There is a phrase that is not used much anymore. It was used as a metaphor to describe something stupendous or miraculous. It goes something along the lines of, “That’s the best thing since sliced bread.”
It probably started when someone thought sales of bread would increase if there was a machine that would slice the loaf of bread before putting it in a bag. Before that sandwich slices were cut from a loaf of bread and that bread was likely not packaged. If I were to cut sandwich slices from a loaf of bread, one slice would be obviously bigger then the other. With sliced bread, they are all the same width, except, maybe, the heels.
In this country, I think we take bread for granted. Back when I was a tyke, lo these many years, I was taught that bread was life. Maybe because of sliced bread, we mainly, I think, buy bread for sandwiches. It doesn’t seem too necessary for our lives, especially when we have access to so much food.
When I was young, bread was like a side dish. We had bread and butter on the side of our plates. Of course, it was usually sliced bread, but it could be a dinner roll, which I still see at Thanksgiving. In later years, we never had bread at meals, unless it was a sandwich.
Suzie and I see typically three lectures from one of the Great Courses on Wednesdays. We just finished one about the birth of civilizations. In almost every case, a civilization occurred after people became an agrarian society. This allowed the population to increase and as the population increased, then someone had to be in charge and there had to be more complex organizations. Also, trading was expanded, which was probably the catalyst for writing.
In the old world, every agrarian society domesticated grain. In west Asia and the Mediterranean, it was principally wheat. In east Asia, it was rice. There is some debate if the domestication of wheat and barley was for food or for beer. The jury is still out. Humans being humans, I’m betting on beer.
Whether it was for bread or for beer, the staple food of the ancient world was grains. In the new world, it was principally tubers. In the ancient world, people starved if there was a bad grain harvest. Society and civilization depended on grains.
Today, we don’t depend on grains, but they remain a part of our diets. The loaves of sliced bread we get in the store seem to be shorter than they used to be. Even then, they are bigger than the loaves that were part of the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000. Those loaves were about the size of two dinner rolls we would use today. The people of Jesus’ time depended on bread. The alternative was starvation.
The middle part of John’s chapter six follows the feeding of the 5,000 with five barley loaves. The people wanted to seize Jesus and make him king. Alarmed, Jesus goes and hides. Everybody’s bellies are full. The sun is setting and the vast crowd is hanging out.
Meanwhile, the disciples were also hanging out. They also don’t know where Jesus was and it seems they didn’t want to stay at that site. So, they got into to their boat to go back to Capernaum, without Jesus. It was night when a storm came up and they could not row against the storm. They were terrified seeing Jesus walk toward them. Jesus got in the boat and poof, they put in at Capernaum.
The next morning, the crowd woke up to find a boat gone and rightly assume that Jesus didn’t leave with the disciples. Jesus is still seemingly missing.
So, they got into the remaining boat to go to Capernaum, in case Jesus was there. Presumably, all 5,000 did not try to get into that one boat. You know, some had to go to work. Some had to go shopping. Some had to deal with in-laws. You know the stories.
They get to Capernaum and their hunch was right. Jesus was there at Capernaum. But there were only two boats and Jesus didn’t get in either one. They were puzzled and asked Jesus how did he get there? That was a question that Jesus did not want to answer. They saw the feeding of the 5,000 with their own eyes. Jesus telling them that he walked on the Sea of Galilee might be over the top.
Jesus rightly tells them that their efforts to find him are only because of the miracle of the loaves. It might be relevant to note here about the feeding of the poor in the ancient world. The percentage of the poor in the Roman world was about 90%. It was a subsistence existence.
Each day was an exercise in getting something to eat. In the cities if the poor did not eat, there were riots that could topple the government. The emperor in Rome made sure grain was always supplied to the people of Rome. Wheat was sold at a steep discount, subsidized by the government. A lot of the Roman expansion was to find new sources of wheat.
Jesus providing enough bread for the multitude to eat made Jesus look like the emperor. They think they found someone who could relieve them of the threat of hunger that they lived with every day.
Jesus says they are looking for him, not because of signs, but because they had their fill of bread. Ironically, the miracle of the loaves was a sign. Mahatma Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” The crowd was hungry, but they failed to see God when God was right in front of them.
