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© Donald Mason

Bread of Life

The Bread of Life: the question

Our week of meetings under the umbrella of the fourth petition reaches a fitting climax as we turn to the theme of the sixth day of the Assembly: Bread of Life. So far, following the lead of Luther, we have considered the “bread” in the fourth petition as a figure of speech referring to “everything that belongs to our entire life in this world” (LC, 73, Kolb-Wengert, p. 450), including even “good weather, peace, health, decency, honor” and more (SC, 14, Kolb-Wengert, p. 357).

But what, then, is Bread of Life? Has not everything that pertains to human life already been covered by the “bread” in the fourth petition? The expression bread of life plays a major role in the Gospel according to John. In chapter six of that gospel, Jesus is disappointed when the people for whom he provided food the day before want to make him their king because, as he says to them, “you ate your fill of the loaves.” Jesus wishes that they would come to him for “the food that endures for eternal life” (Jn 6:26f.). Evidently, the “loaves” do not. 

People who regularly eat their fill and who experience no shortage of the finer things in life sometimes confess that they feel “empty.” They say that they are “hungry” for something more, “thirsty” for something they do not fully understand, “yearning” for—they do not know what. Is that, possibly, a need which the bread of life is designed to fill? If so, what is this bread of life? The people in the John 6 account wrestle precisely with that question: What is it that people yearn for that is not provided by the “loaves?” As Jesus keeps talking with the people in that gospel, they gradually come to a better understanding of what is at stake.

For starters, here is an example. Several of the key words in the Fourth Gospel carry a double meaning. For instance: there is a Greek word that can mean both “from above” and “again.” That double meaning is what tripped up Nicodemus (3:3). Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about the need to be born by the Holy Spirit (from above), but Nicodemus heard him say that one must be born once more (again). It is precisely that sort of ambiguity that serves the writer of the Fourth Gospel so well as a means of exploring the difference between birth and rebirth, between water and living water, between bread and the Bread of Life.

The misunderstanding that is created by the words with a double meaning gives Jesus the opportunity to pursue the subject in ever more explicit terms and in several different ways. The people in the story gradually catch on, but they can never really figure out the main point of the mystery. They can comprehend the matter only if and when Jesus finally reveals it to them. Then, finally, they reach the point where they can confess their faith (or walk away, as the case may be). To do justice to the ambiguity of the question, we shall examine two sequences (chapters four and six) in the Fourth Gospel.

Living water (Jn 4:1-42)

On his way to Galilee Jesus stops at the well of Jacob at Sychar in Samaria (Jn 4:3-6). His disciples have gone to buy food (4:8) when a woman from the city comes to the well for water. Jesus initiates a conversation with her by asking her for a drink. The woman expresses surprise. For a Jew to request assistance from a Samaritan is quite extraordinary. Jesus arouses this woman’s curiosity by giving her a mysterious hint: “If you knew … ” (4:10). The stranger with whom she is speaking claims to be able to give her water to drink—and not just ordinary water; he can provide her with living water. Since “living water” ordinarily means moving or flowing water—like water from a spring—and since the well of Jacob is the only reliable source of water in these parts, she dismisses the words of Jesus as some sort of joke. Who does he think he is? This 30-meter deep well dug by Jacob has served the city as the only supply of water for centuries. And what is he going to do? Make a spring erupt in this semi-arid desert? The fellow doesn’t even have a bucket to draw from the water that is already there!  Ridiculous!

Her reaction to the claim of Jesus shows her as a quick-witted and intelligent no-nonsense kind of person, the sort of person with whom one can have a lively and substantive discussion.

Jesus seems to have read her thoughts, since he continues her play on words. He says something like this: “yes, that is exactly what I am going to do: make a spring leap up (like a geyser) in the person who drinks the living water so that she will not only never be thirsty herself, but she will become a source of refreshment for others.”  She evidently senses that Jesus can provide something she deeply desires; she seems to believe that Jesus can actually do what he said, but she is not quite sure what will be the implications. She wants that water, and she requests it, even though she does not yet know what it all means.  The idea of never again having to walk for miles to fetch water appeals to her. The discussion has already made much progress. Jesus decides to enlarge the learning circle. “Go, call your husband” (4:16).

Jesus has evidently touched a nerve. It turns out that Jesus knows her entire life story. No doubt she feels vulnerable. There are things in everyone’s life that one does not want to talk about with anyone, least of all a stranger. She tries to change the subject: Let’s talk about where is the appropriate place to worship (4:19-20). Jesus, a Jew, does not discredit the tradition of the Samaritans, but insists that both traditions are inadequate. The woman seems satisfied and affirmed by that response. Some of those questions of hers, she agrees, will have to wait until the Messiah comes (4:25). Did she say Messiah? Jesus interrupts her train of thought, “??? ????” (ego eimi), he says: “I am.”

