I have crossed the sea, in a boat full of seekers, and we are gathered on the northern shore. I have spent weeks here, shifting position, renewing my journey. My motivation remains the same: shift the focus from the externals of faith, the structure of church, back to Who I love and the One who authors my faith.
A crowd of people pursued Jesus after witnessing the miraculous feeding of about 5,000 people with a little boy’s lunch. This story widens my eyes and faith every single time. I am glad to return here, and watch again, how Jesus draws His beloved to Himself.
Jesus recognizes that the crowd seeks Him out because they view Him as a source to fill a physical need. It’s interesting to me that He calls them on that: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” v. 26
I wonder how many times humans draw close to God, to ‘church’ because of a physical or emotional need: shelter, food, belonging, a wholesome activity calendar, reputation…Then, on a good day, they get down to the business of the work of God.
I wonder how often I do that?…
The people ask Him about labor…activity…pursuit. How interesting that He does not choose to nudge them toward action in this moment. Time enough will come for that later. In this moment, what they needed to hear (and, apparently, what we need preserved for all time so that WE may feed upon this grain of truth) is this: the labor of God is belief in His Son.
All Jesus tells them to do at this point is to v. 29
Sometimes belief is the hardest work of all.
Sometimes acts of faith, the Doing, the activities, the ministries, the living a certain way are easier than believing.
This audience is still looking for a tangible sign. Well, if the truth be told, I would too. In fact, there I days I am. There are days I crave (and beg for) a ‘flaming arrow’ of verification, a wet fleece, parted seas. Some days I long for a loaf of bread and a few fish to turn into a banquet for thousands. Because of the conversations I have with others, I am pretty sure I am not alone in this.
I am listening to Jesus’ lesson here, and how He speaks to hearts that seek.
First, He knows His audience. This was not a rabbinical committee of temple leadership. This crowd was a remnant of those, that for some reason, had remained in the place where Jesus fed them. They were perhaps those that had cried, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” v. 15 As I watch the conversation unfold, I can see that Jesus speaks to the people who have followed him differently from his closest disciples the religious leadership. He always tailors the conversation to particular needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ evangelistic checklist imposed on any interaction.
Second, He helps the audience knows themselves. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” v. 26 The embarrassing truth is, Jesus always knows our hearts and motivations, no matter how deeply we bury them underneath justifications or a flurry of activity.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12 RSV
Ouch. However, with hearts that are seeking, Jesus never stops there. He uses those human yearnings and impulses as starting blocks of the race to Him.
Next, He steers them in the right direction for now and future pursuits. He gives them a life principle that will serve them well in every aspect, with every question of faith and living: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” v. 27
This will work to the doer’s benefit, every time. He shares a Truth that holds up under all circumstances. In that truth is an action plan and a guarantee of reward for following it.
Finally, He fields their question and distills His message to the simple truth: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” v. 29 He follows it up with a response to their “Prove it!” He explains the truth of what they have lived.
Then comes the bread conversation. Bread is a big deal to this audience. Not only is it crucial to survival, it is a daily reminder of hope and dependence on God. If we visit here with our 21st century abundance and western attitude of excess, it is difficult to fully grasp the power behind this conversation. Even those of us who craft bread by choice, for pleasure, and wrap ourselves in the process of rising dough, it can be difficult to fully receive the impact of Jesus’ lessons about bread.
“So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” V. 30-31
The audience knows this They have a rich heritage of faith and a corner of their believe rests on the bedrock Moses and the desert wanderings. They remember their history. They were provided for.
Jesus IS bread from heaven…He took one of the foundation stones of their faith and one-upped it. The manna rained down from heaven was such a blessed gift of God’s miraculous grace. It was proof of God’s constant care for a people that were homeless and bereft of even the most basic provision. Jesus removed the wonder from the gift itself, replaced the honor where it was due, to the Giver, then revealed to His audience that HE was the true bread from Heaven. Not only that, but that His flesh must be eaten, and there was even MORE: If it is eaten, we will not die!
48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” RSV
Strip away a millennium or two of hindsight, and do you see how frighteningly preposterous that was?! There are some wild Truths that Jesus asks us to believe, but they are Truths, nonetheless. Faith in them reaps even wilder, astoundingly beautiful rewards: deep, heart-grounding faith that sustains us through all of Life’s storms, and the promise of eternal life in the holy companionship of God.
There is so much more to this bread conversation. It is a conversation God began with His people long before Jesus became the living Bread. Just think of the riches God reveals to us in such a simple thing: bread. Seeds must be buried, and then their shells are broken in order to extend the roots downward and stalks upward that will grow to provide the grain. Grain must be gathered, and broken again, to transform it into flour, which is made into loaves. The Israelites made it in the form of an oblong or round cake, as thick as one’s thumb, and as large as a plate or platter hence it was not to be cut but broken. Broken again. There’s a lot about breaking in this life with God—breaking of will, breaking of ties with the world and our sins, breaking of the loaves that then are consumed for sustenance. His Son participates in the breaking with us. It is He who is broken instead of us, and then shared to provide us real life in Him.
Against the backdrop of lapping waves, and then the walls of the synagogue, Jesus speaks of being the bread of life, and that we must consume Him. This is not a word that implies a casual relationship between us and our sustenance. “Consume” is an unambiguous, all-encompassing term for how we are to interact with Jesus. Too often, we choose to nibble a crumb, while moving down the buffet, instead of consuming.
We’re packing up our satchels again, dusting off our feet, preparing to move on. You are welcome to join me under the warmth of the Galilean sun, as I gather what has been shared with me here: how Jesus would have us speak life-truths to others, how belief is the work of God, how there is a lot about breaking in our walking with Him.