Exodus 16:2-4.12-15; Ephesians 4:17.20-24; John 6:24-35
Revelation is that part of God’s teaching which cannot be changed because it comes from above, from God himself. We humans can arrive at a certain degree of knowledge of God by thoughtfully reflecting on the truth, the goodness and the beauty we see in creation but this knowledge is limited; we eventually reach a line we cannot cross.
God comes to meet us at that line – and to take us beyond it. What we learn we could never come to know of ourselves; that is why we call it revelation. It is a great gift from God in which he, so to speak, uncovers himself to us, pulls back the veil, and leads us into the deep mysteries of his own being. And, of course, learning about God is always learning about ourselves.
The Scriptures are the history of God’s revelation of himself in the human experience of his chosen people.
The first thing we notice when we begin to read scripture is the clarity, purposefulness, and consistency of God’s revelation. God knows what he is about and what he wants to tell us. This truth is nowhere more comprehensively expressed than in the words of last week’s gospel: he himself knew exactly what he was going to do. God’s revelation unfolds before us, page after page, century after century, as he waits for his people to finally understand, to grasp with heart and mind the riches he offers.
The second thing we notice is that most people, when confronted with the revealed truths of God, manifest a kind of fumbling incapacity which misunderstands, doubts, contradicts, and even rejects. Faced with this historical obtuseness of his people God might well have spoken the exasperated words of Jesus to his disciples (Mtt 17:17): How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?
Yes, indeed, we are very slow to understand, a slowness defeated only by the patient compassion of our God. We truly are the sheep of the shepherd; the helpless children of the loving Father. No wonder Jesus said: Make the people sit down; and then gave out the loaves: to all who were sitting ready. What a beautiful and telling image of our proper relationship to the Lord!
And so the Lord wants to lead us today further into the truth. With the benefit of hindsight we already know what that truth is even though it will only be fully stated in three weeks time. But let’s not anticipate.
Having given the people bread to eat, bread which filled their stomachs, he now prepares them for the next stage in his teaching but note that Jesus calls not so much for understanding as for belief. This demand, repeated throughout the teaching, is foundational to grasping that it is mystery at stake, not understanding. They actually ask Jesus what God requires of them and he answers: you must believe in the one he has sent.
And so Jesus continues: Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you. Jesus, who has given them bread for the life of their bodies, is now suggesting there is a food for eternal life and that he, the Son of Man, is offering it to them.
They challenge him for a sign to show they should believe and then, recalling how Moses gave their ancestors ‘bread from heaven’ (the manna), they quote the scriptures to him: as scripture says: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.
Jesus first corrects them. It was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven but my Father who – and instead of the expected words who gave you bread from heaven – Jesus says: who gives you the bread from heaven. In other words, it is the Father who gave the Hebrews bread from heaven then, and it is the Father who is giving you the bread from heaven now.
This bread is the true bread. Why? Because the first gave life only to the Hebrews while this bread ‘gives life to the world’.
The response of the people is not unexpected. Who among us would not answer with them: Sir, give us that bread always.
But immediately is felt the small tremor preceding the major earthquake. First a strange silence, then a questioning puzzlement, then a ‘What did he say? Did he say that he is the bread of life?’ Yes, that’s what he said.
I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me will never be hungry;
he who believes in me will never thirst.
A moment later the tremor passes. ‘Well, remember, he did once say he was the vine, and he did say he was the good shepherd, and he did say he was the gate of the sheepfold so I guess he is just using colourful language again – a metaphor.’
There will be more disquieting tremors next week as Jesus deepens his teaching. For the moment, we who already believe, we who have already experienced the earthquake yet to come can relish the simple, intoxicating beauty of the phrase ‘I am the bread of life’.