Mosaic at the Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha. Photo by Berthold Werner.

Isaiah 50:4-9a; John 6:25-40

Here’s an interesting fun fact: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread.” (That’s for historical reasons, not theological – but the Author of History knew John’s story, right?) And here’s something really interesting: the languages of the Ancient Near East are all closely related, like many European languages, so there are lots of similar words for related ideas. One key idea is “bread.” That word, the lehem part of Jesus’ birthplace, always means the most important food for a given culture. That was often a kind of bread, though sometimes it was meat. It was the culture’s main food group, whatever it was.

So when Jesus talks about bread, we should hear whatever matters most to us. Christians around the world have used different kinds of bread in Communion. They have even used rice, fish, or so on. Bread as such isn’t the symbol that matters. Life-giving food is.

Bread is the most common, and it’s the base of the US food pyramid, so that’s our image. In John’s story, Jesus just fed 5,000 people with five loaves, multiplied by gratitude. Now he talks about what that means. This is no ordinary bread. We know that ordinary food spoils. It gets stale and moldy in a few days. Jesus talks about food that lasts forever, the bread of eternity. That’s not directly anything physical. It’s a heavenly bread you can’t go buy.

I’m always challenged to really talk about that, the idea that there’s nothing you can do for this bread. The crowd asks Jesus for orders: “What must we do for this bread?” We’d rather be told what to do, to work for our food, to earn our keep. US mythology likes to cast freeloaders as the bad guys, but I suspect that there are fewer freeloaders in the world than we think. In my experience, people want to contribute to their communities. Just ask any dog. A dog will eat dinner any time, but it will be happier and more balanced if it has been exercised and disciplined first (with thanks to Cesar Millan). Eating well is nice, but eating well after a hard day’s work is better.

But Jesus isn’t talking about that kind of food. This is not the wages of a hired worker. Our first job is not even “work” as we think of it. It is to believe in God’s Son, to trust that God invites us to the table as God’s children. We don’t make our children earn their keep. We don’t charge them rent or bill them for meals. They eat because they’re ours, and that’s how God is with us. Sure, kids do chores. Many of us work. All of us contribute as we’re gifted. But who we are simply doesn’t depend on that. The meal we shared last week, the “bread” of Christ’s daily presence with us, is ours because God is our heavenly parent. We’re the sons and daughters of God’s love.

John Calvin pictured the Communion Table as God’s table, where we are God’s family gathered. He described it with bread. He recalled the wheat scattered across the hills, now gathered together in one loaf. Just so, his congregation of exiles was gathered in one church there in Geneva. The church gathers us together to be unmade from our old selves and transformed into something new, to be united into Christ’s living body. Jesus might add one layer to Calvin’s image, because Jesus himself was the seed scattered in the fields who died and rose into more abundant life (see John 12:24). Now he offers to feed us with that life, the bread of resurrection.

That’s the impact of Jesus’ statement, “I Am the bread of life.” The “I Am” points to God in Christ giving Godself to a human death so we can be raised to God’s life. Jesus gives himself freely, not as a victim of sin or an unwilling sacrifice. Jesus is Lord of life and death itself, so he breaks sin’s death-grip on life. Jesus knows the power of sin is in our fear of death, so he lets sin have its way with him and shows us forever how far God’s love will go.

That’s God’s way. Death always gives way to new life, just as the death of the seed gives way to sprouting, harvest, and the feast of God’s children. Just as the bread is destroyed on its way to becoming the life of our bodies. Just as our self-giving for others gives new life to the world. So we do give ourselves away. We do work for the good of God’s universal family. But first, we receive God’s love in Christ’s life. Christ already lives in and for us. So may we trust and be always thankful.