The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’
From across the lake come the crowds wanting more from Jesus: more of his time and teaching; more signs and wonders. He sees and interprets their desires. Jesus uses their longings and demands as springboards to lead them, and us, ever deeper into who he is and why he has come.
There is much going on here! We might notice how Jesus corrects their cry for a miracle as great as the manna their ancestors received in the wilderness. That miracle, Jesus reminds them, was not a sign of the greatness of Moses, as if he conjured food from thin air. No, like all miracles, that sign pointed to God as giver and sustainer of life against all odds. The crowd’s plea is reframed; if God is the giver, how can we get hold of what God gives?
To which Jesus responds with his stunning offer: “I am the bread of life.” This is the first of seven times running across this Gospel in which Jesus will sum up all that he brings with an “I am…” Each time they come, these sayings extend the scope and scale of what is happening. Each time they come, they open a doorway into the work of God in the world being revealed in Jesus’ ministry. Each time, they offer anyone with ears to hear the dawn of salvation.
Jesus is offering life in all of its fullness. Jesus draws the contrasts. Physical hunger comes again and again. We are only as satisfied as the gap between one meal and the next. Believing in Jesus changes everything. As his friends and followers, we are assured of the unending, unquenchable, unbroken love of God. Even dying cannot undo such love. Much we face in our lives invites us towards despair. God’s silence can be bitter agony. Today, this text invites us to hold on to the deepest truth of all; Jesus has come to give us life. He does not lie. We can trust him.
Jesus, help us to trust you; to trust that your offer of life is real, to believe that it is freely given, to know it for ourselves and share it with the world. Amen.
The Rev’d Neil Thorogood, Minister of Thornbury URC and Trinity-Henleaze URC (Bristol)