So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then?’ … Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life.” (John 6:30. 35)
If I were to ask you to recite your favourite part of the epic Milton: A Poem I suspect most of you would be saying, “What? Never heard of it!” Anyone know the poem?
Well, most people don’t know the poem, let alone have a favourite part! But if I tell you that it’s by William Blake, and that it has a verse that starts: And did those feet in ancient time…, then you’ll probably think, ‘Oh, that!’ because it’s the poem from which we get the two verses of the hymn Jerusalem! (Note – Jerusalem is very popular in England)
Ask most people if they know the penultimate stanza of the hymn Sacris Solemniis by St Thomas Aquinas, and their reaction is likely to be again, “What? Never heard of it!” But play them a recording of Cesar Franck’sPanis Angelicus sung by Andrea Bocelli or the Kings College Choir and they’ll probably say, “Oh, that!” Panis Angelicus is Latin for ‘bread of angels’ and links with our readings for today.
We heard in our first reading this morning how God fed the Israelites in the wilderness. In the evening he sent quails which covered the camp. So for their evening meal they were miraculously fed with meat. And then in the morning, they bwere miracously fed again, with what has been called ever since bread from heaven. Except it didn’t look like bread. What the people discovered in the morning was a rather strange substance which they had to gather up to eat, and it’s described in our reading as ‘a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground’.
And not surprisingly, when the Israelites saw this strange stuff, this bread from heaven, their first reaction was also, like yours when I asked about the poem from Milton and the hymn from Aquinas, “What? What’s that?” The reaction as parents will know of children when faced with some food they’ve never seen before!
In fact, the very meaning of the word “manna” is “what is it?”.
Psalm 78 says:
He commended the clouds above
and opened the doors of heaven.
He rained down manna upon them to eat
and gave them grain from heaven.
So mortals ate the bread of angels …
And Panis Angelicus, the “bread of angels”, referred originally to this manna in the wilderness. The psalmist was writing a hymn about how God fed the Israelites in the wilderness when they were hungry.
But in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas took the phrase ‘bread of angels’ and used it to refer not to the manna from heaven sent to the Israelites, but to Jesus himself, in a hymn he wrote to mark the new feast of Corpus Christi, the body of Christ. In the sixth (and penultimate) verse, we hear that the bread of angels has become bread for humans – and that this bread puts an end to all signs and symbols. Jesus is the real thing. Jesus is the true bread that comes from heaven.
Which brings us to our gospel reading.
As the crowds catch up with Jesus we can almost hear the frustration in his voice. The previous day he’d fed the five thousand, and they’d wanted to make him king. They thought they’d witnessed a miracle-working prophet, a human Messiah who’d be King of Israel and send the Romans packing – to make Israel great, rich, powerful, and banish hunger for good.
Roughly translated, Jesus tells them: “You aren’t chasing after me because you understood. You just want more free grub.” They’re really just after a free lunch.
But Jesus hadn’t only been thinking of their physical hunger. In the crowd, as in each of us, there’s also a spiritual hunger. And if only they’d understand, they’d be able to satisfy that hunger, too.
Because, unlike the manna in the wilderness, the relevant question here isn’t “What is it?” but “Who is it?”
And the problem is that despite getting sign after sign pointing to Jesus the penny still hasn’t dropped. In John’s Gospel we frequently read of Jesus performing signs, but still the crowds didn’t believe. Up to this point there have been four signs, four great miracles that the write of the gospel records for us that point to who Jesus is. He has turned water into wine at a wedding, he has healed the son of a nobleman who was near death, he has healed a blind man at the pool of Bethesda, and he has fed thousands with a few loaves and fish.
That last one he’s only just done. And those he fed miraculously are the people who’ve now followed Jesus because they want more. And yet they still ask, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” They rather like a crowd of people who, having encountered a street magician, just keep saying, “Show us another trick!”
They’ve been fed by Jesus with miraculously proved bread – and still they are saying, “What are you? Who are you?”
And Jesus replies, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” Believing in him is food for the soul, “the food that endures for eternal life”. God’s bread truly is “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the soul”.
The manna in the wilderness was a sign of God’s loving care, but Jesus personifies God’s love. He does away with signs and symbols, with metaphors and figures of speech that human beings use in our attempts to describe God. Jesus just is. The real thing. In John’s Gospel we see those lines beginning, “I am” – the good shepherd, the light of the world. But the very words “I am” provide the real message. In the Old Testament, the name of God is Yahweh (or Jehovah) which simply means: “I am”.
The Gospel story illustrates the apparent conflict between material and heavenly, the kingdom of God and the kingship of humans. Food for the belly and food for the soul; each is necessary, but which must come first? Jesus has fed the crowds with bread, but then tells the crowds that ordinary bread is not enough – we can only be truly fed if we feed upon Jesus, the bread of life.
For in Jesus, God came into the world as a human being and died for us, to heal the breach between heaven and earth that sin had caused. And as we receive the bread in holy communion, the bread that Thomas Aquinas described as ‘the bread of angels’, we receive not just a physical piece of bread, but Jesus himself, the bread of God come down from heaven to give life to the world. The bread of God in which Jesus gives himself to us, to feed us and sustain us.
Jesus tells us to work for the spiritual bread that will nourish us, to seek the closer relationship with him that will build us up spiritually. We receive that spiritual bread supremely, of course, in the bread that we receive this morning, the body of Christ, But Jesus also feeds us day by day when we pray, when we come before him and open ourselves to him.
And when we truly allow Jesus to feed us, then we have no need to be like the Israelites miraculously fed in the wilderness but still asking, “What is it?” because we will recognise this God-given gift of bread from heaven.
We will have no need to be like the crowds who had been miraculously fed with bread by Jesus and yet are still asking “What are you? Who are you? Give us a sign to show who you are”
For we will know who Jesus is, we will know he feeds us. We will know the truth of his words:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.