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The Bread of Life

An address by Fr John Slater

03 August 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

The gospels have two accounts of Jesus miraculously feeding large numbers of people and we have just heard, from Mark chapter 8, the story of the feeding of the four thousand. The slightly fuller account of the feeding of the five thousand is read as the Gospel on Mothering Sunday in the middle of Lent. That account is found in John chapter 6. I spoke last week about the three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, being very closely related and following a similar shape and structure. John’s Gospel is as different as it’s possible to be.

Above all, John’s Gospel is rich in symbolism and seems to be written around significant themes - water, light, bread, the vine - all of which say something about who Jesus is. Whereas in the three synoptic Gospels Jesus speaks mostly about the Kingdom of God, in John’s Gospel he speaks often of himself in a series of sayings such as, I am the light of the world; I am the bread of life; I am the true vine; I am the way, the truth and the life.

John chapter 6 is a long chapter of 71 verses developing the theme of feeding. It begins with the story of the feeding of the five thousand - for the first dimension of God’s feeding us is the natural one in which we depend on God’s abundant creation for our food and nourishment. But Jesus quickly moves on from this natural food to something more profound. He says, Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.

There are millions of people in the world today at risk of starvation because of drought and floods and, let it be said, human mismanagement of the earth. They can hardly be expected to worry about anything except where their next meal will come from, But we who are satisfied with the abundance of the earth should lift our heads above concern only with material things and aspire to the matters of the spirit.

Jesus says, I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst…

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh…

He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

Those who hear Jesus are understandably shocked but we can understand that Jesus speaks of the Eucharist in which he gives us bread and wine as the signs of his dwelling in us. For a Gospel so focussed on signs and symbols it seems very strange that John’s Gospel does not record Jesus instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead, the sign Jesus gives his disciples there is the washing of their feet. So this sixth chapter of John’s Gospel develops the theme of feeding - first with natural food in the feeding of the five thousand, and secondly with sacramental food in the Eucharist.

But it doesn’t stop there. There is a third dimension to the theme of feeding. Receiving Jesus under the forms of bread and wine is the outward sign of an inner communion through which God dwells in our hearts and we dwell in God. Jesus goes on to say, He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.

Another big difference between John’s Gospel and the other three is the long teaching section which John places in the Upper Room at the time of the Last Supper. One of the main themes of this teaching section concerns the giving of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has not been absent from the history of salvation up to this point; we see the Spirit at work in creation and in inspiring the great prophets. Jesus says that the Spirit is already present with the disciples, but in future the Spirit will be in them.

Because of the redeeming work of Jesus a new intimacy is made possible between God and humanity. He will dwell in us and we will dwell in him. The sign of this is the bread and wine which we receive Sunday by Sunday as the Body and Blood of the Lord who feeds us naturally, sacramentally and mystically. Do not be surprised if God can miraculously feed five thousand men in the desert but rather that he can come to dwell in our hearts by faith if only we will open ourselves to him.
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