(for the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost)
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 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.” (NRSV)
Imagine for a moment what it might be like to have a familiar face declare: ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’ (go on, imagine!).
Perhaps you know the parents of this person. These are normal people who have never made claim to uniqueness. When you look into your friend’s face you recognise that nose. After all, it belongs to a whole family! They eat like you, play and work, laugh and cry. You know they experienced loss and victory because you were there. You know their voice and their scars.
It all points to their coming from here.
So is it any wonder that the Jews question Jesus’ claim? How many exceptional people emerge from Galilee? This is hardly the centre of power for Israel – not to mention the Roman empire. For most of the world Galilee is not consciously on the map!
So what can we make of Jesus’ words and actions? The feeding miracle on the other side that Jesus aligned with this claim begs explanation. Jesus seems sane enough, but descended ‘from heaven’, doing ‘the will of him who sent me’, willing to ‘raise them up on the last day’? Abundant loaves and fish is one thing. This claim, however, amounts to an unimaginable development.
They certainly do not understand. They are, however, asking. Yes, on some the sign is working. People seek more. They ask what this means. They wonder where the sign points.
So, after asking for the complaints to cease, Jesus offers a story of God drawing, sending, raising. Sticking with the metaphor that emerged from his generous miracle he speaks of himself as ‘timeless heavenly manna’: ‘Trust me. Eat here and live.’
Jesus is, of course, speaking of his mission on earth. He is here to live, die and rise again for all creation. He offers himself as nourishment in a God-deprived world. And, as part of this, he invites us: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
It is a lot to take in. Perhaps the Jew’s struggle to comprehend reminds us that mere miracle and explanation is not even enough for us. Our faith also needs repeated opportunity to ask, question, and discover.
We too need to revisit these metaphors (perhaps through the symbols, liturgies, communities and calendars that emerge from them) for through them our vulnerable imaginations are continually invited to soar in fresh God-inspired directions.
We need these signs for they point the way.