Bread has had a bit of a bad press recently. The nutritional content of mass produced, steam process, white loaves has come under some scrutiny. An increasing number of people are discovering that they are gluten intolerant. Many dietary plans recommend a reduction in intake of empty carbs. Bread has had a bit of a bad press. For all that, though, for thousands of years, in cultures around the world, bread has been a staple food. Growing the grain for it, harvesting, threshing, milling, baking, have been central to our cultures and lives. Just think of names. One of the most popular first names in the country – George- means “farmer”. Common surnames – Farmer, Miller, Baker – all associated with the production of bread. Bread has been central to human existence for most of history.
In the middle of our reading from John’s eye witness account of the good news of Jesus, we hear Jesus drawing on the centrality of bread to normal life in this claim about himself. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life – whoever comes to me will never go hungry”. But this connection to a common human experience is only a third of the loaf. If we are to have a full meal, we need to take in the rest of the loaf as well.
The second part of the loaf is the place of bread in the history of the people of God. To get an overview of this, let’s take a whistle stop tour through the Bible and see some of the places that bread appears, and what it points towards.
One of the first times that we encounter bread in the Bible is in a meeting between Abraham and three strangers at the tree of Mamre in Genesis 18. Abraham, the ancestor of the people of God, had been called by God and brought into a new land. God had made a covenant with Abraham that he would have many descendants, would be the father of many nations, but he and his wife Sarah had no children and were old. One day three strangers appear and Abraham greets them, shows them hospitality, and shares bread with them. Over the meal the Lord speaks, confirming that the promise will be fulfilled within the year, which it was, with the birth of Isaac. Bread is there, shared in hospitality, at the confirmation of the covenant promise.
In time Isaac is born, and goes on to have his sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob in turn his many sons, one of whom is called Joseph. Through a series of events, including a famine – a lack of bread, the people of God end up in Egypt, where eventually they are enslaved. God hears their cry for help, and sends Moses to lead them in freedom to the promised land. But Pharaoh refuses to allow them to go, despite plagues of increasing severity. God sends the Angel of Death over Egypt, and the first born of the land die, except for those of the people of God, protected by the blood of lambs at the first Passover. In preparation for which the people have baked bread without yeast – travel bread at the centre of the rescue, the salvation of the people of God from enslavement.
The people head off into the wilderness, but before long they have run out of food. They are hungry and they complain to Moses that they would have been better off staying in Egypt. God hears their grumbling, and provides for them. Manna. Bread from heaven. Bread that they had never seen before, sweeter than they knew. God didn’t just provide boring bread, he provided excellent bread. Those who gathered much did not have too much and those who gathered little did not have too little. Bread was there, provided by God, to meet the physical needs of the people.
As the people travelled through the wilderness, God continued to shape them to be the blessing to the world that God had promised Abraham that they would be. God gave them commandments and law codes to live by. God also gave them ways of praying and worshipping that would sustain them spiritually. One of these ways involved special loaves of bread called the bread of the presence. You can read about these in Leviticus 24. We don’t need to worry too much this morning about all the details, but the take away is that again we find bread, this time connected to worship and an awareness of God’s presence with God’s people.
So if the first third of the loaf was the common experience of the importance of bread to life, the second is the significance of bread in the history of the people of God – the bread of hospitality, of covenant promise, of saving rescue, of abundant provision, of God’s presence, and of worship.
And what about the rest of the loaf? This is to do with the sequence of events that we find in John chapter 6, and in the rest of Jesus’ life. The people that Jesus was speaking with and living among would all have had the first part of the loaf. Bread was their staple diet. They were part of the people of God, they knew the place of bread in their history that we’ve just summarised. Thousands of them were drawn to Jesus by his teaching and his healing. At the beginning of chapter 6 we find Jesus, with his disciples, and a great crowd on people on a hill top. In verse 4 John drops in the little snippet “the Jewish Passover Feast was near”. Jesus looks at all the people, and asks Phillip where they’re going to get bread for all these people. Phillip doesn’t know, but Andrew offers a lad’s packed lunch – five small barley loaves and some fish. Barley bread – the bread of the poor. Jesus takes it and multiplies it to feed everyone. God miraculously providing for the needs of the crowd.
Jesus heads away from the crowd to pray, sending his disciples across the lake, where he joins them eventually, walking on the water. Next day, the crowd are confused at his absence, but follow him round the lake to Capernaum, which is where we picked up the story today.
He teaches them that there are more important things than physical bread. As he had said to Satan when he was being tempted in the wilderness, “People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”. He encourages them not to spend all their energy and effort on things which, from an eternal perspective, do not matter. He calls them to focus on the work of God – to believe in the one who was sent. This is the only way to get the bread that satisfies all our spiritual and emotional hungers.
This is the high that our reading finished on today, but this chapter doesn’t finish there. I don’t want to steal too much material from there, as others might be picking up these ideas in future weeks. Suffice to say that the crowd grumble against him – they don’t believe him – they know his brothers and sisters, how can he be the bread of heaven? But he doesn’t back down, he makes the claim again and even starts talking about his flesh being bread for people to eat- a first hint of the place of bread in the hospitality of the new covenant meal of communion, commemorating his death – the final passover lamb sacrificed on the cross that we might all be rescued from sin and death. Many of his followers left him at this hard teaching and Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “You do not want to leave me too, do you?” and Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God”
So, now we have a complete loaf. We have the common experience of bread, central to many billions of human lives. We have bread in the life of the people of God, a focus of hospitality, of covenant promise, of saving rescue, of abundant provision, of God’s presence, and of worship. And we have Jesus as the bread of life, bringing together the common and the holy – showing hospitality, making a new covenant, dying to save the world, providing for all our needs, God’s bodily presence in creation, the one worthy of all our worship.
So what? Well perhaps three suggestions. Firstly, if you are hungry, there is food for you here. This has been a tough year, and we might feel like we have been starving of company, of worship, of God. There is bread here, if we will take it. It will take us to believe and to trust that God is good and to lean into Jesus, but I believe that there is bread here for all our hungers.
Secondly, we are called to share this bread with others. Jesus involved the disciples in the distribution of the bread that he provided. He gave it to them to give to others. We are to do the same. That might be physical – giving to the food bank for instance. It might be spiritual or emotional. Someone once described evangelism as one beggar telling another where to find bread. The idea is that we don’t share our faith because we believe ourselves to be superior or because we have all the answers, but because we know our own need, have found something worth sharing, and are willing to share it.
Thirdly, for those of us who are able to eat bread, why not allow it to be a daily reminder to us to be aware of God’s presence, provision, and love for us. Why should every loaf not be for us the bread of the presence, calling us to prayer and worship in the midst of the every day. Next and every time you take a slice of bread, thank God for it, and for the bread of life – Jesus – and remember that whoever comes to him will never be hungry.