Today, we continue to read from Chapter 6 of John’s gospel.
Last Sunday, we have seen how Jesus feeds 6,000 people by multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish, which so astonishes the crowd that they want to make him king. Knowing their intent, Jesus flees to the mountain and instructs his apostles to cross the lake ahead of him to Capernaum.
In today’s gospel we see Jesus joining his apostles in Capernaum and the crowd catching up with them. (The narrative skips an earlier part wherein Jesus walks on the lake and arrives together with the apostles in Capernaum.)
Surprised at the sight of Jesus, the people ask, “Rabbi, how did you get here?” What follows is a long and interesting dialogue between Jesus and the Israelites, which John uses as context for the famous discourse of Jesus on the Bread of Life.
Instead of answering the people’s question, Jesus tells them, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes…” Don’t these words strike a chord with us who likewise long for perishable bread that cannot fully satisfy our hunger? Such bread takes on many forms, like our desire for possession, fame, power or influence which is in the end always remains elusive. How often we see this in the lives of billionaires and superstars who have everything except happiness.
Indeed, there is in each of us an insatiable hunger and unquenchable thirst that no material good can fully satisfy. Ronald Rolheiser, a contemporary spiritual writer, speaks of this as a “dis-ease” that cannot be assuaged until it finds its proper object. St. Augustine found it after a long search and confessed, “Lord, you have made our heart for yourself and it will always be restless until it rests in you.”
This is why Jesus tells the people not to work for food that perishes “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give (them).”
The people get excited at the Lord’s remark, and ask, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” At this point, a lively discussion ensues regarding Jesus’ credibility vis-à-vis Moses’ credential as the giver of the true bread from heaven.
In the end, the people plead with Jesus, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus then declares, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” This unexpected pronouncement must have been a bombshell in the ears of Jesus’ listeners. But Jesus’ answer is clear and unequivocal. He is the bread that does not only sustain but gives life, for he is Life itself. “To come” to him and “to believe” in him is to have eternal life (never hunger, never thirst).
What does this mean? Let us go back to the earlier conversation between Jesus and the people. In order to acquire the imperishable bread, the people ask Jesus what they need to do “to accomplish the works of God.” Obviously, they believe that observance of some precepts on their part is required for the miracle of the multiplication to continue. Jesus’ answer is direct, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
The bread that endures to eternal life is not earned by human effort, but comes as a gift of God’s love. All that Jesus asks is faith in him. What is this faith? Prior to believing in his teaching and following his way, faith in Jesus is primarily an encounter with him that develops into a relationship. This personal relationship allows him to enter in our life and to “accomplish the works of God” in us.
As Jesus’ discourse progresses and unfolds in the succeeding Sundays, we will learn that the Bread of Life refers specifically to the Word of God and the Eucharist. Both gifts will bring eternal life, but only to a heart that has faith in Jesus, a heart that “comes to (him)…and believes in (him).”*