Bread embodies and incorporates everything of life. The vitalities and energies of life are all baked and incorporated into bread. Bread contains the energies of the sun and the rain, the vitalities of the soil and the seed. In bread there is the plow of the farmer who sows seed and harvests grain, the stone of the miller who grinds grain into flour, the hand of the baker who kneeds flour into dough and shapes dough into loaves, the heat of the oven that bakes loaves into bread. All of that, and more, is baked into what we commonly call “bread.”
Bread sustains and supports life. It is the “staff of life,” the backbone of our diet. Bread is common, ordinary, daily food. “Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. And the Catechism teaches us that the “daily bread” for which we pray is everything we need to support this body and life – from the sunshine and rain, to the farmer and baker, to the truck driver and the grocer, not to mention the roads and the general peace. Without daily bread we starve. At the risk of an anachronism, I can recall when I when “bread” was a word for money. “Hey, man, do you have any bread?” was meant to ask the question “Do you have any money?” which actually wasn’t a bad way to think of bread. Bread means life and livdlihood, and there can be no life without bread.
Last week we heard about a bread miracle. With a little boy’s five loaves of barley bread, Jesus fed five thousand. They ate their fill of miracle bread, but did not perceive the sign or believe in the One who fed them. They enjoyed the benefits of the miracle but missed the deeper meaning beyond the bread.
The bread that fed the five thousand might have called to mind the Passover bread, the “Bread of Affliction,” yeastless and hard, baked in haste and eaten on the run. How different the bread from Jesus was, eaten while reclining in the soft comfort on a hillside of green grass. They might have recalled the bread of angels, the manna their fathers ate in the wilderness, the bread of heaven that God caused to rain down as thin flakes every morning for forty years, white as coriander and sweet as honey. Every morning without fail, “each one gathered as much as he needed.” Twice that amount the day before the Sabbath. They might have seen beyond the barley loaves that didn’t run out to Jesus, who was their Farmer, their Miller, their Baker, and their Butler.
Yet like the people of Israel, their attention was fixed not on the heavenly Baker of bread, but on their bellies. With bellies filled with barley bread they chased after Jesus to Capernaum. If He could feed thousands with five little loaves, just think of what He could do for the gross national product of Israel, not to mention the unemployment rate and the hunger problem. In an election year, Jesus would have been tops on the political polls. We elect people on promises of bread. Jesus delivered. He filled their bellies and twelve baskets to boot. But they missed what made the miracle a sign that pointed beyond the bread to the Giver of bread: the Passover, the green grass, the twelve baskets, the bread in the wilderness.
That is where Jesus wants to move His hearers in Capernaum, and us this morning – beyond daily bread to true, eternal bread, to see the Bread of Life hidden behind life’s daily bread. Jesus wants to bring them, and us, from barley bread to living Bread, and to do that He has to break through three barriers.
The first barrier is the belly. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” The prophet Isaiah said the same thing: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” There is perishable food and eternal food. Perishable food is what refrigerators, freezers, preservatives, and expiration dates are all about. Even the manna in the wilderness had an expiration date – exactly one day, except on the Sabbath day when it lasted two. And if the people tried to store it an extra day, it turned foul and full of worms.
Perishable food feeds perishable life. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” cried the libertine Corinthians. “And God will destroy both one and the other,” came the sober warning from the apostle Paul. That puts both food and the belly in perspective. The foods we eat do not last forever, and neither do the bodies that eat them. We may worry about the negative effects of popcorn popped in tropical oils, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and whatever else finds it way on the dietary hit list, but in the end we still die. The vitalities and energies of perishable food remain perishable. Our American obsession with calories, cholesterol and carbohydrates, fat, fitness, and fiber may help us live a bit healthier and wiser, though not necessarily happier and certainly not without guilt, but in the end all this anxiety contributes nothing to eternal life. The wages of sin is death, and no earthly diet is going to alter that payday.
The two kinds of food feed two kinds of life. There is our natural life born of the flesh, the life that we received through our parents when we were conceived and born. Then there is spiritual life born in Baptism of water and Spirit. Both must be fed. As we eat the food of our work, so we must also eat the food that comes from God’s work. The life born of flesh is fed with the perishable bread of the earth, bread that is earned by the sweat of our brows and the strain and stress of our everyday work at the office, at the shop, at home. It is as perishable as this week’s paycheck and last week’s loaf of bread.
The life born in Baptism of water and Spirit is fed not with perishable food, but with another kind of food, eternal heavenly food. Jesus alone gives this food. He alone is the One called the “Son of man,” the one who brings heaven to earth, who unites God and man in Himself. He alone bears the Father’s seal of approval, the testimony that He is the beloved Servant-Son sent to feed us, and only He gives food that endures to eternal life.
