Sunday’s Gospel lesson exposes a comedy of errors on behalf of those who are trying to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It would be easy to look down our noses at “those foolish Jews,” and ignore the reality that, if we are honest, every Christian struggles to follow Jesus in a similar way. Rather than reading the story with a chuckle and thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not like those people,” it might behoove us to look at the narrative arc of the story and see that maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from a crowd of people who, while struggle with faith, have traversed the Galilean Sea several times in search of Jesus and his disciples.
The story picks up sometime after the Feeding of the 5,000. Jesus, having realized that the crowd, misunderstanding what he came to do, was about to declare him their king, retreated to the mountains for some time to reflect and pray. In the meantime, his disciples got into the boat and crossed to the other side of the lake, and Jesus caught up with them by walking across the surface of the water. As day broke, the crowds realized that this amazing prophet was gone, again, and they set out in search of him.
When they found him, the one they claimed as prophet and king the day before, they call him Rabbi, which means teacher. He’s slid back a bit in the hierarchy over night. They’ve come in search of him, Jesus notes, not to worship or believe, but because bread wears off, and they are hungry again. “What you need,” Jesus says, “is food that will endure, and that comes only from the Son of Man.” Somewhat confused, the crowds wonder what they must do to earn this bread. Jesus tells them to believe in the one whom God had sent, and here’s where things get interesting.
The crowd, numbering 5,000 men, not counting women and children, which Jesus had fed with five loaves and two fish just the day before says to him, “OK, well, what kind of sign will you give us to prove that you are the one God has sent into the world? Moses gave the people bread every day.” This is the ultimate in “what have you done for me lately,” and it is so human as to be absurd. This is the reality of most of us who follow Jesus, and everyone who lives on the fringes of faith. We might know, deep in our heart of hearts, all that God has done for us, but in this moment, do we have faith? In the moment of hardship, when a diagnosis comes or when the pink slip arrives or when our lives don’t work out the way we think they should, do we look back on all that God has done for us, or do we, as is human nature, look up and say, “I thought you loved me!”
To the crowd, and to us, Jesus is quick to point out all that God has been doing in salvation history – the true bread that has been given to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the people of Israel – and the bread that God continues to give in the person of Jesus. This bread, which the crowds don’t even know they really want, which we often don’t even know we really need, is Jesus who in a bold claim, one of seven “I AM” statements in John, declares himself to be the bread of life. In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus 1) on par with God who is the great “I AM” and 2) as the one who gave life to humanity at Creation. Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning. For those who are hungry, Jesus offers the very breath of God as the bread of life.