Bread of Heaven
Last Sunday the lectionary gospel reading gave us the famous story of Jesus feeding the 5000. I mention that because it’s obviously an important piece of context for the conversation that we have in our reading today, the backdrop against which Jesus’ words about the bread of heaven have to be understood.
And I think we need to start by recognising that our reading of the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is very different to the way it would have been experienced at the time.
Because to be honest, it comes across as something of a party trick to us. Yes, we read it as a sign of Jesus’ ability to multiply the small amount available, to meet the needs of those who were gathered, but there is a barrier for us in reading this story, and the story of the manna in the wilderness that is also invoked in the discussion.
For these words were written by, and to, and for, and about, people who could not take their daily bread for granted. People who sometimes had enough, but rarely had more to spare.
And, at least when it comes to food to eat, that just isn’t the reality of life for most of us here. Sure, we don’t have everything we might imagine that we want, but rarely do we wonder whether we will be able to eat the next day, or where we will we sleep, or whether we, or our children or grandchildren will have school to go to, books to read, doctors when they need them, a roof over their head.
Bread, for us, is just, well, bread. If I want bread, I can just walk across to Roseville bakery and get as much as I want.
But when Jesus fed the 5000, and then talked about bread from heaven – alluding to that manna that God provided to the people as they journeyed in the wilderness – and when he says “whoever comes to me will never be hungry” – when he does and says those things he is addressing and talking about a genuine everyday need.
And of course, we all have genuine needs. It might be financial insecurity, it might be our health, it might be isolation. The “bread” we seek, we need, might not be made of flour and yeast, but that doesn’t make it any less of a real need.
The feeding of the 5000, and Jesus’ naming himself as ‘bread of heaven’ in the tradition of the provision of manna to the people, were Jesus responding to, talk about, a genuine and pressing need actually experienced by the people who were there.
And I think that really matters, because in meeting a genuine need and then challenging the people about how they were responding, Jesus was doing far more than just giving them what they wanted.
He was seeking to completely change their outlook.
Challenging them not to focus on scarcity, but on what they do have.
You see it in the story of the feeding of the 5000. Phillip starts by saying “we don’t have what we need”. Then Andrew says “we have something, but not much”. And then Jesus demonstrates that it is enough.
It has echoes again in the sermon on the mount, in Matthew 6, where Jesus tells the people “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear”. Again, words that lose much of their meaning for us, for we, most of the time at least, don’t have any need to worry about those things, where for those who first heard him they were very real concerns.
But every time, Jesus invites his followers to lift their eyes off their sense of scarcity, and believe in the provision of God.
And it might be that this is actually the most revolutionary and subversive thing Jesus ever taught, for us today.
For live in a social system that is completely defined by scarcity.
The whole system of capitalism is based on scarcity. From Wealth of Nations onwards, the defining problem of economics has been the need to allocate scarce resources to where they will be most effectively used.
And Jesus’ challenge is “Don’t focus on scarcity. Trust God.”
Not to say we shouldn’t think carefully about how to use limited resources. But that we should not let the sense of scarcity, the myth of scarcity, the emotional power of scarcity, be at the centre of our thinking.
The people have followed him, he says, because he has met their need for bread, satisfied their sense of lack.
But his challenge is to recognise that there is a different way of looking.
In the story of the manna in the wilderness, it’s a way of looking that trusts God to provide each day, not to store up more than we need (again, why do we do that? Fear of future scarcity).
In the sermon on the mount it’s looking first for the kingdom, the reality of the realm and reign of God.
And here, perhaps most directly of all, it’s looking to Jesus himself.
The bread that God gives, he tells them, gives life to the world. And when they ask him for that bread he replies with one of the “I am” statements that John loves so much: “I am the bread of life”
The thing you need to focus on, in place of scarcity, in place of the sense of lack, is the presence of God, the presence of Jesus.
It’s not going to magically provide us with the genuine needs that we have. Sometimes, as we respond to the call of Jesus as a community it does exactly that – we meet one another’s needs, we ring those we know who are lonely, we support those we know who are struggling – but not always. Followers of Jesus have certainly not found “will never hunger” to be literally true.
But it changes our way of looking.
From what we lack, or feel as if we lack, to what we have.
And that actually changes everything.
Because what we lack, we need to take; what we have we are free to give.
What we lack holds us back, what we have empowers us to move ahead.
What we lack racks us with worry, what we have moves us to gratitude.
You followed me, Jesus says to the crowd, because I gave you what you lacked. And I guess that’s a start.
But you have God. And you have me. So you have enough already. Five loaves and two fish was enough. I am enough.
You are enough for what God has called you to be.