The text for this section is John 6: 22-36. If you have not read the section on John 6:1-21, click here.
After Jesus fed the five thousand, the people misunderstood who Jesus was – or, maybe more correctly, misunderstood his purpose. Read verses 14 and 15 from John chapter 6:
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet returning to the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
Jesus had previously explained that actually doing God’s will was the bread of life – the nourishment that strengthened Jesus and the same food that he offered to his followers. Jesus offered discipleship – active engagement in bringing God’s love to the world as the source of spiritual sustenance. The crowd had misunderstood Jesus’ message and the miracle. While they had shared in a common meal, they believed Jesus had been the source of the bread that satisfied their physical hunger.
This, then, led them to believe that Jesus was the messiah. Actually, they were okay to that point. Their problem was that they believed Jesus was the prophet of old returning to be their king. This assumption was based on the Jewish belief that either Moses or Elijah would return to become a vanquishing, avenging, conquering, liberating king and that the king would satisfy all their material needs. They would be secure, fed, protected and free. Wouldn’t that be nice?
They also believed that this event would herald in an age when the Jews would be the dominant force on earth. The crowd was only interested in material comfort and power. Then Jesus, knowing they missed the whole point, walked away from them into the mountains.
What follows, John 6:22-36, more often than not gets read out of the context that precedes it. It is read ands preached about like a free-standing section of scripture instead of being integrally connected to what came before. Without understanding that Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse is one long message, rather than several short ones, they would be very easy to misinterpret – something that happens a lot.
So now, members of the same crowd, the ones that don’t get it, are following Jesus for the wrong reasons. They still think Jesus himself is “the bread of life.” And, to top it off, Jesus even says at one point, “I am the bread of life.” So a quick reading would give us the impression that Jesus WILL provide all our spiritual nourishment – that Jesus WILL do it all for us – that Jesus is the king for whom we seek. We could be passive Christians – we could just be fat and powerful, and let Jesus take care of all the hard stuff.
The reality – Jesus’ reality – is different, however.
The crowd approaches Jesus when they arrived in Capernaum and what we heard in the reading is a running dialogue – an exchange in which Jesus is trying to explain the way in which they misunderstand. The crowd’s representatives begin the conversation by saying, in effect, “How’d you get here? We didn’t see you leave.” Without answering their question, Jesus responds with, “You’re not following me because you understood the message and read the signs, but because I filled your stomachs with food.” It is apparent to Jesus that the crowd is operating out of self-interest.
Then Jesus says, “Don’t waste your energy on seeking material comfort, but for the spiritual nourishment that lasts for eternity, which I will give you.” What is the spiritual food that Jesus will give them? Jesus explains that in the next sentence when Jesus says that God has “set a seal” on him.
The word seal is vitally important. The verb in Greek is sphragisow, which describes the process of imprinting sealing wax with a signet ring. It’s what rulers did when they sent letters, commands or any kind of edict – they sealed the message with wax and pressed their ring into it. Some people still do that to this day. The person who received that message, if the seal was unbroken, would know the message was authentic and had not tampered been with. In short, Jesus is explaining that God is the ruler and Jesus is the message. Jesus is saying, “It’s not me that’s important, but the fact that I am the message sent by God.”
The crowd’s next question seems to indicate that they may be starting to understand, but Jesus knows better. They ask, “What may we do so that we may do the work of God?” In response, Jesus tells them that they are to believe in him – in the message Jesus brings from God – they are to believe in doing God’s will to work for justice, act in mercy and live in right relations. Now this wasn’t something new – the prophets of Jewish scripture were full of this message. So now it should be easy to understand. Right? Well, evidently not. The rest of the exchange shows that the crowd still does not understand.
They are still convinced that Jesus is the returning prophet who will be their king. They say to Jesus, “Look, you’ve done signs and we know what those signs mean. When our ancestors were in the desert, Moses gave them bread from heaven.” They’re saying that those signs mean Jesus is the returning Moses who will be their king. So then, Jesus corrects them, yet again. “Moses didn’t give the manna, God did. And God is who gives you the bread of life – the bread that comes down to give life to the world.”
Now they should understand.
But they then ask Jesus to give them the bread always. “Just fill me up, Jesus … and keep filling me up.” They still think it is about them and their comfort and security. It is then that Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Unpack this last statement in terms of what Jesus has already said.
I am the bread of life. The bread of life, in fact, comes from doing the will of God.
I am the authentic message sealed and sent by God to show you how to access the bread of life – how to do the will of God.
Come to me – follow my lead – and you will no longer be spiritually hungry.
Believe in me – believe the message sent by God – and you will no longer thirst for the living water.
I’m sure you’ve heard the old story that goes: There is a flood and a man sat on his roof. He prays and cries out, “God, save me.” A man in a canoe comes by and tells him to get in. The man says, “No, God will save me.” A police boat comes by and they tell him to get in. The man says, “No, God will save me.” A TV crew in a helicopter comes by and says, “It’s you last chance. The water is getting too high. Get in.” The man answers, “No, God will save me.” Well , you know the rest. The man dies. He gets to heaven and asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” God answers, “I sent you a canoe. I sent you a boat. I sent you a helicopter. You denied them all. What more could I have done? At some point, you have to take my help.”
God had sent scripture to the Israelites. God had sent prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Elijah, and many others. God finally came incarnate in the person of Jesus delivering the message about the bread of life. The message has been consistent – feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the widows and orphans, welcome the stranger and immigrant, deal fairly with each other, live in right relations and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s not about storing up treasure for our comfort and pleasure, but about becoming the treasure that we seek and sharing what we have.
The message has also been consistently neglected. We love worshipping the messenger, don’t we? But that’s not the point. The point is to hear the message. Faith is not a passive pursuit – it is actively living out the will of God – responding in God’s loving kindness to all we encounter – striving for justice, mercy, and righteousness. It is about responding to God’s call on our lives to be the Christians we claim to be.
The last line read today is Jesus saying to the crowd, “You have seen and yet you do not believe.” How about it? Do we believe? Do we believe in doing God’s will? Or on that final day will we hear, “But, I sent you messages. I sent you scripture. I sent you prophets. I even sent you myself as Jesus Christ. At some point, you had to believe the message.”