18B – Bread of life (John 6:24-35; Exodus 16: 2-4, 12-15)
When you read the Gospel of John, you must always be aware of the broad canvas upon which John writes his Gospel. He is always mindful and aware of all that has gone on before in the past – the history of the people of God; and he is also aware of what may come in the future as he writes for us who will come after him – as we do the things that he talks about. So as John tells us the story of John 6 that we have just read, the one story that he clearly has in mind, and which everyone who was there with him in Capernaum would also have had in mind, was the story that we have just read – the story of Exodus 16, those days when the Lord gave them bread form heaven. The Lord fed and nourished his people. For when the people came to him and said – give us this sign – give us this food to eat: they are asking Jesus to reveal himself as the true Messiah. They want him to prove and demonstrate that he is the one that they have longed for; the one who will lead them on the new Exodus. That was the role of the Messiah. So Jesus is wanting to both affirm that and also wanting them to remember the true nature of the Exodus, and what was actually happening.
When we go back to that scene and that place in Exodus 16, there are a number of things that we need to be aware of. The actual event that we call the Exodus – the night of the Passover when ten Lord with mighty hand and outstretched arm led the people of God from slavery to freedom – where in the book of Exodus that this happen, in which chapter? Anyone? (someone suggested chapter 3) Chapter 3 is where the Lord comes to Moses and says ‘I have heard the sound of your cries’ I have heard your voice and the Lord comes to reveal himself to Moses (in the burning bush) and says to him that he will lead his people to freedom. Then you have the plagues and so forth. In chapter 14 you have the marvellous story of the people escaping through the Sea of Reeds and then in chapter 15 the magnificent song of Miriam of praise and thanksgiving – the one that we sing each year at the Easter Vigil as the response to the Third Reading. Here in chapter 16 we are in the very next chapter after the incredible events of the Exodus. Very little time has passed. Verse 1, which is not part of our reading today, tells us that a month and a half has passed since those incredible events – when they left Egypt with this whole cacophony of people along with their flocks and their herds, their sheep and their cattle. They left prepared with provisions; they didn’t leave empty-handed. They had plenty of food to eat because they knew that the journey would be long and hard. So here in chapter 16 when they complain and cry and out and say to the Lord ‘how could you do this to us?’; ‘how could you lead us to this barren place?’ In the end of chapter 15 all they do is complain about the lack of water. So the Lord gives them water to drink. Here the Lord doesn’t say, ‘well, just go away and leave me alone, if you are not going to be thankful.’ No, he feeds his people. He gives them this food to eat.
When I was in the Carmelites, there was this old Irish friar who was a great Latinist, and whenever he would come into the refectory and would see some food or something which he didn’t know what it was he would point to it and say ‘Quid sit?’ (What is that?) When the dew lifts in the morning from the camp, and the people see this white flaky substance that has come there from overnight, they look at it and they say ‘what the…?’ (man-nu?) The Hebrew word for ‘what’ is ‘man’, so they look at this stuff and say ‘man-hu’ – what is that? And Moses says no, not ‘man-nu’, but the bread from heaven. This food that the Lord gives us. (Just as a sideline, whenever you hear someone say ‘What the!?’ they are actually being very biblical and scriptural and quoting from this place in Exodus 16. I am sure that Rove knows that as well?!)
They are fed by God. The Lord gives them this food to eat. But the Lord also wants them to know that they are on a journey; what he is doing is creating a people. A people who are being led from slavery to freedom. It is sometimes said that while it only took God one night/one day to take Israel out of Egypt, it takes 40 years that they are in the wilderness – those 40 years of beginning to trust in God; beginning to allow the Lord to feed them; those 40 years to take Egypt out of Israel. To take those desires away; to allow them to know that indeed they can trust in God; indeed the Lord will feed them. He will provide the manna in the morning; he will provide the quail in the evening. The Lord will lead his people; the Lord will feed his people.
I don’t know about you, but at times I think back on the past – I look back at those memories and those things that I have done in the past that I regret, that still burden me and which are still present. And then I need the bread of God. I need the life of God to feed me now. To remind me not to go back; not to go back to those times when the fleshpots looked so wonderful – but they weren’t. Because that was slavery. The Lord wants to free us; he wants to do the same as what he tried to do with the people in the desert. To purify us and give us that hunger for the true bread; for that true presence of the Lord.
It is interesting that when the Lord gave them directions and instructions, and when he gave them the two tablets of the 10 Commandments, and when he then instructed them to then create this beautiful container within which to put those laws of God, the Ark of the Covenant. It wasn’t just the two tablets that they carried in the Ark, they also had the staff of Aaron, and a small pot containing some of the manna, some of this bread from heaven. This was a reminder that God always wants to feed his people. Then when they created the temple in Jerusalem, they placed the Ark of the Covenant there in the ‘Most Holy Place’ or the ‘Holy of Holies.’ There in that ‘Most Holy Place’ they put the Ark and also the Menorah, the beautiful seven-candled lamp; in addition to that they had another table which contained 12 loaves of bread – the Show Bread, or the Bread of Presence. That bread, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, so the whole people of God, was always in the presence of God. It became holy bread. This is why we also have the tabernacle in our churches; it is why we have that place where we keep the bread of life as well; where we allow the Lord to feed us; where we allow the Lord to provide our life and our hope. Whenever we are tempted to look back, whenever we are afraid, whenever we remember the past mistakes and we can’t get out of them (they condemn us) – the Lord himself comes to be our hope. The Lord comes to feed us with his new life. And Jesus the Messiah, will indeed be our leader who will take us on this New Exodus. Not just from any physical slavery; not just from memories of the past – but from any sin; anything that prevents us from hat full life of God. So the Lord wants to be our food, to nourish us and give us hope and faith. The Lord will lead us by his mighty hand along the way of this New Exodus so that we can become the people that he has called us to be, the People who live in the freedom and joy of the Lord. Who allow their past to be taken upon Jesus on the cross. To allow that past to be forgiven, so that we can be freed and fed by the bread of life, the bread come down from heaven.
Recorded at Sacred Heart (10’02”)