This is the first time in this gospel that Jesus says these words, but we shall hear them again—frequently. They always mark a high point in the gospel, the point where one meets Jesus eye to eye. The words remind one of what God had instructed Moses to say to Pharaoh: “I am who I am … ‘I am’ sent me” (Ex 3:14). The words “I am” become a personal name for Jesus—an allusion to the divine name of God?

At this crucial juncture in the story (4:26), the conversation is terminated by the arrival of the disciples.  The Samaritan dashes off, leaving her jar behind, excited to talk to the townsfolk about her experience. Can this be the Christ? she asks, hopefully. This has been an enormous journey of discovery for her. She began by calling Jesus “you” (4:9), soon referred to him as “sir” (4:11, 15, 19a) and then quickly shifted to “prophet” (4:19b), as her respect for Jesus increased. Already she begins to wonder whether Jesus might be the Messiah. At the end of the story, she and the townsfolk who have been influenced by her testimony agree that Jesus is “the Savior of the world” (4:42). Her simple testimony has produced much fruit. Many Samaritans have been led to faith in the Savior of the world through her (4:39-42). Her story demonstrates how meeting Jesus leads step by step to faith and to mission.

She still does not know what the expression “living water” means, but she has met someone who takes her seriously, who accepts her fully, who honors her by treating her as an equal, and who welcomes her in a nonjudgmental way. She has found someone from whom she needs to hide nothing, one who welcomes her into his company and affirms her dignity. Maybe she does now know what “living water” is?

Bread of Life (Jn 6:1-71)

Feeding the five thousand (6:1-15)

There are many similarities between the sixth and the fourth chapters of John. The overall structure of the two sections is almost identical. Chapter six begins with the feeding of the five thousand, but it is not a self-contained miracle story as in the other gospels. In John it sets the stage for what is to come—as the mention of water did in chapter four. The real focus of the chapter is not on the feeding story, but on the dialog that follows it. At the conclusion of the feeding story people make a very astute observation. They see a connection between the food provided by Jesus and the manna God sent at the time of the Exodus, and they conclude that Jesus must be the second Moses, the prophet (like Moses) who is expected in the Messianic age (6:14). They are on the right track, but there is still a long way to go (see 6:52-59). They expect the prophet of the end-time to have political aspirations, so they want to make him king. But Jesus will have none of that. He escapes (6:15).

The bread of life (6:22-59)

Next morning the crowd that had wanted to proclaim him king caught up with Jesus on the other side of the lake. He is not thrilled to see them. He knows that they have come for one purpose only: to get more of that perishable food (6:27). Jesus does provide that, of course—he has done so just yesterday and will do that again and again—but he has something still more precious to offer and it would be regrettable if they were to lose out on that. Jesus explains: he has food to offer that “endures for eternal life,” nourishment that sustains life in fullest perfection, as God meant it to be from the very beginning (6:27).

Unfortunately, that does not seem to interest them. They call him “Rabbi”—a term of ordinary politeness. The best topic for conversation they can think of is “when did you come here?”(6:25). The situation is not hopeless, however. Since Jesus mentioned something about working for food (6:27), they ask what they must do to accomplish the work of God (6:28). They do want to do something, to accomplish something for God. But when Jesus gives them the deceptively simple answer “believe in him whom he has sent,” they want to see “signs” first, overlooking the fact that his “signs” are all around them. The Fourth Gospel is a book of “signs!”

They again bring up the name of Moses who, they say, “gave them bread from heaven to eat” (6:31), quoting Ps 78:24 (cf. Ps 105:40). Jesus rejects their understanding of that biblical text for two reasons: first, it was not Moses but God who provided the manna, and secondly, it is a mistake to consider the manna as something preferable to the “Bread of Life.” By now, the question has become increasingly urgent: what is this “bread of life?”

Finally (6:34) they ask for what Jesus had offered. “Sir, give us this bread always” (the Samaritan woman in 4:15 expressed a similar desire for the “living water always”). At this point Jesus reveals himself in the fullest way possible: ????? (ego eimi), he says: “I am [the bread of life].” The secret is out! The “Bread of Life” is a person! A person who wants to nourish the whole person, like bread! Are they beginning to understand, yet?

Well, many do not. They insist on debating baffling questions. How can Jesus say that he has come down from heaven when everyone knows that he was born right here on earth, where his father and mother are well known? (6:42). How can he give us his flesh to eat (6:52)? Eventually even some disciples become unsure. Many of them begin to have questions. “This teaching is difficult,” they say; “who can accept it?”(6:60). Some even stop following him (6:66). But Jesus does not answer any of these futile questions. He simply keeps repeating what they should all know by now: He is the Bread of Life (e.g. 6:48); the bread that came down from heaven (6:41). Such affirmations are not points to be argued, but gifts to be received and believed. Simon Peter speaks for the faithful disciples: “You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).

