The people in today’s first reading were Israelites who had just escaped from Egypt and passed through the water of the Red Sea. They were beginning their journey through a desert to their meeting with the Lord at Mt Sinai. And what they were worried and angry about was food – the lack of it. The people in today’s Gospel – we continue with John ch. 6 – had just experienced the multiplication of the loaves and the fish and had passed through water, taking boats across Lake Galilee. And what they were bothered with was also food. “You are looking for me, says Jesus, because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.” They reckoned they had discovered in Jesus a mobile supermarket, Tesco on legs and, what is more, free.
Like many of you here, I belong to a time and place and an economic context in which I’ve never seriously had to worry where my next meal was coming from. I’ve never been seriously, desperately hungry or anywhere near in danger of starving to death. Am I as grateful as I should be for this? Because for most of humanity, over millennia, life has been otherwise. Still today, according to the United Nations, 690 million people go to bed on an empty stomach. The people in the desert, remembering the good food in fertile Egypt, were haunted by fear of dying. 1st century Galilee was too a fertile place, but still survival was not guaranteed. I mention all this not to make an appeal for SCIAF or Mary’s Meals, but to help us understand the miracle of the manna and Jesus’ famous words, “I am the bread of life.”
Take the word “exist”. We exist – glory be to God – as do trees and bushes and birds and fish and animals. It’s the first miracle. We take it so for granted. We are so dulled by the familiarity of things, with cataracts over our spiritual eyes. Existence, though – even of a wooden pole sticking out of the ground – is a wonder. The word “exist” means to “stand out”. “Stand out” from what? From nothing. We are required to exist. We happen to be. Like the Israelites rescued from the Egypt we have all, in a way, been rescued from nothingness. I might never have been conceived. I might have been still-born. I might have been aborted. I might have died of meningitis at the age of three. We exist, though. We stand out. Astonishing! And nowhere do we feel this so deeply as around food. Food is where we endorse and celebrate the miracle of our existence, of life. That’s why it’s right to say “grace” before meals. Well fed as we are, though, deep down we are all as scared of going without, of dying of hunger, as those Hebrews in the desert, as the hard-working Galileans trailing after Jesus. Our life is haunted by the fear of going back to nothing.
So when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”, he’s not being poetic. He’s not coming out with a touching metaphor. He’s not giving future theologians something to write about. He’s addressing our deepest anxiety and fear – going back to nothing – and he’s talking to our greatest hope – to live, to exist. “Bread” stands for everything that keeps us physically, and more, the right side of nothingness. Jesus takes that great primal fact of life and expands it. We might say that he “multiplies” its meaning, just as he had multiplied the five loaves and the two fish the other side of the water. I am more, he says, than a delivery van of free meals. I am the true bread, the bread of God, the bread given all of you by my Father in heaven. I am the difference between death and life, between nothing and everything, between meaninglessness and fullness. In hunger, we fold in on ourselves. When we eat, we open up. It is Christ who lifts us out of inner collapse and expands the heart. Speaking the language of St John’s Gospel, he’s crying out: I am the Word through whom you all and the whole universe exist, through whom everything is kept in being, everything is fed and nourished by my Father, and given being and life. Now, a further step, I have become flesh, I have come to feed you in view, not just of this life, but for ever and in every respect: body, soul and spirit, as individual, as part of a people, as man, as woman. No wonder then that, in the Gospel of John, the images pile up: “I am the Light of the world, I am the Door, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Resurrection and the Life, I am the way, the Truth and the Life, I am the Vine…”
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry, he who believes in me will never thirst.”
As Christians, we, like the Hebrews and the Galileans, have passed through water: we have been baptised. We are all going through the desert towards the promised land and the mountain of God. We all have our own struggles, complaints and murmurings. What does our Lord want us to know when he says, “I am the bread of life”? Answers will unfold in the rest of John ch. 6. But I just think of the word “companion”. A companion is someone who shares bread with us, who eats with us. There’s no food we need more than presence, than companionship. Let us try to be present, companions one to another, accompanying one another, and let us be sure in faith that there is always someone beside us, secretly nourishing us, keeping us from collapse into nothing, someone on our side, by our side, never leaving us just to our poor hungry, self-defeating selves. There is the Bread of Life, the Food of God, the Lord.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 1 August 2021