I attended a wedding a few years ago that included communion, and since only members of the denomination could receive communion, I stayed in my pew during this part of the ceremony. Sitting behind me was a mom, a dad, and a girl around eight years old. The mom went up for communion, but the dad and the daughter stayed behind. The daughter had a lot of questions about what was going on, and what exactly that communion wafer was. She asked, "Is it a cracker?" Her dad said, "No."
"Is it a cookie?" "No." "Is it sweet?" "No." "Is it spicy?" "No." "Is it crunchy?" [Pause.] "Yes." "Can I have it?" "No." [In a louder voice.] "That's SO unfair!"
I wonder what will become of this child's seed of faith in the bread offered to us through Christ. Will her curiosity and desire be nourished, or neglected? Will she ever taste that mysterious, crispy-but-melty sign of everlasting sustenance, or will it just seem dry and bland to her someday?
I have the same question about the crowd in today's gospel, who also want their share of Jesus's bread, even if they don't know much about the meaning of this bread or about Jesus himself. The day after Jesus feeds all 5,000 of them, they get into their boats and pursue him to his next destination. When Jesus tries to teach them about the "bread of God" that "comes down from heaven and gives life to the world," they say, "Sir, give us this bread." They may not know who Jesus is or understand what his words and deeds mean, but this much, they know: Whatever bread Jesus is offering them, they want a piece.
Many of us are also here because we want a piece of this bread. Maybe we know why we want it . . . or maybe we're drawn by some current deeper than our own consciousness toward this "bread of life." We know it sustains us, and we know that it feeds the part of ourselves that endures eternally. But today's gospel invites us to explore more thoroughly what exactly we're coming to Jesus for—and what it's like to be Jesus when everyone wants the wrong thing from him.
Put most simply, it seems that in today's gospel, the crowd wants what Jesus does and what Jesus has. But Jesus wants to give them who he is and what he knows—the heart of his Father.
We know from our gospel reading last week as well as this week that the crowd wants Jesus primarily for what he does—his deeds of power. In last week's gospel, the large crowd keeps following Jesus because, as the passage tells us, they've seen "the signs that he was doing for the sick." When Jesus switches gears from healing to feeding and feeds 5,000 as much as they want—with plenty of leftovers—they believe that he's a prophet. Jesus realizes that the people will try to force him to be their king so that he'll keep doing what he's doing. (When you find a leader who can give healthcare to a whole nation and keep them fed, you don't want to let them go!) But Jesus doesn't want to be that kind of king and, as we heard last week, "he withdrew again to the mountain by himself."
Instead of seeking Jesus for who he is, by himself on a mountain, the people continue to pursue him and ask him to do more. And they want to do things as well: They ask, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Their focus is on doing and on working, and on the deeds and work that Jesus can do for them.
Yet Jesus wants to give them not what he does, but who he is. He says that the so-called "work of God" is simply to believe in Jesus, whom God has sent. The "work" isn't exactly something they can do through exertion, will, or power. Instead of doing, they need to see Jesus for who he is, place their trust in him, and abide in his presence.
Rather than accept this invitation, though, the people turn their focus back to deeds and actions and ask, "What work are you performing?"—in other words, what are you doing so that we can believe in you? Jesus has to do something for them to believe in him; it's not enough for him just to be someone. They want what Jesus does, not who he is.
The people also want what Jesus has. What he seems to have is some kind of bread that falls out of the sky that will never get stale or moldy. The people say that they're used to believing in God and in leaders like Moses who can give people something. As they quote, God "gave them bread from heaven to eat." If Jesus wants them to believe in him, then he'd better give them something too.
But what Jesus wants to give them is not something he has: seemingly magical bread that appears out of nowhere, multiplies itself, lasts forever, and keeps people from ever getting hungry again. Jesus wants to use miraculous bread not as a material possession, but as a sign of what he knows. Jesus wants to give the crowd not their next meal, but lasting spiritual knowledge: "the bread of God" isn't food that meets physical needs and leaves you hungry within 24 hours; the "bread of God" is the Word and the wisdom of God that keeps us going, that keeps us growing, that fills us with self-giving love, and that enables us to abide with God forever as his children.
Jesus knows the heart of his Father and the eternal truths of this universe, and throughout the gospel of John he tries to impart this saving knowledge to us. It is this heart-felt, deep insight that Jesus wants to offer us, not a material possession.
The last words of Jesus in today's gospel are a statement of who he is and what he knows: "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." With these words, Jesus doesn't offer something he can do or something he has. When a whole crowd of people wants a piece of Jesus, he offers them who he is and what he knows about the eternal heart of God.
The desire for the bread that Jesus offers us is a healthy and authentic beginning to a life of faith, and we should continually feed and nourish this desire. But as we accept this bread, we can try to grow in our awareness of what we really want from Jesus and what he really longs to give us—not some powerful deed he does or some material possession he has, but his presence, his wisdom, and the pure gift of being eternally united to him in love.
Jesus, give us this bread, always.