“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Human beings are hungry creatures. In our gospel reading from John this morning we are swept along with the crowd as they pile into a number of boats and head across the Sea of Galilee in search of Jesus. This is the very same crowd, remember, that the day before were miraculously fed by Jesus—5,000 fed when Jesus took a young boys lunch and gave thanks.
And this same crowd, quite probably growing hungry again, they went looking for Jesus and they found him on the other side of the sea and they wondered when it was that he had left them. Jesus responds to them with a parable of sorts: You look for me because you ate and were filled. That food comes and goes. What you really need is food that doesn’t come and go, food that “endures for eternal life” and the Son of Man will give you this food. Human beings are hungry creatures.
Recall with me the story of creation as we receive it in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The eternal, uncreated God, creates from nothing something that is other than Himself. That is, difference and distinction is at the very heart of creation. Creation is that which is not God. And the created order itself is marked at it’s core by a further series of distinctions: the heavens and the earth, day and night, water and dry land, and on it goes until we arrive at the 6th day: “So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” (Genesis 1:27). But distinction to what end?
And mankind is placed there in the midst of the created order and given a particular task. Well, two particular tasks. First, to be fruitful and multiply, to procreate, to fill the earth and have dominion over it. And second, to eat: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food,” (Genesis 1:29). Human beings are hungry creatures.
There are three things that we should note here about creation and mans place in it. First, creation, all that is that is not God, is pure gift. The world and all that is in it, life, we might say, is utterly gratuitous. The second thing we should note is the fecundity of the world, of life. That is to say, creation is fruitful, it multiplies. Plants yield seeds that bear fruit—indeed, today is Harvest Thanksgiving when we celebrate just this, the fruitful abundance and giftedness of life. Beasts of the air and sea multiply after their own kind. We ourselves, human creatures, our very being, our existence is filiated—we are sons and daughters of sons and daughters who are themselves sons and daughters and so on. Life journeys through time by way of generations, one after another. And furthermore, this is all brought into being and sustain at every moment by the love of God and nothing else: “For the LORD is good,” proclaims the Psalmist. “His steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations,” (100:5).
It is common knowledge that, in fact, the early Christians’ reverence for the giftedness of life and of its filiated existence was one of the very things that distinguished them from their pagan Roman neighbours. For example, the early Christians engaged in such counter-cultural practices as caring for their sick and their poor, fidelity within marriage, and refusing to expose their infants, the ordinary Roman practice of leaving new born children to the fate of the gods by exposing them to the elements and whatever else may come. The early Christians rejected these common practices because they had a certain reverence for the giftedness of life and the fruitfulness of our creaturely limitations. And the witness that this bore is, in fact, part of the reason why Christianity spread and continued to spread in what was often hostile territory.
In a culture of death such as ours, where women (often encouraged by men who do not want to be fathers) kill the offspring in their womb and we call this convenience a right, a blessing even, where eliminating people in their suffering is spun as compassion under the guise of so-called physician-assisted death, where sex is divorced from it’s giftedness and fruitfulness within the nuptial relationship of husband and wife, in a culture of death such as this perhaps a renewed Christian commitment to the sacredness of life as not only gift but also therefore as the ground in which we encounter and know God would be the sort of witness that could aid the Church in the spread of the gospel and the renewal of the world.
And this brings us to the third thing that I wanted us to note about creation, namely mans place in it: to have dominion. To receive the world as gift—quite literally to eat it—and in-so-doing to take the world into himself and to transform it into communion with God. Human beings are hungry creatures, but we are hungry for God. Like the crowds in the gospel, we eat and have our fill not realizing that our hunger is a hunger for that bread which does not perish but endures. Behind all of our hunger—for companionship, for food, for love—is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him (Schmemann).
And the Bible presents the whole world as given for this very purpose, given to human creatures by God, given as communion with God. What is life? What is the ultimate end of all of our doing, all of our striving and longing? It is to know and love God, it is to be in communion with Him. This goal is not restricted simply to “religious” or “spiritual” life, as if it were an activity and goal only for Sunday mornings or for times of prayer and Bible study. No! This is the goal of life itself—to recognize that life is given so that we might know and love the God whose knowledge and love of us is the ground of our very being. All that exists is God’s gift to us, to make Himself known to us and to transform our life into communion with Him. The Orthodox theologian and priest Alexander Schmemann put it rather simply: the world is, “divine love made food, made life for man.” “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8).
All of this—the giftedness of the world, the world’s fruitfulness, and all as the means and place of our communion with God—is unveiled in the reading we heard from Deuteronomy. Did you notice how many times it was emphasized that the land was given to Israel by God? Six times, three times in v1-3 and another three times in v9-11. And this land that is given is fruitful, it provides food! And Israel is to do what with this fruitful harvest? To offer the “first-fruits” of it to the Lord their God. And there in the middle of the passage Moses recalls what else but God’s saving acts among His people, from the calling of Abram, that wandering Aramean, to the Exodus, to the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey. And the point should not be missed: life, precisely in its giftedness and fecundity, is the very ground of God’s being with us and for us, and our communion with Him in offering the world back to Him in love, filling the whole world with thanksgiving, with eucharist.
This is precisely what Jesus means when in the gospel he talks of, “food that endures for eternal life,” (John 6:27). Eternal life isn’t simply what we experience when we die. It isn’t the never-ending span of linear events that begins at the moment of our death and continues on “forever”. Eternal life, says Jesus in John’s gospel, is to know the one true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (17:3). To know and love God is eternal life. But moreover, to know God through Jesus Christ whom He has sent.
Through Jesus Christ because man was unable to stand in the midst of the world and offer it back to God as communion. It is interesting that mans original sin involves eating, isn’t it? Our original sin—or rather, unoriginal sin—was to eat but to eat unto ourselves, to eat apart from God. The world distorted, no longer communion with God. The world filled-not with thanksgiving, with eucharist but rather loved for itself as an end in itself. Indeed, it seems natural not to live a life of thanksgiving for God’s gift of the world.
And yet, into this fallen world God sends His Son, Jesus Christ. To be the man who takes the whole wide world into himself and faithfully offers it back to God in thanksgiving, as communion with God. The man who transforms the world into life with God, filling it with thanksgiving and joy. The man who is himself our food, our life with God: “but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” said the crowds to Jesus, “give us this bread always.” Human beings are hungry creatures, but the bread that they hunger for, the bread that we hunger for, is Jesus Christ himself: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus Christ himself is the answer to all human hunger for God. In him—on the cross where he lost himself in death only to find a great family for God in his resurrection—in him the life that was lost is restored to us. Christ himself, the first fruit of that new creation where human creatures will again feast in communion with God at the great heavenly banquet. That great communion which we are given a foretaste of now, in Christ, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
Come, you who are hungry. Draw near and eat. Taste and see that it is God you hunger for, and it is God who has given you all things in Christ to know and love him. “Sir, give us this bread always.” And let us fill the whole world with thanksgiving. Amen.