This Sunday’s readings may be found here at the USCCB’s website.
The Lord’s prayer, the “Our Father,” does not appear in the Gospel of John; nor does the Gospel of John contain an “institution narrative” in which Jesus blesses the bread and wine of the Passover meal, directs his disciples to partake of them, and then declares them to be His body and blood. Yet the gospel readings from both last week and this week relate directly to both of these pivotal synoptic texts. The sixth chapter of John is most well-known for the “bread of life discourse,” in which Jesus proclaims to His followers the climactic line of this week’s gospel: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
Apologists and preachers devote much attention to this declaration, and the startling exchange that ensues. Not only is it one of the most salient “I am” statements in John, whereby the gospel obliquely yet clearly unites Jesus’ identity with the One who reveals Himself to Moses as “I am who am,” but it also gives the strongest indication of the literal nature of Jesus’ claim that those who wish to “remain in Him” and so have “eternal life” must somehow eat and drink His flesh and blood.
Yet relatively less attention is given to the events immediately preceding this discourse, the first of which was related in last week’s gospel. Jesus miraculously feeds the 5000 people who have gathered around him with five barley loaves and two fish. The leftovers fill twelve wicker baskets. In response to this “sign,” the people approach Jesus with the apparent intention of carrying him off “to make him king” (6:14-15). And so Jesus withdraws again to the mountain from which he descended, leaving the crowds and His followers behind. One might wonder, as St. Augustine did, why it would have been inappropriate or inopportune for Jesus to allow them to make Him king. “Why did He ascend after He knew that they wished to seize Him and make Him a king? Now then; was He not a king, that He was afraid to be made a king?” A good question! Augustine sees in this brief line a crucial point about the nature of Christ’s kingship, and about the kingdom Christ came to establish. “He was certainly not such a king as would be made by men,” Augustine concludes, “but such as would bestow a kingdom on men.”
In the “Our Father,” we pray first about the Father’s kingdom, that it might come: “thy kingdom come.” In the same breath, we then pray that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The implication is simple but all too easy to miss or misapply: the Father’s kingdom is not of this world, but must come and transform the kingdoms of earth. Just as Israel’s God demands more than simply the top spot among the gods of the human imagination, so the establishment God’s kingdom demands more than simply an appropriation of earthly authority. It is easy to assume that the next petition of the Lord’s prayer marks a transition in focus from God to us: “give us this day our daily bread.” As with the second table of the 10 commandments, we seem to be moving from a focus on God’s proper nature and due recognition to a concern over our own terrestrial affairs. And yet the sixth chapter of John beautifully and profoundly unites these two petitions by relating the issue of Christ’s authority (His kingship) with our own perennial fears and daily needs for nourishment.
After the multiplication of the loaves, the story of Jesus’ walking on the sea amidst a strong wind serves as the bridge to the bread of life discourse, beginning in verse 22. One could take this vignette in many directions, but what strikes me is how Jesus’ appearance on the turbulent waters must have disrupted the disciples perception of him: who He was, and what He was about. John doesn’t tell us if the disciples were among those who came to Jesus to carry Him off to be king, but neither does he bother to differentiate the twelve from these people and their aims. The conviction that Jesus should immediately be made king implies a firm categorical judgment: they know what it means to be king, and they think they have a sufficient understanding of who Jesus is to put Him in that category and relegate Him to that role. Identified as “king,” Jesus becomes a known quantity. But when he approaches the disciples in the middle of the sea, they become afraid. They don’t know what to do with him, they don’t have a comfortable category with which to associate this sort of miracle, and so they are afraid. Perhaps their fear arises from the realization that they don’t have a firm handle on who Jesus really is and what is unfolding around them. Perhaps they now realize that they can’t foresee or control what Jesus will do, what His kingdom will look like, or what it will ultimately mean for them.
The bread of life discourse then begins with the familiar scene of crowds pursuing Jesus, whether He wants them to or not. In this case, when they catch up to Jesus on the other side of the lake, Jesus immediately addresses their motives: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you at the loaves and were filled” (6:26). They wanted more food, or at least the security of being around someone who could immediately and indefinitely provide it. But Jesus wants to reorient this desire for earthly bread toward an even greater and more necessary good: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (6:27). Here we encounter a microcosm of the transition in John in which Fr. Robert Imbelli sees “the whole journey of discipleship”: the transition from the question Jesus asks Andrew and John during their first encounter—“what do you seek”—to the question Jesus asks Mary Magdelene immediately after the resurrection—“whom do you seek?” We begin by seeking something, and gradually discover that what we are really after is someone. Jesus points to that same move here: “you came looking for bread, but what you really hunger for is eternal life; only what is eternal can truly satisfy you, and only I can give it to you.”
That move from “what” to “whom” by no means denigrates or negates our material needs or the material goods of this world. Jesus did just give them actual, literal bread after all! Yet Jesus goes even further than that, drawing together as closely as possible the higher good of personal communion with the Father and the lower good of physical nourishment. “You want more than just bread,” Jesus is saying, “you want God. You want to live in the love that made you, and that made the heavens and the earth. You can have this sort of life by living in me. And guess what? You can have receive this life in me by eating the bread that is my body, and drinking the wine that is my blood.” Seeking only to satisfy the hungers of our flesh only makes us hungrier. Trying to slake the thirsts of our blood only leaves us drier than before. And yet the true source of our life, the only thing that can completely satisfy us, has himself become not merely flesh and blood, but food and drink.
Such is the completion of the plan set in motion from the beginning. The Creator of heaven and earth has always provided us with what we need. Placed in the midst of a garden, in the hull of an ark, on dry land in the midst of a sea, amongst fields of manna-dew and clouds of quail. Yet in seemingly every circumstance, we struggle with the discrepancy between what God provides for us and what we think we need. All too often the reason for this discrepancy, both in the Bible as well as in our own lives, is that what we really want is self-sufficiency. What we really want is the sort of control over our lives that saves us from having to depend on anyone outside or above us. Such are the “deceitful desires” of the “old self” that St. Paul implores us to “put away” in this week’s epistle. Such is the futile and corrupted way of thinking that leads us to think that we can be the source of our own life and provide within ourselves the ultimate satisfaction we seek. “That is not how you learned Christ,” Paul flatly declares. What an incredibly poignant way of putting it: notice he does not say “learn about Christ” or even “learn from Christ”! What we discover in our graced encounter with Jesus Christ is not some new piece of information or some universal insight, but a person. What we receive when we receive Christ is not just a new way of life, but life itself.
So when in the Our Father we ask for “our daily bread,” we are asking not just for a daily allotment of food, or even for the basic material goods we need for each day. Without excluding that, we are also for something more: we are asking for what we most truly and deeply need, and that is nothing less than God himself. Strong’s New Testament Greek dictionary translates the Syriac term for “daily bread” as “the bread of our necessity,” which I think beautifully captures the broader implications of this petition. God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done precisely when we find, accept, and receive the true “bread of our necessity.” This bread is a real person, and this person is the true life for which we long. This person, this life, is not something reserved only for the rich, powerful, brilliant, or privileged among us, but is offered to us all. Eternal life comes to us as a person of flesh and blood, and this person comes to us as food and drink. Eternal life is this person, and this person is truly food and drink. So Christ draws us to what we most truly and deeply desire, like a mother drawing her baby to her breast.