The one called the “Bread of life” offers the most intimate of relationships. To describe that relationship adequately, one needs to speak in the tender language of hospitality and love, using such expressions and images as “abide in me and I in them” (6:56), remain in, live within, eat and drink, consume with one’s entire being.  It is this close companionship with God that distinguishes the human race from other living creatures. So, we are back where we began: God created human beings in God’s image and likeness as beings whose identity will be in Christ who is one with the one who sent him.

That closeness is nowhere more intimate than it is in the Eucharist where the Bread of Life gives himself in such a special way. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (6:54), he assures those who believe in him. In this eating and drinking Jesus offers himself in tangible form as he enters into their very being and becomes one with them as they become one in him. It is that awareness that enables human beings under seemingly impossible conditions to persevere without losing hope, confidence, self-respect or dignity. In the Eucharist they experience their own identity as nowhere else. Here they come to know that they are not—they are never—alone.

It has often been noted that the Fourth Gospel does not tell the story of the Last Supper and the words of the institution of the Eucharist that form such an important part of it. In its place this gospel brings a most moving story: Jesus washes the disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1-20). After doing so, Jesus explains his action: he has left them an example. They are to become one another’s servants, as he, their master, has become theirs. Is this a commentary on the significance of the Eucharist? In this Holy Communion Jesus has constituted the group of his faithful followers as a community empowered for mutual service. The Bread of Life sustains all those who eat it in a life that thrives on mutual up-building.

The night when Jesus walked on the sea (6:16-21)

Tucked away from the view of the crowds in chapter six there is a little episode that can be regarded as a summary of the entire chapter, if not the entire Gospel of John.

After a long day of dealing with the public, the disciples are alone in a boat, far out on the lake, in deep darkness, with a strong wind creating a turbulent sea. In the mist of the night they can just barely make out the figure of Jesus coming toward them, walking on the sea. They are terrified.

Then they hear the familiar words: “I am” and “do not be afraid.” And fear gives way to peace, the kind of peace that the world cannot give. Within moments they are on safe ground.

I am with you always, to the end of the age
(Mt 28:20b)


From the North America region: Questions worth pondering

The Bread of Life: the question

North American life as a whole has for too long been based on material excess. We are five percent of the global population consuming 25 percent of the world’s resources. When the people of Israel did this with the manna, it became foul (Ex 16:13-21.

How do we perpetuate the lie that the abundant life means prosperity and material excess, no matter the cost to our neighbor? How do we—who have enough bread, and more than enough—move from always wanting more “bread” to a deep hunger for the Bread of Life? How does being filled with the Bread of Life impact our provisions for daily bread—not only for ourselves but for our neighbor? What is truly enough for the abundant life?

Living water (Jn 4:1-26)

Clean, safe water is now recognized as a miraculous gift in and of itself, but also seen by some as a commodity, instead of a right for all. It is becoming a significant factor in many armed conflicts around the globe. Changing weather patterns make the once abundant resource scarce.

How can the living water offered by Christ help to solve the growing problems of access to clean and safe water?

As disciples, we are called to be springs of this living water, satisfying others with the gifts of God (Jn 4:14).

How can we as individuals, churches, the communion, the whole body of Christ in the world, live our call together to be springs of living water?

Water features prominently in our entrance rite to the Christian family, Holy Baptism.

How does being washed in the life-giving waters of baptism both make clear our human thirst and dire need for God’s renewal, while giving us the strength and call to bring about that renewal?

Bread of Life (Jn 6:1-71)

“You are what you eat,” a common expression in North America, reminds us that our physical health is no better than the quality of nourishment we provide our bodies. “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary.” In that oft-quoted summary, St Francis reminds us that what we do powerfully communicates what we believe. The strong messages leading up to our global super-recession have lured us into believing that more is better. When will it be enough? Jesus, recognizing that we, like the first disciples, are sometimes slow to catch on, makes it very clear: “I am (??? ???? (ego eimi)) the bread of life”  (Jn 6:35).

Why do we, who enjoy an excess of daily bread, seem content even while our sisters and brothers in the communion, God’s beloved creatures, created in God’s image, have none? What can we learn from one another about what is enough? What practices in our life and in our communities help us abide in the Bread of Life? What practices hinder? How does receiving the Bread of Life, with the Lord Jesus himself our only host around the table of Holy Communion, help us deal with these questions?

The night Jesus walked on the sea (Jn 6:16-21)

The darkness is thick, the wind is strong, the waves are big, the future is uncertain, and yet Jesus, God’s presence among us and in the world, is with us: “It is I,” (ego eimi) he says. Immanuel, God is with us. We—all of us, all of God’s beloved children—are literally in the same boat, regardless of our differences and disagreements, because the same One abides in us and with us.

What difference does it make that God is with us—for your life? For the community in which you live? For the world? For the communion?


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