Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
A husband and wife walk through the aisles of a modern drug store, accompanied by their 4-year-old son. The man stops to examine a new model electric razor that claims to provide the closest shave ever. He holds it in his hand and says to his wife, "I need this." To which she replies, "Not now, we can't afford it."
Their young son sights a display of plastic action figures made to represent popular cartoon characters. He reaches out to touch one and his mother says, "Not now. Wait until your birthday." And the child protests loudly, "But I need it!"
There is often a big difference between what we want and what we really need. For example, it has often been said that there exists in each of us a "God-shaped hole" that can be filled only by a stirring and nurturing relationship with Christ. However, our problem is that we attempt to fill that deeper, spiritual longing with things that do not ultimately satisfy. Since they cannot ever make us permanently happy, these lesser things become our addictions as we seek more and more and more of them in an increasingly frantic attempt to find satisfaction. Money, materialistic acquisition, food, sex, power, fame, thrill-seeking, the consumption of alcohol and drugs-all call for more and more, as they gradually give back less and less for the amount consumed. And we still feel empty.
Jesus alludes to this in a passage similar to today's Gospel. In John, chapter four, he tells the woman at the well that the water she draws from the well will eventually leave her thirsty again, but the water that he offers will continue to rise up and flow into eternal life. The point is that there is a hunger we have that cannot be satisfied except by our relationship with the Holy.
In our Western world, bread is the metaphor for food. If we lived in Asia, the symbol of rice would provide that metaphor. In fact, some modern Asian translations of the Christian scriptures often have Jesus saying, "I am the rice of life." Certainly, we need our daily bread or our daily rice. But we need more than daily food to find any lasting satisfaction and to live fully. As followers of Jesus, we say that we shall never be content until we host Jesus in our lives. Jesus, the "Bread of Life." Jesus, the one who, St. John says, "came from God and would return to God" (13:3). Jesus, who brings the Creator of the unimaginably vast universe down to dwell in the concrete flesh and blood world of sinful humanity.
What, specifically, is this "bread" that Jesus offers us? We call it love. It is the love of the invisible God made visible and accessible to our human experience. He offers us an opportunity for a relationship with God through him. When we appropriate that love into our lives and the spirit of Jesus fills our deepest hunger (the God-shaped hole), that love begins to overflow to others.
No one in our time has so caught the meaning of this two-dimensional love than Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She and her Sisters of Charity rummaged around the streets of Calcutta seeking the poor who were left to die on the sidewalks and in the alleyways of the city. These dying persons then were brought to a mission where they were bathed and cared for. In Mother Teresa's words, "Every person at least one time before they die needs to know that he or she is loved." Jesus is the bread of life because he came to show the world of human beings that we are loved-loved by God and loved by God's people who, as the church, live to extend that love to others.
D. T. Niles, leader of the Church of South India a half century ago, defined evangelism in light of Jesus' claim to be the bread of life. "Evangelism," he explained, "is one hungry person telling another hungry person where to find bread." Indeed, that is the mission of the church, to tell the world where love is to be found in Jesus-as well as peace, joy, hope, and all of the fruits of the Spirit. Especially in these troubled times, our Lord shows the world the path to brother- and sisterhood.
Finally, we cannot ignore the obvious allusion to the sacramental bread of the Eucharist. There is no doubt that in the time St. John was writing his Gospel the first century Christians had already begun to connect Jesus' words claiming to be the Bread of Life to their growing sacramental understanding of the mystery of Holy Communion. Just as they had experienced Jesus as a man but more than a man, so they saw in the Eucharistic bread more than bread alone. It was a sign of the presence of Jesus. The bread became for them a representation of the mystery of Christ in their midst. To receive the sacrament was to realize the love of God in Christ, gracing, forgiving, accepting and filling their lives in a very profound way. To prepare us to receive this filling love, we turn to Thomas Cranmer, whose words find their place in the American Book of Common Prayer, in the first Eucharistic prayer of the Rite I service:
And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.
The bread that our Lord offers to the world is himself. We who come to the altar with hands outstretched, come desiring to be so filled with Christ that our restless seeking shall come to an end. We come believing that here is the place where the "God-shaped hole" shall be filled. Yes, we are filled when Christ dwells in us and we in him. It is at this moment that he becomes for us the living bread that comes down from heaven.