Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The disciples had just witnessed the extraordinary feeding of the five thousand and marveled and wondered what it could all mean. And in their hesitating and stumbling way they ask Jesus what is this new thing which is happening. And Jesus in those stunning words, ‘I am the bread of life’ is making a connection between bread and life; anew kind of life. The bread of life gives life to the world, and I, Jesus, am that bread. ‘I am the living bread. If you eat this bread you will never be hungry again, because if you eat this bread you will live forever. And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
It is hard to imagine just how shocking these words were. So shocking that the Jewish authorities now looked in earnest for a way to kill him; so shocking that many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. They said, ‘This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?’
But at the same time you could say that this passage is the very climax of the whole Gospel; what following Jesus Christ is really all about. For it is not simply imitating the life of a wonderful person, Jesus Christ. It is not just living by a new moral code, inaugurated by the Sermon on the Mount. It is nothing less than feeding on the very life of Jesus – flesh and blood. Being made one body with him, being incorporated into his body through baptism, and then feeding on him sacramentally, through the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. That mystical yet fleshly union between Jesus and his church still has the power to take our breath away. Some theologians have tried to weaken these words, interpret them in a less embarrassingly incarnational sense. But the words remain: verse 53: ‘Jesus said to them, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”’
It is life, eternal life which is the gift of God in Jesus Christ. And this is the Gospel: ‘I came that you may have life, life in abundance.’ So urgent is this message that this passage in John uses some startling language. Jesus says, ‘If you come to me you will never be hungry, never be thirsty, I will never drive you away’. What is remarkable is that each of these three phrases, in the Greek, he uses a double negative ‘ou me’, which is really powerful, and is really saying something like ’you will never ever, ever.’ Come to me and you will never ever be hungry, never ever be thirsty, and I will never ever let you go! These are firm promises which we can trust with our lives.
Jesus calls us to him for one reason only, and that is to receive LIFE, eternal life. And of course this passage is in many ways the climax of the Gospel because it is shot through with resurrection. Resurrection pulses through these verses, and to make sure we don’t miss it Jesus repeats one promise; he repeats it four times in just fifteen verses. And what a promise:
‘I will raise you/them up on the last day! (verses 39, 40, 44, and 54).
Resurrection just ringing out…
But lest resurrection be seen as merely some disembodied, philosophical idea, it is intimately linked with flesh and blood, and with BREAD. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. And through this profoundly incarnational gospel of John, bread has ever since powerfully evoked the gift of life in Jesus Christ. ‘I am the bread of life.’
There is a story which I find very moving about something which happened as World War II was drawing to a close. There was terrible hunger in Europe and the allied armies gathered up many staving orphans. They were placed in camps where they were well fed. Although they were looked after really well, they hardly slept at night. They were so nervous and afraid. Eventually a psychologist sensed what the problem was, and came up with a solution. Each child was given a piece of bread to hold after he was put to bed. The piece of bread was just to be held in the night, and not eaten. That piece of bread produced wonderful results. The children went to bed knowing instinctively that they would have food to eat the next day. That guarantee calmed their fears and gave the children a restful and contented sleep.
When we lie awake worrying at night, it’s probably not about whether we shall have anything to eat tomorrow, although many millions in our world do. Psychologists tell us that at the root of much of our anxiety and distress, is the fear of death – the final enemy. Today’s reading from St John’s gospel proclaims with ringing tones that death is not to be feared. “Believe in me and you will have eternal life, and I will raise you up at the last day.”
This promise of life is powerfully linked with bread. ‘Whoever eats of this bread – my flesh, will live forever.’ In a little while we shall each hold a piece of bread in our hands. As you take it in your hand think of those orphans for whom the piece of bread was a promise that they would not be hungry again. As you hold the bread, let it be a sign to you in Thomas Aquinas’ words, let it be a ‘pledge of future glory’, a pledge that you will never, ever be hungry, that you will never, ever be thirsty, that Jesus will never, ever let you go, but that he will raise you up at the last day. Alleluia!
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