You are what you eat, we’re told. That’s not necessarily good news for us Americans, who rank as the most obese nation. In a profoundly more important sense, Jesus calls you to focus on the heavenly food that strengthens you in your relationship with God.
Several times in John’s Gospel Jesus makes statements that begin with “I am.” They echo the way that God identified himself to Moses and the people of Israel, “I am who I am.” Here in John 6:35 Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” You need to eat regular meals to stay alive. You need Jesus as the true bread in order to have eternal life. You need to continue to feed on him. You need his Word. Listen to it preached. Read it yourself. Read it as a family. You also need the sacraments, one of the means of grace that God provides to enable you to grow in trusting Christ, something that becomes more clear as you work your way through the rest of John 6.
“I am the bread of life” is part of an extended discourse on that subject. In the background lies the miracle of Jesus feeding more than 5,000 the day before, and behind that the much earlier miracle of God providing manna for Israel in the wilderness, recorded in Exodus 16.
Jesus tells the crowd that follows him to Capernaum that they are interested, not in the signs he had done, such as feeding the 5,000, but in having their stomachs full. They want another meal. He tells them that they should be working, not for food that spoils (the way that leftover manna did in the wilderness) but for food that lasts for eternal life. He, the Son of Man, is the giver of that. Don’t focus on the gifts, but on the giver! If you are reading this, presumably you have some interest in Christianity. Why that interest? Are you focusing on the benefits, the blessings God gives? Are you thinking of the provision of your daily bread, strengthened relationships in your marriage and with your children, perhaps even the wonder of being justified? As wonderful as these things are, and they are good things that God provides, underneath them has to be the reality of being united with Christ. “Christ does not separate faith from its fruits,” as one of the Reformers remarks.
The people ask what works they have to perform to earn that food. Jesus points them away from works that they have to do to simply believing in the one God has sent, himself. You can never earn enough to get God’s favor. All you can do is trust in the one he has sent. The crowds still miss the point. They want Jesus to show how great he is by working a sign, like that of giving manna in the wilderness. They expected the Messiah to do something greater than feed 5,000 a meal. Manna given in the desert had fed the whole nation of Israel for 40 years!
The heart of what Jesus tells the people is that it was not Moses who gave manna, but his Father. His Father is now giving, not earthly food (the people who ate manna in the desert eventually died because of their unbelief), but true bread from heaven. That bread is not an earthly meal, it is Jesus himself. Too often we think of Christianity as a one-time commitment to trust in Jesus. Yes, Jesus calls you to believe in him. But he also invites you, in fact, summons you, to a continuing, living relationship with him, feeding upon him just as you eat a nutritious diet in order to life a healthy life. John Calvin comments on John 6:35: “Faith does not look at Christ only as at a distance, but embraces him, that he may become ours and may dwell in us. It causes us to be incorporated with him, to have life in common with him, and, in short, to become one with him.”