The Bread of Life

A Homily for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; St. John 6:34-35


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Bread of Life. Amen.

breadandfish
Loaves and Fish, Church of the Multiplication

When last we saw Jesus, he was taking a leisurely stroll across the waves after feeding the five thousand. According to Saint John’s account, Jesus had taken the disciples to a remote location, but the crowds followed them, as they are wont to do. With a sly look, Jesus asked the disciples where they could find food to feed five thousand people; Philip pragmatically pointed out that six month’s wages wouldn’t be enough to feed so many people, and Saint Andrew found a kid with five loaves and some fish – before quickly reminding our Lord that such a small meal was nothing compared to the size of the crowd. Of course that didn’t stop Jesus: he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it out to eat. And not only did it feed the entire multitude but they had twelve massive baskets of large chunks left over. As Jesus retreated further away from the now-sated crowds and his disciples sailed back across the lake (with Jesus miraculously following on foot), the multitudes were left with a burning question. They gave chase, and this is where we pick up today: the people have once again pressed in around our Lord and the disciples, and the people want to know what all this means!

For Jesus’ audience that day, the miraculous sign is overflowing with symbolism. It was certainly miraculous in its own right, but it is also laden with connections to Israel’s past. Recall, if you will, the Old Testament reading from last week: Elisha the prophet fed a hundred people with only twenty loaves of bread. The prophet’s assistant griped (much like Philip and Andrew) that there was no way so little food would be enough for so many people, but sure enough, there was such a feast that they even had some left overs!

manna
Manna from Heaven, 18th century Dutch woodcut

And think of this week’s reading from the Old Testament: as the Hebrews wander in the wilderness, they face starvation. A few of the more stubborn-minded among them complain that they would rather live their entire lives as slaves in Egypt than starve to death in the desert – for at least in slavery they had plenty of bread and “fleshpots,” a wonderfully crass word for dishes of meat. Again the Lord hears the people’s cry, and the one who is called “I Am” promises to send quail in the evening and bread in the morning. When God delivers on this divine promise, there’s this almost-comedic scene at the end: the Hebrews wake up and see the bread on the ground and wonder, “What is it?” Moses has to treat them kind of like a picky eater: “It’s the bread God promised. Try it; you’ll like it.” In my mind’s eye, I sort of see a few people sniffing at it and cautiously licking these wafers before they take a first trepidatious bite. “Hey Moses, he likes it!”

These two stories, and many more besides, had to be running through the people’s minds. There is a long history of God providing food for the hungry, starting with Creation itself, a theme the Blessed Virgin picks up in her canticle of praise the Magnificat, and the people had just been the recipients of such a miracle. Of course they wanted more! In Jesus, the crowd has found one who works wonders like the prophets, one greater than Elisha and greater even than Moses the liberator and law-giver. Elisha fed many with very little; Jesus fed more with less. Christ fed them and, before they knew it, like Moses ascending Mount Sinai, Jesus was retreating up the mountain and then setting off across the sea. The people were left to realize, “Here is a prophet like Moses and Elisha who can feed us! We’ve got to go find him!”

When Jesus meets the crowd, though, he sees through them: “I know what you’re up to. I know you’re just here for the food. You’ve come all this way for food that will mold and rot. Instead, seek food that will feed you for eternity.”

The manna from heaven lasted but a short time. The Hebrews were to gather enough only for a single day; if they kept any over night – just one night! – they would wake the next morning to find it moldy and run through with insects. (The exception was the Sabbath, when they could gather enough food on Friday to last through the day of rest.) Those who tried to gather up as much as they could, who doubted and tried to stock up while the getting was good, were treated to a rude surprise the next morning when they woke up to find jars of spoiled food.

And the food that Elisha prepared? Assuming it was anything like the loaves of bread I’ve made, the leftovers lasted maybe a few days. Even with modern refrigeration and preservatives, bread doesn’t keep forever; contrary to popular belief, even Twinkies expire. I would wager that we’ve all experienced the annoyance of pulling out a loaf of bread or a pack of bagels only to find green fuzz growing over the entire thing.

Jesus is promising something even greater than any of the prophets: bread that does not perish. The crowd goes wild. Just like the woman at the well who wants living water that quenches thirst for all time, the crowd hungers for this infinitely-satisfying, immaculately-preserved bread. They want to know where they can get this heavenly bread that does not rot, that endures for eternal life. It’s an obvious enough question to ask; when someone tells you about an amazing restaurant, you make sure to get the name, right? And when the person who just fed an ancient city’s worth of people with a few scant provisions promises eternal food, you definitely want to know which market he’s shopping at.

The sign of feeding five thousand points backwards to the prophets and their miraculous deeds when God sent abundant provisions to feed the children of Israel. The crowd gets that; they’ve eaten their fill the same way their ancestors did. But the feeding of the five thousand also points forward to a new Kingdom coming into this world, to a time when both physical and spiritual hunger are abolished, to a different kind of bread. This new bread is unlike anything that’s come before it: different from the manna in the wilderness, different from the wondrous loaves Elisha made, different even from the sign we saw last week.

breadoflife
“I am the Bread of Life,” from a 16th century collection of Martin Luther’s writings. Note the celebration of Holy Communion in the background.

As the crowd pushes in around Jesus asking for the bread of life, they’re looking for something they’ve seen before. And then our Lord says, “I am the bread of life…”

It’s certainly not the answer the crowd was expecting.

They wanted food to sustain them for a lifetime; Christ is bread to sustain humanity for all time. They were looking for bread which will not perish; Christ is the person who does not perish. They wanted God to provide; Christ is the one who provides and Christ is that very heavenly bread provided.

In the Old Testament lections, we saw God provide for Israel’s every need. Last week, we saw Christ provide more than the people needed. But this week, Jesus gives a glimpse of his true identity: he is the one who is called “I Am,” and his miraculous provision is but a foretaste of his divine identity.

Dear ones, we want God to provide: bread, quail, fish, wine, food for the hungry. We pray for God to send healing, peace, liberation, calm in the storm. But God provides more than we could ever ask for: God sends us God’s self, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son. We ask for creations, and God sends the one through whom all things were created. We ask for things that are perishing, and God sends us imperishable Life itself.

The one who poured out power upon the prophets, the one who fed the multitudes, the very Bread of Life comes to us even today, here on this Altar. Here, at this Table, Christ invites us to join in the Feast, to receive the Body of Christ.

Come to the Feast, dear ones, with arms outstretched, with hands open, and receive the true Bread of Heaven, the Bread which does not perish but endures for eternal life. Receive so much more than we could ever ask for. Receive the grace that sustains the world. Receive the forgiveness of sin; receive life; receive salvation. Receive your Lord through whom all things were made. Come to the Feast and receive the one who is called “I Am.”

Amen.

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