This is the first of a multi-part post on the “Bread of Life” discourse in John, chapter 6. In the lectionary, and in the minds of many, this chapter is dealt with by breaking it into five parts and trying to understand each part as stand-alone text. This is one discourse, however, that is offered in sequence for a reason – each section builds on what came before and cannot be fully appreciated as snippets of scripture. To understand, as best we can, Jesus’ meaning behind “the bread of life”, we need to unpack the whole. This is just such an attempt.
Text for this section of the series – John 6:1-21.
“When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” This was said to test Philip, for Jesus knew what he was going to do. Philip answered Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
Jesus tests Philip, one of the disciples. But, why? Well, in John’s gospel, the disciples have yet to get it – to actually see the light. They are still being taught and this becomes a teaching moment.
It’s not just that Jesus has been out among the people doing healing miracles, or that Jesus had turned water into enough wine for a large party, that should have clued the disciples in – but that a lesson about the bread of life had already been given. In John 4, the disciples has been concerned that Jesus hadn’t eaten, and Jesus told them that he had food to eat that they did not now about. He then explained that he was fed by “doing the will of God.”
Jesus had already drawn a distinction between food – bread for bodily sustenance – and the bread of life that feeds the soul. So now bread – food – becomes the subject of another lesson in faith.
Philip answers Jesus’ question with a very literal, very worldly, understanding. Philip actually says that two hundred denarii worth of bread – the equivalent of more than six month’s wages – would not even provide a little bit to each. Philip responds in a very practical way by saying that it would be impossible to supply enough food for this mass of people – we can’t afford it. He responds to the positive question of “where can we get bread…” with the negative response, “wait, we can’t afford it.”
Philip is responding from a place of scarcity – a theology of poverty. Andrew repeats this negative viewpoint when, after saying that a child has come forward with five barley loaves and two fish, he adds, “… but what are they among so many people?” Andrew continues to see things from his viewpoint of material scarcity – five loaves and two fish is a just a drop in the ocean; totally inadequate to feed the people.
There are two people who see the abundance, however. Jesus is, of course, one of them. The other is the child. Hear what follows in light of a passage that appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Let’s read from Matthew 18: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We can only assume he does it after hearing the conversation, but the child brings the disciples the two fish and five loaves. This child understands hunger and understands food, but does not, as yet, understand scarcity. The child has food – okay, it is dried fish and barley loaves, with barley being the cheapest and least nutritious grain grown in that time – it’s poor people’s food. It is the food of poverty, but the child does not see it as scarcity, rather as abundance.
You need food – I have food. Take it. A child’s solution to a simple problem.
Andrew’s practical response, “but what is this among so many people” is more than a worldly reaction. It’s cruel. Imagine the child bringing forward this food – probably the family’s food if we’re to make any sense of why a child would have it – and then having that offering denigrated as “insignificant”. Andrew taught this child about the world’s values – told the child how piddling the offering was. That kind of response can crush faith; can dismantle hope; can break spirit.
When we rely on our own understanding – when we’re practical and worldly – when we concentrate on why something won’t work or be enough – when we measure and plan and operate from a perspective of reserving resources – then we deny faith and can actually extinguish the faith of others. We euphemistically call this “teaching about reality”.
But who’s reality? Certainly not the reality that Jesus understood. And not the reality that faith understands. Jesus’ reality is based on the abundance of God and creation – the possibilities that exist. That kind of faith is exhibited by questions like, “how can we make that happen” or “what do we need to do”. The opposite is when we thoroughly explain why something can’t happen, won’t work, is unaffordable – or otherwise function from the negative perspective.
And so, out of the faith of a child and the power of Christ, a miracle happens. Two dried fish and five piddling loaves were enough to feed the crowd, with much left over. The faith of the child – belief in abundance – was vindicated.
But this miracle insults our intelligence, confounds our reasoning – not just today, but throughout history. As a result, explanations have been given to define this event as something other than a miracle. Let’s explore one of the most common.
This explanation surmises that, while everyone may not have had food with them, many people did – just like the child’s family. Once the child’s gift was seen, other people started to put into the baskets what they had brought – they emptied their lunch pails into the common baskets, so to speak. In this way, what began as five loaves and two fish progressively became the equivalent of a church potluck – many people adding to the first small offering. So as the baskets were sent around, people took out them if they needed food and added to them if they had food. The end result was the baskets were fuller after everyone ate than before.
Okay, many people can buy that. It’s a perfectly rational explanation. It’s only at first glance, however, that it makes the miracle a non-event. Revisit that popular explanation in light of Jesus’ overall message of caring for each other, and of Jesus’ specific reference to the bread of life being “doing the will of God.” A child offers all his family has for the benefit of all and, seeing this, people respond by giving what they have for the common good. People give what they have, rather than saving it for themselves. They give the most valuable thing they have while in a deserted place – food – so that all may be fed.
Tell me – is that any less miraculous than the way it’s told? So many people responding to the will of God – sharing, caring for each other, giving up their own need to keep themselves safe and fed, giving up hard won food so that all may live in abundance – is that not just as miraculous as Jesus multiplying the tiny offering.
Jesus sees things as the child saw things – faithfully. A little is enough. A miracle occurred – whichever way you want to accept it.
How did the people respond – Jesus knew they wanted to make him king. They believed Jesus fed them – and they wanted the security of Jesus continuing to feed them. If he was king, we’d be okay- he’d take care of us – we’d have material security. And Jesus withdrew.
The problem with seeing Jesus as the bread of life is that we want Jesus to give it to us … and to give it to us … and to give it to us. Richard Rohr said, “The easiest way to avoid the message is to worship the messenger.” If we have Jesus in our pockets, we have the bread of life. But, do we?
Jesus taught about the bread of life – not about Jesus being the bread of life, but about the bread of life being the “doing of the will of God”. We experience the bread of life when we let Christ work though us and we do the will of God – when we love our neighbor as ourselves. The people didn’t get it – and Jesus went off alone.
There’s a classic discussion that has been going on for ages in the Christian church. It’s the question of which is more important – the Greatest Commandment or the Great Commission. Is our main purpose to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves – which is, of course, the primary motivation behind serving the poor and caring for the down-trodden? Or, is our main purpose to go out into the world, baptize and make disciples? This second one is the mantra of Evangelical churches. But, which is really doing the will of God – which is being the bread of life to the world?
In my mind, the answer is “BOTH”.
It isn’t a choice between ministry and mission – that’s a false dichotomy – both must be present in a healthy church. In Ephesians we’re told that one function of the church is “… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known …” “Now to God who, by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine …”
Both are, in fact, doing the will of God.
Before closing, let’s look at the concept of evangelism. It comes from the word evangel – which means messenger. Messenger of what? The gospel – which means the good news. So, what’s the good news. Is it salvation through Christ? Is the alleviation of suffering, poverty, sickness, hunger, thirst and oppression?
Yes! It’s both of those together.