When I was a child I distinctly remember helping my Grandma to make bread. I think the memory is so clear because making and baking bread engages so many of the senses. As a child we sometimes want to show that we are responsible and helpful, so having helped to measure out the flour and prepare the yeast, I offered to knead the dough. Already coated in flour, there I was up to my elbows in the dough and before too long I got tired and then my Grandma with a loving smile on her face took over. She made it look easy. She knew it would be too much for me to do, but there was still something special in that shared moment. The joy of simply being together. This part of preparing the bread dough engaged my sense of touch and judging by the look of me at the time, a sense of sight too. Once the bread dough had been prepared, and allowed to rise, we could put the dough into the bread tins and pop them in the oven. Freshly baked bread. You really can’t beat the taste or the smell. It is a delicious aroma.
Nowadays of course, you don’t tend to see people baking their own bread as often although some people have bread machines that take all the hard work out of the process. More often than not it will be a loaf bought from the supermarket or local convenience store and even if you do decide to buy one of their shop made loaves they still tend to be full of flour improvers and simply don’t have that taste or texture of home baked bread. And of course, whether it is home baked or shop bought, it doesn’t last. For bread to be at its best, it has to be fresh.
This was certainly the case with the manna that God provided for the Israelites. In Exodus, we are told that “the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” (Exodus 16:4-5) The Israelites were only to gather as much as they needed for that day. The manna was provided to deal with an immediate and not an eternal need, and to teach the Israelites to trust in God. “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
Despite the instruction from God and Moses, the Israelites tried to store up more than one days supply of manna. But of course it went off, it perished. Their focus had shifted from God to their physical needs. Despite all that God had done for them they sinned still more against him; they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power. They didn’t think that God who had delivered them and provided for all of their needs would and could provide for them. And perhaps even still worse, what God provide for them wasn’t enough. God offered them the world and it still wasn’t enough. God provided for their needs, not their selfish wants.
The people in our Gospel reading were no different. Basically they were materialists. Their real interest in Jesus lies in his feeding their bellies, so that they no longer had to work for their food. They became so obsessed with the material world that they were not able to see that the true blessing which God is offering them is not on that level at all. God provides the food that endures to eternal life, the gift of the Son of Man whom God himself has affirmed—on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. Jesus’ confrontation provokes them to ask what it is that God wants them to do. Jesus points them to the true food, faith and trust in the one he has sent.
One of the prayers that we say most often is the Lord’s Prayer. This amazing prayer is beautiful, complete, but also incredibly challenging. And it contains the words “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is something that we can appreciate in so many different ways. If you translate this expression literally, it means “give us tomorrow’s bread for today”. This expression then looks forward to God’s ongoing and future provision; it looks beyond out immediate needs in the here and now. We are expressing complete and utter reliance on God, and not just physically but spiritually.
Our Bible reading from this morning includes many references to bread and as we know from earlier in this chapter from John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us in one of his seven “I am” statements that He is the Bread of Life. This is something that is clearly very very important because Jesus says it loads of times in this chapter. What though does it mean for Jesus to be the Bread of Life?
Jesus as the Bread of Life is radically different to the manna that the forefathers of the Jews ate. This morning’s Gospel reading tells us that he who feeds on the bread of life will live forever. Jesus tells the crowd not to work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life (John 6:27). In Isaiah (Isaiah 55:2), listening to the word of the Lord is likened to eating bread. Jesus is the Word of God in flesh. The Word of God is the bread of life.
Even some of Jesus’ followers found this hard to accept. Not his core of disciples – the Twelve, but some of those on the fringe who turned back and no longer followed him.
All of these strands can be drawn together in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist we remember the sacrifice that Christ made for us – we break the bread to share in the one body of Christ, and we receive his body which he gave for us. We feed on him in our hearts and with thanksgiving. Taste and see that the Lord is good. In Word and Sacrament we are transformed and enabled to choose, to act and to persevere in living the truth of Christ. Jesus is the Bread of Life who will never perish…there is always that freshness, that very aroma of Christ. We are reminded of God’s provision, and in participating in the Eucharist we are reminded that we are nothing more than beggars showing other beggars where to find the bread.
It’s very interesting that there is no account in John’s Gospel of Jesus instituting Communion at the Last Supper. Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels) all carry accounts of Jesus taking bread and wine, giving thanks for it and giving it to his disciples and telling them to eat and drink in remembrance of him.
But John chooses to omit this great event, recording instead Jesus ‘bread’ comments here in this chapter. Why? It may be that John wanted to make the point that Christians don’t just feed on Christ at the Communion, but continually in their hearts by faith with thanksgiving.
Hence the useful reminder in our Communion service to “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving.”
So, perhaps as we come to celebrate Harvest this year, we might do so, not just in thankfulness for the material blessings God has given us – great though these are, but also with thankfulness that God has given us so many spiritual blessings too.
For as he feeds us with wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart (Psalm 104.15) so he feeds us with the food that endures to eternal life (John 6.27)
So when we ask ourselves the question “To whom shall we go?” we should look to Jesus Christ who has the words of eternal life. We believe and know that he is the Holy One of God.
Have you ever wondered why the liturgy we use in the Church of England is so important? It helps us to remember, it is a declaration of truth, it is a statement of faith and worship. It helps us to remind ourselves every week of God’s gracious provision and plan. It helps us to trust and experience something of God’s constancy, and stability. It helps us to try and stop history repeating itself.
As we break bread together today, let’s take time in the beauty of the space and silence after we have received to remember…let’s remember together that Jesus is the Bread of Life…Jesus can provide for all of our needs. Let’s renew our trust in him and come to the foot of the cross together and say “Lord, I believe help my unbelief”.