The gospels for the last two weeks are part of a single story that continues today. Two Sundays ago, the gospel was about Jesus feeding thousands with five loaves and two fish, followed by an attempt by people to make Jesus their king. Last week the crowd caught up with Jesus and he told them you are looking for me, … because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, … “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. It was an invitation. He had their attention and used the moment to drive home his offer of welcome.
The gospel for August 8th repeats these last words and continues from this point.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." On the one hand Jesus may have been using bread as a metaphor. After all, bread is one of the simplest forms of life-sustaining food in every culture. People could understand its essential properties. But he may have also been prophesying his upcoming institution of the eucharist at Passover when he would transform bread and wine into the food and drink of eternal life: himself. In a sense, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus had the potential to transform every element of the universe into himself.
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” While the Jews (the Pharisees and the priests) were the protagonists in this story, Jesus spoke not only to them but to the crowds that followed him and to his disciples. His words must have astonished them as well.
He said that he was bread …from heaven. He had recently fed them with bread and fish, so they might have understood him as being the source of the bread, but not as actual food which becomes part of a person’s life. And they most certainly did not understand him in the sense of the contemporary aphorism that,” you become what you eat.” It was a confusing claim. Yet, he clearly intended to say that he was essential.
He may have added to the confusion when he said that Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. This was a remarkable promise. At a time when food and drink depended on sun and rain in the locality, rather than global transportation networks and refrigeration, the promise of ‘never going hungry and never being thirsty’ was extraordinary. His promise was of eternal life. The bread he offered was both continuous nourishment but also food for a different kind of life, beyond the bodily. It took a huge leap of faith, imagination, scriptural understanding and the Spirit to see Jesus this way.
Some couldn’t do it.
They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” They thought that they knew Jesus because they knew his parents and where he came from. It was inconceivable that someone from their region could make such a claim. It not only challenged their understanding of his background but also their sense of a transcendent God, who was remote from daily life. Yet he made this astonishing claim.
It may also be that the leaders of the synagogue and the Pharisees attacked him because they were jealous of the attention that Jesus had attracted from the crowds and the obvious appeal of his teaching.
Jesus responded with a series of immense claims. “Stop grumbling among yourselves, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. He said he was sent by the Father..his Father. Then he said that the Father draws people to him by a free gift of grace. He promised to raise dead people on the last day. As an opening sentence, it was a breathtaking set of claims.
Up to this point he had not identified the Father conclusively as God. Now he expanded on his identity and relationship to God by saying It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. The quote comes from Isaiah 54:13. Not only did Jesus claim that he was teaching on behalf of God, but he also declared that he was the fulfillment of the prophetic promise. And he used God and Father as synonyms. This was a breakthrough moment in Jesus' call to belief.
Then Jesus returned to the original question: Is this not Jesus, son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? His answer was that you know neither my Father nor me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. Recall that Moses had only seen the back of God in passing (Exodus 33:22-23) and was visibly transformed by the sight. (Exodus 34:29-30) Yet Jesus now claimed, indirectly, to have seen the Father. And once again, he promised eternal life to the person who believed in him.
Jesus’ statement had less to do with being greater than Moses than with establishing his own relationship to God; with the words very truly he was making a solemn “truth claim”. He said that he spoke God’s truth.
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Here again, he referenced Moses and God’s offering of food but he said that his bread went beyond the offering of manna in the desert.
When Jesus said I am the bread of life he claimed that he was essential for everlasting life. After having already said I will raise them up on the last day and they will have eternal life if they believe in him Jesus added that if people eat the bread that he gives, they will not die and will live forever.
His claims must have astounded his listeners. They knew that people grew old and died. Only God was eternal. Yet he was promising a kind of life with their unseen God, seemingly beyond the reality and constraints of the body. He was upsetting everything they thought they knew about their life and their relationship to God, the Father.