“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” John 6.26-27
On many lists Jesus Christ joins Gandhi, Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, and the like as a human rights activist or moral theologian. Certainly Jesus’ commands to love our neighbor as ourself and to lay down our life for our friends are not at odds with what other prominent figures taught. For this reason, many people happily admit they “respect” Jesus or even “love” him. Some say he was a prophet, or a voice of our collective cosmic conscience. He went about doing all manner of kind deeds to the poor and unloved, and scolded swindlers and hypocrites. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, we could use more Jesuses to feed the poor in third world countries and administer spankings to greedy Wall Street bankers. Even a secular humanist would champion such a figure.
“But who do you say that I am?”
St. John shows Jesus’ perceptive understanding of this crowd’s reasons for following him. Most of them probably received a “multiplied loaf” and were feeling a little grumble in their stomachs after a few hours of walking about. Naturally, the group follows Jesus where he goes, hoping to score another supernaturally provided snack. I don’t sense in Jesus’ response a bit of harshness, but he is honest with the people as he reveals the intention of their hearts. “You’re following me not because of the work of God you experienced, but because you are hungry,” he seems to be saying. “You see that I provide you with some food for thought, and a little for your tummy as well, but you don’t see the real purpose of such miraculous provision.” I can imagine their facial reactions – disappointed a little in themselves, and maybe even frustrated with Jesus and his brutally honest remarks. Jesus then speaks to them about reordering their desires. “Desire the food of eternal life that fills your soul once and for all, not the perishable stuff that always leaves you wanting more.” He asks the crowd to think differently about bread, about its meaning and symbolism. Then he points out to them that the true bread of heaven is not the manna that Moses gave, but that which his Father sends. Such a bread does not leave hunger pains, but “gives life to the world.” Are their eyes open yet? Do they see that this bread is not a loaf of wheat and barley, but a person?
“I am the bread of life.”
When a person looks to Jesus Christ it is easy to accept him as a teacher who provides maxims for humanity to ponder – love your neighbor, forgive your arrogant coworker, donate money to the poor. We can accept this kind of bread. It gives us a temporary satisfaction. But it also leaves us hungry. We realize that, as much as we practice goodness, something is still missing from life. Morality alone does not make us complete. Like the crowd following Jesus, we accept what is given but miss that the true source is the One who gives.
We cannot tame Jesus into a moral theologian or activist. He gives us direction concerning morality and social action, but he always redirects our focus onto himself. Jesus who speaks gently to this crowd, exposing their motives, speaks to us today, calls us to turn to him not for bread alone, not just for moral advice, but to exalt him as King and Lord.
Jesus’ followers are graciously invited to his table to partake of Holy Communion. Do we approach the table to fulfill our moral obligations, or do we see the living, risen Christ inviting us to lay our brokenness before him, surrender all to his Lordship and to partake in his very self? Are we looking for our “fill of loaves” or do we desire to encounter the true Bread of Heaven, and say, “Sir, give us this bread always”?