That Jesus gives this food means that we do not work for it. And that is the second barrier through which Jesus must break. Bread usually means work. “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your food,” says the Lord. “If any will not work, neither should he eat,” wrote the apostle Paul to the Thessalonians. “What must we do to be doing the works of God,” the people asked Jesus. The question was a natural one. What exactly did Jesus mean when He said do not work for perishable food but for the food that He would give? Was it gift or not? And what did this have to do with work?
Jesus could have replied with the Ten commandments or the two commandments to love God and love the neighbor. Those are the works of God. But Jesus stands the question on its head. It is not our works but God’s work that counts. It is not the works we do for God, but the work God does for us that feeds forever with imperishable food. “This is the work of God: that you believe in the One he has sent.” The work that feeds us with imperishable eternal food is no work at all on our part, but the work of God on and in us, namely that we believe in Jesus Christ whom the Father has sent.
It’s faith not works. And faith is not a work. Faith is the work of God in us. Faith is what is left when there is nothing left to do. To believe is to receive from God the way the body draws upon food, to soak up the vitalities and the energies of God’s life as the body soaks up the vitalities and energies of the food that it eats. We no more work for the food that feeds forever than the five-thousand labored for the barley loaves and fishes.
The third barrier is unbelief, that in-born, hard-hearted resistance to being given to by God. “What sign do you do that we may see, and believe in you.” The people wanted proof, a sign, a miracle, which was strange because many of them had been among the five thousand on the hillside. But faith in miracles demands a continual diet of newer and bigger miracles to feed it, and it shrivels and starves when the miracles quit coming. Feeding five-thousand in the wilderness with five barley loaves was not quite big enough for those whose fathers had eaten manna in the wilderness for forty years. “We’ve been there and done that with Moses. Show us something new.” But if we trust Jesus only as far as He is able to supply today’s miracle, quiet today’s grumbling belly, and solve today’s problems how will we trust him with the big, eternal things – forgiveness of sins, eternal life, salvation, resurrection.
Jesus draws his hearers, and us, beyond the miraculous manna of the wilderness and the multiplied barley bread of the hillside to a yet greater Bread – Himself. He draws us out of and beyond our needs and hungers to the one great need and hunger that only He can fill with Himself – the need and hunger for life in the fullest sense of the word. We may try to fill that hunger with other food, other bread. We may try the fluffy Wonder Bread of religion. We may sample the delicate croissants and elegant pastries of material possessions. We may chew the hard, 10-grain bread of work, achievement, and success. But in the end only one Bread can fill the eternal hunger that makes us cry out, “Lord, give us this bread always.”
“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus is Bread – true Bread come down from heaven, the Bread of God that gives life to the world. Of all the ways that Jesus describes himself, this is the most basic to life. As basic as bread itself. Jesus is Bread with a capital B which gives life with a capital L. He incorporates the vitalities and energies of the life of God into Himself and He feeds that life of God into us. We hear this I AM of Jesus in light of all the other I AM’s in St. John’s Gospel: I AM…the Door, the Good Shepherd, the true Vine, the Light of the world, the Way, the Truth, the Resurrection, the Life, each one delivering Jesus, this one as our food, a food that endures to eternal life. And it is said with all the force of the great I AM, God’s Name of promise and salvation.
He is the Manna of the end times, God’s Bread come down from Heaven to feed His end times Israel, His church, as she wanders in the wilderness between Baptism and the Promised Land of the resurrection. He is the unleavened Bread of the end times Passover, sinless and broken on the cross, broken to begin a Feast that has no end. He is the living Bread from Heaven, born in Bethlehem (which means “House of Bread”), a Bread feeds us with the eternal abundance of His Life.
This is much more than a static symbol or a clever figure of speech. To come to Jesus is to draw upon the energies and vitalities of living Bread and never again be hungry. To believe in Jesus is to drink of living water, as He said to the Samaritan woman at the well a couple of chapters earlier, and never again be thirsty. It is to be on the gift receiving end of Him who said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Here is Bread the way the world cannot bake Bread, a Bread that satisfies eternally. A Bread filled with the abundance of the vitalities and energies of God. A Bread that doesn’t simply provide health and energy for this life, but the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Every other food is transformed into the eater. But this Bread transforms the one who eats it. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
Such a Bread has come down from heaven to feed you. He has been broken in death for you. He is here present to feed you with the promise that those who come to feast on Him in faith will never again hunger or thirst but will be satisfied. Jesus fed five thousand with barley bread. He feeds us with living Bread, Himself, the Bread of Life. He is our daily food against sin and all that sin has done to us.
You have come to the Bread of Life. Draw upon him through faith. Believe in him when Jesus says to you, “This is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise Him up at the last day.” Such a Savior is Jesus that He should be your Butler, your Baker, your Bread, your imperishable food that you might live forever.