Opening the Word: The bread of life

The crowd doesn’t get it. Hours after Jesus had provided bread from heaven, they murmur to him, “‘What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?’” (Jn 6:30).

The crowd now gathered around Jesus echoes the grumbling of Israel against Moses and Aaron in the Exodus. God had parted the Red Sea, allowing Israel free access to the Promised Land. And he had destroyed the quick-moving Egyptians pursuing the Israelites, liberating them from a sure death.

And yet, but two weeks after their miraculous escape, they grumble: “‘If only we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our kettles of meat and ate our fill of bread!” (Ex 16:3). Israel has been offered the fullness of life with God, and yet they remain attached to their old way of life.

They can’t yet imagine the wondrous deeds that God can do — giving bread from heaven, feeding them with the finest quail and accompanying them through the desert of their discontent.

The crowd gathered around Jesus is even more incapable of recognizing God’s glory.

Instead of adoring Jesus as the Word made flesh — the God-man who has given them bread from heaven just as in the Exodus — they want more wonders. They don’t want to give their wills over to God, to worship. They want to be dazzled. And Jesus, through his exegesis of the Scriptures, gives them what they want.

“‘Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father 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” (Jn 6:32-33).

The gathered crowd wants this bread. They want the bread from the Father, miraculous bread that bestows life. The word that Jesus uses for life in Greek is zoen, meaning life to the full. It is bread that bestows divine life, eternal life with the Father.

The crowd, as it often does in the Gospel of John, misunderstands. They think that Jesus is talking about bread that would allow them to never eat again. Bread that would make them eternal: “‘Sir, give us this bread always’” (Jn 6:34).

Of course, Jesus has given this bread to them. Jesus is this bread of life. He is the eternal Word of God who has come to give himself to men and women that they may know and have eternal life with the Father.

Jesus, in his person, is the bread of life. To contemplate the glory revealed in the Word made flesh, in the self-emptying love of the Son, is to eat and drink God’s very life.

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Sometimes we contemporary Christians are just like our forebears. We seek out wondrous signs, tangible evidence of God’s presence among us. We confuse strong emotions for evidence of God’s love. We want God to act in our life, to show us through miracles that Jesus is Lord of the universe.

This is to miss the point of how signs function. Jesus did not come into the world to wow us. Instead, we’re supposed to wonder at Jesus’ signs. To wonder who is the one who gives bread from heaven, walks on water, and is raised from the dead.

The only possible conclusion is that Jesus is God. He is the God who loved us so much. The God who entered fully into the human condition — birth, hunger, thirst and eventually death.

To believe in this God is to feast on the only bread that will sustain us forever.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.