Jesus is going to try to tell them that Jesus is not there for their physical or even their political needs. Jesus is there for their spiritual needs. The bread that they ate perishes. There were leftovers. If not eaten soon, it will rot. (That is, after it gets so hard that it breaks your teeth.)
What they need to work toward is “food that endures for eternal life.” (John 6:27b) It is this food that will be given by the Son of Man. It is God who has sealed the Son of Man. So, by implication, food for eternal life comes from God. Notice that Jesus does not explicitly say he is the Son of Man.
Jesus’ statements must have provoked a lot of questions. They certainly do for me. But the first question is about what we might do to perform the works of God. Jesus isn’t going to make this easy for them. Jesus’ answer is to believe in the one God sent.
When Jesus says that their work (and presumably, our work) is to believe the one whom God has sent, our first impression is that Jesus is talking about himself. And that is a pretty good assumption. But did God only send one person that we are to believe? Well, there were hundreds of Old Testament prophets. All of whom God sent.
We know about the two great prophets Elijah and Elisha. We presume that they were illiterate as there are no writings ascribed to them. The prophet Elisha impossibly feeds a hundred people with 20 loaves. Then there are the literary prophets that are in the Bible – the literate ones. Plus, King Saul prophesied as did King David. In fact, there are many unnamed prophets mentioned in scripture. They were all sent by God.
Guess what? We are all sent, too. In baptism, we promised, or it was others who promised on our behalf, a bunch of promises that we are to do on God’s behalf. The Baptismal Covenant provides the outline of what God sends us out to do. It is a short but difficult list. When we do those things, we are doing the work of God. With a few exceptions, God works in this world through us. The first thing is to believe in the one whom God sent, Jesus.
In Ephesians 4, Paul says, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-12) Elsewhere, Paul describes other gifts given to us by God to do God’s work in the world. But notice that there were prophets in New Testament times, too, as there are today.
Prophets are significant to us, because we believe that they speak for God. There were people who said they were prophets, but were rejected. That happened in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and even today. Scripture is the test of the legitimacy of a prophet. But prophecy is one of the gifts we may receive. There are other gifts we may be given to further God’s work. We may have one gift or two or three as no one has every gift, but Jesus. We collectively do God’s work, powered by the Holy Spirit.
Well, that is a summary of centuries of theological reflection that the crowd around Jesus did not have the benefit of. However, they wanted a quick and easy answer. They figured out that Jesus was claiming to be sent by God, but they will not take his word for it. They want a sign, as if the loaves were not enough.
They challenge Jesus to tell them what work he is performing. Again, were the loaves chopped liver? No! They hadn’t even invented liverwurst yet, let alone sliced bread!
They go on by recounting the story of their ancestors who ate bread, the mana, in the wilderness. It is really unclear if the crowd are relating the miracles of the loaves to the mana in the wilderness and thereby equating Jesus with Moses. But if they are making that link, Moses was sent by God and so Jesus would have to be sent by God, which they seem to be disputing. Talk about a tough crowd.
Jesus tells them that it was God who sent bread from heaven, not Moses. Jesus says, “it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” (John 6:32b) That mana stuff was fake bread. It went bad if it wasn’t eaten the same day (unless it was the sabbath).
The bread that God gives is better than that mana stuff. The bread that God gives is better than the loaves they ate the previous day. The bread of God comes from heaven to give life to the world. That sounds pretty good. They want Jesus to give them that bread always.
Then in verse 35, we get the punch line of John’s chapter six. “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 6:35)
When Moses asks God what name to give to the Israelites if they ask who sent Moses, God answers, “I am.” I am sent Moses. I am provided bread in the wilderness. “I am the bread of life.” Jesus is the I am.
Jesus is the bread of life. That statement leads us to Holy Communion. When the consecrated bread is given, typically it is said, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” We very purposefully, though subtly, link consecrated bread with bread from heaven promised by Jesus. Only this bread is not mana. It is Jesus.
We are spiritually fed by the bread that is Jesus. Our physical needs of eating and drinking are necessary for life. If we go to Jesus, we will never be spiritually hungry. Those who believe in Jesus will never be spiritually thirsty.
Being spiritually fed, we are given the energy to share our gifts with others. Jesus is not some historical figure we read about on Sundays. Jesus is present to us, in the here and now, in the Eucharist. It is Jesus’ presence in the here and now that informs us and empowers us to do God’s work in the world.