The Lectionary continues its hiatus from Mark’s Gospel this Sunday and for the next three weeks. On each of the Sundays of August, the church reflects on a portion of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, a reflection often called the “Bread of Life” discourse.
‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ (Jn 6:33)
With what “bread” has Christ fed you?
What symbolizes God’s love most strongly to you?
By what means do you strengthen others with God’s love?
John crafted this lengthy address, unique to his Gospel, as a response to a specific event. The crowd that Jesus had miraculously fed followed him through the night back to Capernaum with the intention of making him king. They recognized accurately that he was the prophet Moses foretold (Dt 18:15), but their desire for his leadership did not extend yet beyond their desire for him to heal their illnesses and satisfy their hunger. Bread was only a symbol of the gift Jesus offered, but the crowd had confused the symbol with the reality.
Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus’ miracles are a means to an end. The crowd pursued him for his miraculous food, but this was not his true gift. Although his miracles alleviated the suffering of many, their purpose was to reveal the love he shared with the Father and offered to his disciples. Divine love was the “bread” that kept him going and the food that would sustain his disciples for eternal life. Jesus wanted disciples who pursued him for this gift, not for the symbols that only pointed to its reality.
“The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Divine love strengthens any who commit to Christ’s example, and this commitment gives life to many. Following the Gospel is not easy. Conforming one’s life to the Gospel can be a constant struggle. Opportunities to abandon the task, especially in the face of opposition, can be quite tempting. One finds an example of this in the writings of Jean Donovan, a lay minister from Cleveland who was murdered in El Salvador in 1980. Not long before her death, she wrote to a friend: “Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
Jean’s commitment in the face of danger was the bread she shared, the symbol of the same divine love that Jesus knew. Like Jesus, her death led ultimately to life for others. The Evangelist shows us a hungry crowd who failed to understand this deeper gift, but it is important not to forget that the very existence of John’s Gospel, written decades later for a growing community, reveals that many who had been captivated at first by signs of love later came to share in the fullness of its reality.
Just so, as disciples today encounter Christ in ways both mundane and sacred, they find the opportunity to craft their own symbols through which to share that gift. Through personal example, service, sacrifice, teaching, ministry and advocacy, each disciple shares the love of God by which all the world is fed.