The chapter begins with Jesus miraculously feeding five thousand people, with lots left over.
The crowd Jesus fed was mostly male and mostly young and mostly very active. My son is male and young and active, so I know what that combination means. It is almost impossible to fill my son up.
For those of us who are not as young and active, that is not normally true in the same way. Certainly it is not true for me. I just do not burn that many calories.
But for six glorious days last week, I went backpacking with my son. On those days, I burned about 4000 calories. And it was like being a teenager again. I was hungry all the time, and I could eat any food I could get my hands on.
The problem was getting my hands on food. My breakfast each day was oatmeal. My lunch was a peanut butter sandwich. My supper was lentils and couscous. You have to eat a LOT of oatmeal and couscous to get 4000 calories.
One day, my son and I met a hiker who told us how to get to a pizza parlor. It meant hiking three miles farther than we and planned. For pizza, at that moment, the decision was easy. We hiked. And we gorged.
That is how I felt after a few days of hiking. For the crowd that Jesus fed, constant nagging hunger was a way of life. And so when they found a man who could fill them up, they really wanted to stay close. When Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee back towards Capernaum, the crowds follow. Who could blame them?
But this time, they get a different reaction from Jesus. Jesus greets them with this: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (6:26).
They wanted bread like I wanted pizza. They could not see past the bread. I get that. Hunger does that to you.
But Jesus wants to give them more than bread. Jesus pushes the people to see beyond the miraculous food. Jesus pushes them to see the miracle as a sign that points back to the miracle-worker, back to Jesus himself. Jesus wants people to see beyond the literal bread that he has provided to the spiritual bread that he offers. Jesus wants them to understand that he himself is the bread that comes down from heaven, the true bread of life (6:35, 38).
They do not get it. Many complain (6:41).
Now we reach our reading for this morning. Jesus repeats, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” And he adds, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
They are disgusted at the idea of eating his flesh.
And Jesus keeps pushing. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life . . . . My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
What are we to make of all this?
A first point is much easier for us than it could have been for Jesus’ contemporaries. This is sacramental language. This is Eucharistic language.
We are about to feed on Christ’s body and drink Christ’s blood just as he says, but in a sacramental way. The bread and the wine really are Christ’s body and blood in some mysterious sense. But this is sacrament, not cannibalism. That is important.
But the deeper point is about a way of being in the world.
We rightly worry about human needs, our own and those of others. Jesus did, in fact, feed the multitudes, and Jesus commands us to do the same. We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prisoner. Whenever we help the least among us, we are helping Christ himself. That kind of outreach is a vital part of our calling as Christians, our mission as the body of Christ.
But in a culture obsessed with the material stuff of life, like ours is, it is important that we also look beyond physical needs to spiritual needs. And that is the lesson of our reading for this morning.
In our gospel reading, Jesus invites us to come to him for more than literal bread. Jesus invites us to come to him for the living bread that comes down from heaven, for the bread of life. Jesus invites us to see literal bread as a sign pointing to him.
That is particularly true during communion. As we tell again the story of the Last Supper, we are reminded that the bread is the sacramental body of Christ. We receive the wafer and hear words drawn from our passage: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”
The Eucharist trains us to see Christ in bread.
Then, with eyes opened a little bit wider, we take that skill into the world, so that every meal becomes a sign pointing to Christ, everything we eat or drink becomes for us a sacrament of Christ’s presence.
That is why we bless our food before meals. If you do not, I encourage you to give it a try this week. The point of the blessing is not to change the food somehow. Everything we have comes to us as a gift from God. That is true whether or not we say a blessing acknowledging God’s gift.
But when we bless our food, we make our meal into a sacrament. The blessing does not need to be long, just enough to remind ourselves that our food is not only physical nourishment but also a sign of God’s grace and love.
In my own blessing, I thank God for the food I am about to eat. I ask God that it may be to me a sacrament of Christ’s presence. I ask God to help me to be mindful of those who make it possible for me to eat and of those who do not have enough. I end by asking God to bless the food to my use and me to God’s service.
That is what I do, but there is no single right form of blessing—you should do whatever works for you. The point is just to pause long enough to be aware of God and of our responsibility as children of God.
That is how we do better than the crowd Jesus fusses at in our reading. That is how we ensure that we come to Christ not just for bread, but because we have seen our bread as a sign of Christ himself.
At the end of our passage for this morning, Jesus adds a promise: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” That promise applies particularly to sharing Eucharist with each other as the people of God. And it should apply to every meal that we eat and, for that matter, to everything that we do.
And so, on this morning, I give thanks to Christ for abiding in us and for allowing us to abide in him. And I pray that our ordinary needs and our daily lives can be signs that point to Christ in us and Christ in our world.
In the name of Christ, the bread of life, amen.