was still a deep hunger in them which would not be satisfied until they recognized who fed them. Until they recognized who Jesus really was.
And so it is with us. Jesus comes to us as the grace of God, to call us out of our limited way of living. God’s gift to us is to relate us to Christ in order that we might enjoy a fullness of life that is God’s real intention for our living. If as a result of reading or listening to this gospel story we raise our level of expectations then we have heard what the passage is saying. In Jesus, God is calling us beyond the present limits of our living to a new life which is immersed in, and full of God himself.
It took work for the crowd to follow Jesus. No doubt it was hard work to follow him to the mountain to be fed; it must also have been hard work getting across the sea to Capernaum. And now Jesus told them that just as they’d worked for physical food they must work for the spiritual food which would always keep them alive in God.
This food would be given to them by him. It was no less than his own life, and the work which they must do to be given it was to believe that Jesus really was God’s gift of life to the world. Jesus was telling the well fed though weary crowd just to believe in what God was doing for them through him.
Belief was work for them. Belief is work for us too. All the work that we are required to do is to have a certainty in our mind and heart about God and God’s Son. And yet we continue to find this difficult. Some Christians think that they’re not doing enough, and some no doubt, think that they’re doing more than enough. And both of these mistaken positions are based on good works; the good and the bad things that we do. But the centre of our Lord’s teaching in the passage that we’ve just heard is really quite different. Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
At the Last Supper, Jesus himself took bread and broke it; he poured out wine and offered these things to his followers with the words “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. “Do this”, he said, “to remember me”. He told them, and he tells us through them, to keep on breaking, pouring, eating and drinking in order to remember him. And there is very good reason to believe that these words mean: “do this to make me present”.
Remember this when you come to receive Holy Communion in a few moments, for as you take, eat and drink, you are feeding on Christ himself. You are completing all the work which Jesus requires, and through it you are being kept in eternal life.