Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 9, 2015

My mother didn’t believe in bread. Or not much of it. I’m sure we were the only children on the block that had diet bread for our lunch sandwiches. At dinner there was never bread – or even another starch like rice or potatoes. Imagine my surprise when I went to other people’s homes for dinner and saw bread. I even remember one house where a loaf of bread was put out for people to take what they wanted. As a result, I became hungry for bread. Chances are I didn’t have enough carbohydrates and was missing them in my diet.

The people in our story today want bread too. They are from the 5000 who ate the loaves and fish. Most of the crowd was poor. Many of them did not get enough to eat. So to eat their fill was grace indeed. They couldn’t imagine any more. They followed Jesus because they wanted more bread. They wanted to be fed and never be hungry again. They were like the Samaritan woman at the well who wanted Jesus to give her the living water so she would never be thirsty again.

Jesus judges this time a good one to try to reveal his identity to the crowd and see what they would do with it. Bread was a good symbol to do it. Bread was not just one of many things these people ate. It was a major source of sustenance. They dipped bread into food to scoop it into their mouths since they had no silverware. Bread was common and much easier to come by than meat or fish if you were poor. Bread was indeed the stuff of life for these people.

And Jesus wants to say he is the real stuff of life, the bread of life that will fill and satisfy forever. Not that he will give them bread forever as he did with the feedings, but be the actual bread of life come down from heaven. They can understand Jesus feeding them through a miracle, but not that he has come down from heaven and is divine bread for eternal life. His opponents grumble and point to his identity as a normal everyday person from Nazareth. We know his parents, they say. He is the son of Joseph and that is the end of the story. They are not open to any other interpretation. They are meeting their confusion by closing off an option, which is much easier than holding two seemingly contradictory realities in tension. Of course what they do not know is that Joseph is not really Jesus’ Father – God is. And this makes Jesus a human being from Nazareth and the Word become flesh.

Jesus is aware of their choice to disbelieve, and tells them they cannot believe in him unless they are drawn by the Father. The word “drawn” is really closer to the word “drag” (Richard Manly Adams), so the Father drags people toward Jesus and belief in him. God has drawn the crowds with the loaves and fish. God hopes to draw the opponents, but they have closed their minds. The important reality is that God begins this process of belief. God sent Jesus as God incarnate so that people would know what God is like and would believe in that loving, caring, compassionate God who saw 5000 people and fed them because they were starving. The process of believing, which often involves confusion and questioning and struggle, is sometimes long and hard and God is with us in the midst of it. Those who believe in Jesus will experience the resurrection, he tells them.

Jesus says they cannot believe unless they are open to hearing and listening. He quotes a prophecy from Isaiah about God teaching everyone. It was said to the exiles in Babylon to assure them that God would teach their children about God and God’s promises. People don’t like to be confused and struggling; they like to be certain, so hearing and listening to new ideas about what God is doing in the world is not popular. God has transformed the world by the Incarnation of Jesus and there is a new way to be in relationship with God because God is right there – the bread of life, the food they need to be saved.

You can hardly blame people for not understanding. How can Jesus be bread? How can this rabbi from Galilee give them eternal life? They are more concerned with filling their stomachs than with this image they cannot understand. And Jesus says they cannot understand fully because they have not seen God. Only he has seen God because he came from God. Now everyone knew God was mysterious, that God’s ways were not human ways, that God did things they were not expecting, but they expected God to be high and lofty, certainly not one of them – not willing to be human to teach them, not willing to face everything that human life brings, even death.

The people expect miracles from God. They had received manna in the wilderness to sustain their bodies every day and so they could understand Jesus’ feeding miracle. But Jesus points out the difference. The manna provided sustenance for only one day and still their ancestors died. Jesus was the bread from heaven that gave people the gift of eternal life. Even though people would die, they would be resurrected on the last day and live forever with God. Jesus was the way beyond death to new life.

Many of the people leave after this conversation. They cannot or do not want to understand what Jesus is saying about himself. And it is so important that they believe. God has given such grace in the incarnation and has issued everyone an invitation to come and partake of the gift – to share in the bread of life, to take Jesus into them, into their bodies and their souls, and be fed. God has offered a way to satisfy the hunger they didn’t even know they had. And most of the people go home, disappointed that Jesus is not going to show more signs, especially feeding, that he has been sent from God.

How do we feel about Jesus? Do we experience him as the living bread that came down from heaven? Do we experience soul satisfaction when we receive the Eucharist or hear the Word or gather in Christian community? I expect the answer for most of us is sometimes. We are here, dragged by God toward a new relationship with God through the Incarnate Word, and sometimes we get it and sometimes we don’t. How can we be full we ask, when God doesn’t seem to be present, when we are beset by social and personal evils and God seems to do nothing. We are empty, not full, and it is hard to believe we have something to sustain us to eternal life. Other times we are fully aware of body and soul being filled by the bread The struggle is part of the believing.

What do we do with our belief? We follow Jesus into the world to love one another as he has loved us. In one of the poorest counties in the country, there is a community garden, a project to get kids off the street and out of danger from drugs and gangs, a chance to form a bond around good, healthy food and not end up in prison as most of the young men from that area do. The people who set that up are following Jesus. At Saint John’s we provide bread in the sandwiches we make for the Bailey’s Crossroads homeless shelter. The bread helps fill the recipients’ stomachs, but it is also a symbol of the bread of life that we are offering through Christ, who has given it to us. The food we package at AFAC is another example of our ministry of filling people – filling people with nourishing food so they will know that they are loved and cared for by God through us. And there are more ways to show our belief that we are filled by the bread of life and sent out into the world in mission. Our call to service – a listening ear, an uplifting word, help given in any way shows that we have been dragged by God toward Jesus and have reached out for the living bread Jesus desires to give us. May that bread keep filling us, physically, emotionally and spiritually, so that we may be Jesus’ servants in the world.


     - Rev. Ann Barker


Works Cited:
Richard Manly Adams, Feasting on the Gospels, John, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), p. 197