“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world,” says Jesus in this week’s Gospel passage. The passage is taken from the “Bread of Life” discourse in the Gospel according to John, chapter six.
Two Sundays ago we had the prelude to this discourse when Jesus fed the 5,000 with the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Last Sunday we heard the first part of the discourse when Jesus speaks of the need for faith and associates that faith with Himself. Belief in Jesus brings life. Today the discourse continues where Jesus identifies himself as the “living bread.”
Jesus is the Bread of Life who brings life to all who receive Him. Three times in today’s passage Jesus identifies Himself with bread.
First, He tells us that He is the “bread that came down from heaven.” This short sentence is packed with meaning. Jesus comes to us from the Father. He is sent by the Father to bring life. Jesus “coming down” or descending from heaven is a theme that runs through the fourth Gospel. Jesus, existing eternally, comes to us from the realm of the above, the realm of the Father, or heaven. He comes down to gather us together so that when He returns to the Father He brings us with Him.
The reaction of the crowd is some skeptical “murmuring.” “How can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus tells them “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day.” The involvement of the Father is clear. He not only sends Jesus but He draws people to His Son.
This gathering, this union with the Son, is the source of life for Jesus says: “I will raise him on the last day.” Jesus goes on to say quoting the prophets: “They shall all be taught by God.” Jesus’ words reveal the Father and it is through the Son that the Father is made known “…not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.” Thus, the Son is sent from the Father to draw people to Himself so that He can reveal the Father and have life.
In this first section of the Gospel passage, coming to Jesus is tied to belief – a continuation of the theme from last Sunday’s passage. Here the Bread is Jesus himself as he lives and interacts with his disciples. His teaching, aligned with that of the Father, is a word that gives life; just as He is the Word that gives life (cf. John 1:1-3 “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God; He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through Him and without Him nothing came to be.”)
The second time Jesus identifies with bread is when He says, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.” The Eucharistic theme becomes more explicit in this verse with the association of the bread of life with the manna in the desert. The manna was remembered as food given to the Israelites while they were in the desert.
Once again the salvation theme is present. God delivered Israel from Egypt and he provided for them in their need. He provided them with food so that they could live while crossing the desert. The food here is real food. Yet this food only sustained the people in this life, they still faced death. Jesus is the bread of life. This food will not only sustain life in the here and now but life that will endure.
Third, Jesus says, “I am the living bread come down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world.” The third time Jesus associates himself with bread ties the first two uses together with his self-offering. Thus, Jesus comes from the Father and he is the bread that gives life.
Now he adds that this life is made available through his self-offering; his self-sacrifice. The self-offering is a reference to the crucifixion where the offering takes place. Partaking of the bread of life is a participation in the offering of Jesus. This participation brings life.
The eucharistic theme ties eating the bread with the sacrifice of Calvary. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist we celebrate the paschal mystery by which Jesus, the Lamb of God, offers himself as a sacrifice and through that offering He is raised from the dead. Our participation in His dying and rising is through the Eucharist. The association of the Bread of Life with the Eucharist will become even more explicit as the “Bread of Life” discourse continues.
The first two readings for this Sunday’s liturgy help us to understand the significance of Jesus as the Bread of Life. The first reading from the First Book of Kings recalls Elijah’s journey to the desert. He is full of fatigue. In other words, he is tired, worn out. He says “This is enough O Lord! Take my life….”
An angel comes to him telling him to eat and drink. He lays down again and the angel comes back a second time with the same command saying “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” Elijah gets up and eats. Then he goes out “strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.” The words of the angel to Elijah are words to us “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”
Our journey is the pilgrimage of life. While Elijah journeys to Horeb (or Sinai), a place of encounter with God, our journey is to heaven. On that journey we need to be fed by the Word of God who is Jesus, the Bread of Life. Jesus in both word and sacrament is our food for the journey. Because of the demands of life and the sometimes “emptiness” or “desolation” of our culture many may feel fatigued or worn out. Jesus is the food that strengthens us for the journey of life.
St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians tells us that “Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” He tells us this to encourage us to live in imitation of God, living in love. The characteristics mentioned earlier in the passage provide a contrast between life and death. Those characteristics that bring life are kindness, compassion and forgiveness. Those that bring death are bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling and malice.
Jesus the Bread of Life strengthens us to do this.
Becoming one with him through faith and through the Eucharist we are enabled to live His love and share in the fullness of life.
Msgr. Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.