Over the next month the gospel readings in Church come from the 6th Chapter of St John’s gospel. It an important chapter in the account of Jesus live and teaching according to St John.
The chapter begins with the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, which we looked at together last week, it begins with a miracle of God’s ability to provide for those who place their faith in him, as powerful as when 4,000 years earlier those who placed in their faith in God and his servant Moses were led from Slavery in Egypt, through the red sea and the desert beyond towards to the promise land. The chapter however ends with these words in Verse 66 “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”
And what was “this” thing that caused many of the disciples to loose faith in the person of Jesus – the teaching of Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum. Teaching about the Eucharist, the bread from heaven, his own flesh and blood.
No wonder that there has in the history and life of the church and in the experiences of the church been so much dissent and argument over our understanding of the Eucharist, the Mass, the Holy communion, so much argument over what Jesus and his church mean when they declare “This is the body of Christ”
The parable of the feeding of the 5000, that opens this chapter, makes a bold claim that Jesus is here for both the crowd and the disciples He shows this by seeing to it that the crowd is satisfied and twelve basketfuls are left over—one for each apostle. So the miracle has a message for the world, and a personal lesson for the apostles.
To the multitude, he was saying: I am the bread of heaven. Just like God sent your ancestors manna in the wilderness to sustain their life, he has sent me into the world to give life—eternal life. What Jesus gives is something more than has ever been given before for the life of this world and everyone of us created in God’s image in this world. And personally, he was saying to the apostles: Serve me faithfully, and you will never lack what you need, indeed you will find that you have more than when you first started. I will be for you everything you need, even in the hour of suffering and death.
However it is clear that both the crowd and the disciples run the risk of missing the true significance of this miracle. John’s gospel is sometimes referred to the book of signs. The first miracle that Jesus performs is the transformation of water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, it is recorded as such. Here in miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is another sign. A sign pointing beyond the miracle itself to an eternal truth.
The danger is that we get caught up in the sign and forget to look where it is pointing. If set out on a walk in a place I have never been before and get lost without a map, the sight of a signpost indicating the direction of travel will be most welcome. Anxiety about the right direction of travel will be replaced with the glowing relief that the direction is now clear, the danger of becoming lost is replaced with certainty that my destination can now be reached.
However the sign in of itself will not ensure that our journey will end well – we cannot simply sit down by the sign and be thankful, we still must continue on the path. But having seen the sign, that path will not be as hard as it was without the sign and with only our doubts and fear to guide us.
Then the disciples in verse 34 say “give us this bread always” what exactly do you think they were asking for?
Was it for the physical bread that could sate their hunger and sustain their lives without them having to labour for the money with which to purchase a life time supply of the bread? Was it that with this bread, always there for them, they could sit down and never again worry about where their next mouthful would come from?
If the answer is yes to these questions then they have missed the point, they have focused on the bread, and ignored the sign and to whom the sign is pointing. What has satisfied them is the product of this miracle, rather than the person, Jesus Christ. Jesus warns in verse 26 “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
They have labored for that which will perish.
What does the sign point to – to Jesus who will provide us with what we need if we bring what we have to him. It points to Jesus who is the food that endures for eternal life.
When we see the feeding of the 5000 as a sign of eternal life how does this affect the way in which we get up tomorrow on Monday morning and go about our daily living?
The key to the answer is found in verses 28–29: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’” Now that question follows from what Jesus just said. He said, “Labour, or work, for the food that endures to eternal life.” And they ask, How? What are those works? How do you work for the bread that gives eternal life?
The answer is simple – to believe in Jesus. Jesus answers in verse 29, “This is the work of God”—this is the kind of work you do - to please God and get the bread that gives life, this is the work that you do—namely, “that you believe in him whom God has sent.”
So what does it mean to “labour for the food that endures to eternal life”? Jesus says in verse 29 that it means believe in Jesus as the bread that God has sent from heaven for the life of the world. “Believe in him whom he has sent.”
And belief in Him whom God has sent will mean that we will not become either distracted or obsessed with the bread (the product of the miracle) that we have in our laps but in the one who makes it possible (the person)
'"Bread for myself," wrote a great Russian thinker, "is a physical question; bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question."
The basic needs of those around me, my neighbours struggle for life and their lack of bread, is not just a political or economic question but a spiritual one as well.
Archbishop Rowan has said “The hunger or need of some is the problem of all, I am not being fed if my neighbour is struggling, nor is my neighbour fed when I am hungry.”
The injunction upon us by our Lord when he teaches his disciples to pray
“Give us to day our daily bread” is one that means we cannot be content only with our own needs but the needs of all God’s children. Praying for daily bread is a way of countering the forces of our modern age that seeks to compartmentalise life so that the over all picture becomes obscure until it is finally lost all together and at this point the evil of which we pray to be delivered -swallows us all.
The hunger or need of some is the problem of all - which is exactly what St Paul says about living in the Body of Christ in his first letter to Corinth: "If one part of the Body suffers, all suffer."