When Jesus feeds 5,000 people with just a little bit of bread and a little bit of fish in John 6, the crowd doesn’t want to let Jesus out of their sight. At first, they want to make him king, so Jesus flees. But they persist. The next day, they finally happen upon Jesus again. “Rabbi! When did you come here?” they ask (a perfectly ironic question, asking not only when Jesus arrived at his current location, but also asking, without realizing it, how long Jesus, as the full and perfect revelation of God, has been right under our noses).
The feeding of the 5,000 is what the Gospel of John calls a “sign.” It’s not simply a miracle for miracles’ sake. It’s a sign, a signal, pointing us to the reality of our God being powerfully present in our midst. When Jesus performs a sign like this, we’re meant to see not only Jesus, not only a miracle, but the presence of God to feed and heal and give life right here and now. Throughout the Gospel of John, there is every kind of reaction to these signs. Often they do what they’re meant to do – they produce faith. Sometimes, especially among the religious authorities, they produce resentment and the will to see Jesus dead. This crowd that’s hunting Jesus falls somewhere in the middle. They want to remain with Jesus, but not for the purest of motives. “You are looking for me,” replies Jesus, “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” They see Jesus only as a miracle-dispenser, a reliable lunch when stomachs start rumbling. The presence of God in their midst to feed and heal and give life is completely lost on them.
However, bread that fills only the stomach is but a meager imitation of a different kind of bread, one that doesn’t sustain the body for a day, but “gives life to the world.” “Sir, give us this bread always!” the crowd eagerly requests (another perfect irony, asking for superior bread from the one who appears capable of providing it, but also a beautiful prayer (“sir” is the same Greek word for “Lord”) for the true bread Jesus is actually talking about).
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This is no promise to satisfy our hunger and thirst, but to abolish hunger and thirst in the first place. It is no promise to be a better bread, a better source of nutrition, but the sole source of life that renders all hungers and desires pointless. We can live for our next meal, out next pleasure fix, our next paycheck. We can live for whatever itch keeps needing to be scratched. Or we can let a different kind of sustenance and nutrition so deeply into us that the itches need scratching less and less until they disappear altogether.
Jesus is giving us nothing less than his very self to be our source of life. He is not the key to finding our source of life; he is our life. He is the nutrition that sustains us for all eternity. So he’s not asking us to comprehend an idea. Jesus rarely asks us to grapple with ideas. He challenges us to follow, and now he’ll do us one better – he’s challenging us to feast on him.
How do we feast on him? The first answer lies not with us but with him. He has already laid his life down as the “bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then we feast on him by praying prayers like Psalm 34 (“O taste and see that the Lord is good”), Psalm 42 (“As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, God”), and right here in John 6 (“Lord, give us this bread always”). We feast on him by cutting out of our spiritual diet everything that sucks the life out of us, everything that produces anger, fear, anxiety, and greed. And we feast on Jesus by gathering around the table of the Lord’s Supper week in and week out, the place where Jesus invites us and proclaims, “This is my body, this is my blood; take, eat, drink.” At this table we eat and drink his fullness, letting him become our one and only source of life.