Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:24-35)
“What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?”
For those of you who remember last week’s lesson and sermon, this may be quite an odd question. What sign? I feel like shouting out (and sometimes I do as I read) - Hey - did not Jesus give you a sign? Did you already forget..you know..5 loaves, 2 fishes, 1 boy...and 12 baskets of leftovers? And they want a sign? In order to believe?
It seems the people around Jesus did not want to hear about God’s mighty deeds nor did they want to hear Jesus preach, even though that’s why they supposedly followed him, but instead, they want a sign. They want to experience, to see, to feel - not just anything but something big and fantastic and impressive. A sign that would assure them that Jesus is worth following and, as it seems, a sign bigger than making 5 loaves and 2 fishes feed 5000.
Sure, they may have heard of how he healed people and how he turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana - and they may have heard whispers that he was walking on water, but they obviously didn’t see it. After all, that they went into their boats and crossed the sea after noticing that Jesus and the disciples had left. Jesus had not left with them and yet there he was, in Capernaum, when they arrived. And they wondered how he got there even though he was not with them and he was not seen leaving with the disciples, either. But seeing is believing and not seeing is...well..a reason to doubt. Maybe that whole bread and fish thing was a fluke? If only they could see with their own eyes the supposed signs and wonders; then it would be so much easier to know and to understand and to be sure. There would be no need for explanations. The sign would be explanation enough. It would legitimize Jesus and put him side by side with Moses - he who gave their people manna in the wilderness to eat. Jesus would be a hero and following a hero like that - of course - that would be a no-brainer.
Throughout the ages people have always looked for heroes to whom they could look up to and whose paths they could possibly follow. Not just back then, but even today. It is easy to see - there are scores of books with heroes that defeat villains, movies are filled with extraordinary beings like Supermann, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, or even Harry Potter, or doctors who save lives and detectives that solve crimes. Heroes orr even Superheroes. Those that fight bad and evil in the world and rescue people, magically heal them, or otherwise help make things good and right and whole again. And the search for heroes spills into real life when politicians, activists, supposed healers, or even televangelists try to impress with promises of a better life, more money in our pockets, safer streets, less corruption, less broken promises. And often people cling to their every word hoping that this will be the one - the hero to save them.
That’s what the Israelites wanted, too - a hero. But Jesus will have none of it. He neither gives them the sign they ask for that moment nor does he make himself look like a hero. They asked him to perform works and he only responds with words. No Manna rains down from heaven. No sudden flashes of light. No bright miracles that leave one standing open mouthed and in awe. Instead - he seems to scold them, and he corrects them. No, it was not he – Moses -- that gave you the bread from heaven, but it was he -- the father of me -- the Father of Jesus - who gives it to you. As Susan Hylen, Associate Professor of New Testament at Emory University points out, “Jesus defines and slightly alters the terms of the scripture…verse 31 stated, “he gave us bread from heaven to eat.” Jesus says, don’t interpret the subject, “he” as Moses, but as God. Furthermore, he changes the verb tense from ‘gave,’ the past tense, to ‘gives.’ The changes bring out the point of Jesus’ interpretation: manna is not simply a story that resides in Israel’s past, but is an on-going gift of God in the present. It is available to Jesus’ listeners even now.”[i] No sign is needed. Jesus is the sign and the bread.[ii]
But Jesus’ listeners still don’t understand. All they hear is that Jesus is the BREAD of Life, and yes, that is what they want. They want this bread, this actual bread. They are hungry for an easier life. Hungry for a life where there is enough. Hungry for a life where things go their way. Hungry for a life without worries and fears. Hungry for a life that is...well..life. Jesus telling them “I am the Bread of Life” isn’t enough; no, they physically want that bread that he is talking about and they want it now and always. Their hunger is real and they want something real.
The needs, wants, hopes, and desires of those who followed Jesus back then are not much different from our own. Just as they wanted the Bread of Life now and always, so do many of us and around us today. So many people feel as if they are wandering aimlessly like Israelites through a desert and they are searching for tangible signs, direction and solutions to difficulties in their lives. We too are looking for signs that make us feel comforted and cared for and that assure us that all is well and that all will be well. We too yearn for moments of happiness and fulfillment. Moments where everything is good and well, and any fears and worries stay far away. And we may look for happiness and fulfillment in self-help books, seminars, or in promises from people that appear as if they may know more truths than we do. Or we may seek it when opportunity arises for thrilling or different experiencing or even the opposite, when we seek out quiet mountain retreats or the ocean to, just maybe, find a little peace or shalom. And these moments of freedom from life seem extraordinary and so are signs and wonders. Life, however, is made up of the ordinary. Our life with each other. Our families. Our neighborhoods. Our commitments. All of them are the ordinary staples of life just as bread is a staple food.
Humanity, however, does not live on physical bread alone. There is another bread, another food that God provides, another manna in the wilderness. One that helps us to truly and deeply know that we are loved by God. And that bread is Jesus. And when the ordinary life leaves us hungry and wanting more, “I am the Bread of Life”, Jesus says, “I am the only food, the staple, the one thing that can satisfy the hunger and longing you feel; not wonder bread but Bread of Life.” Jesus calls us…to move beyond too narrowly focusing on signs and broaden our perspective into wider, deeper forms of trust in God”[iii] and life with God.
“I am the Bread of Life” - The Bread of Life that, as CS Lewis explains, is not the “biological sort which come to us through Nature, and which (like everything else in Nature) is always tending to run down and decay so that it can only be kept up by incessant subsidies from Nature in the form of air, water, food, etc”...but, the “spiritual life which is in God from all eternity, and which made the whole natural universe”. [iv] The bread that is food that endures for eternal life – not a life somewhere in the ever-after but “a life of mutual intimacy with God that can begin here and now…a life with and in God”.[v] This is the life that we were made for and that is the life we hunger for deep within when our souls sense our disconnection from God.
Jesus is our sustenance. Jesus, the baby born in Betlehem – Bet Lehem in Hebrew means house of bread -- is the daily bread that we are praying for in the prayer he himself taught us: “Give us this day our daily bread” we pray for Sunday after Sunday and many times in between. It is in Christ that we can find peace, joy, and happiness. When we open our eyes to way Jesus is in our lives and in the world, all of life becomes an adventure; and so, there is no big, magic sign in our reading that Jesus performs - and yet...he still does something marvelous: He invites us. He invites to a life that is full and complete. No superheroes needed, Just Bread of Life.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 34)
And each time we come to the table we say yes to what Jesus is offering.
And the table is prepared and open, and we are all invited.[vi] Always.
I am not sure I can think of a sign more beautiful than that.
[iv]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (in regards to the difference between BIOS (biological life) and ZOE (spiritual life).
[vi] This Sunday is a communion Sunday so that we all may be fed both by word and by table and experience once again the transformative nature of this shared meal.