Posted by on August 5, 2018

Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; John 6.24-35

St Michael’s AL3 4SL; 5th August 2018


Ten years ago a legal battle broke out among members of Sixties boyband Procul Harum. The dispute concerned copyright of their most famous song A Whiter Shade of Pale. The matter went all the way to the House of Lords where keyboardist Matthew Fisher eventually won his fight to be recognised as co-author of the music. Success for Fisher, but spare a thought for another musician who has missed out on his share of the royalties. Sadly one J.S. Bach has been too busy de-composing to point out that Procul Harum adapted his tune from 2½ centuries earlier. Then again, Bach himself was a great borrower, re-using many melodies from the earlier Germanic tradition.


The honest truth is that all the best tunes riff off one another. And what is true of songs is also true of sermons. I gather ideas like a magpie from people I hear or read. And I find myself in good company – because Jesus did the same. Did you spot the similarities between this morning’s first text from Exodus chapter 16 and the gospel from John 6? The Exodus passage comes straight after the flight of the Israelites across the Red Sea and describes the time when God fed them on water and quails and the strange bread called manna. John 6 contains many echoes of Exodus 16: Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee, and begins a conversation about the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the famous miracle narrative which we heard last Sunday. The similarities between the two passages are so striking that the first hearers of John 6 would have recognised it as ‘midrash’, a rabbinic commentary, on Exodus 16. This means that we need to analyse both texts together if we are going to grasp what Jesus wants to tell us about the Bread of Life.


At the heart of the Bread of Life discourse are truths about Jesus’ identity and purpose.

  • In Exodus 16, God answers the prayers of the Israelites for sustenance.
    • In John 6, it is Jesus who feeds the 5000. He occupies the place of God and indeed it is because he is God that he can perform the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes.
  • But Jesus is the Gift as well as the Giver. I am the Bread of Life he says. Jesus does not offer anything outside himself. He does not point to another, an intermediary or an agent.


Jesus as Gift, is so wonderfully greater than the manna of Exodus 16. The Israelites were told to gather up just enough manna for the day. God would give them what they needed for 24 hours’ sustenance – but no more. And of course the manna brought only physical nourishment. As Jesus reminds his audience a little later in John 6, ‘your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and died. But the one who eats the bread which I give shall live forever.’ Jesus is offering a fundamentally greater nourishment than the food which the Israelites received. He says that he gives ‘real’ bread – ‘true’ bread (verse 32) – not food which perishes but that which endures for eternal life (verse 27).


So Jesus is saying that the food (which is himself) is like the manna of the wilderness, only better. Let’s explore two contemporary ideas about manna which help explain Jesus’ interest in it.

  • Firstly, many Jews understood manna to be the bread of angels. In Psalm 78.25-26 we read that God

‘rained down manna also upon them for to eat : and gave them food from heaven.

So man did eat angels’ food : for he sent them meat enough.’

Jesus as manna, then, is offering us even that which sustains the angels in heaven.

  • Secondly, there were many Jews who understood manna to be the food of the End Times. Having been fed by the manna in the wilderness, Moses ordered that the Israelites reserve one final portion in a jar. This was to be a memento of God’s preservation of the people in the desert. Eventually it came to be stored in the Temple in Jerusalem. But whatever was in that jar – and whatever state it was in(!) – was destroyed when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586BC. That last precious morsel of God’s special bread was lost forever. So a tradition grew up that when the Messiah came, God’s appointed representative, the people would feed on manna once more. By claiming to offer living bread like the manna of Exodus 16, Jesus is announcing the arrival of the messianic age, God’s end-time reign on earth.


So the Feeding of the 5000 is a sign which points to Jesus being something like the food of angels and like the manna which Jews associated with the Last Days. But Jesus does not call himself manna. Rather he talks about being the ‘Bread of Life’. By this he means two things. Firstly that he is ‘living bread’ – something which has life in itself – and, secondly, he is that which gives life – a foretaste of eternity.


This is amazing stuff. But how might Christians get to consume Jesus the bread of life?! The tradition has proposed two solutions. Some have said that we eat Jesus with our stomachs, others that we eat him with our hearts. These alternatives became subject to one of the classic ding-dongs between Catholics and Protestants during the period of the Reformation.

  • On the one hand the Catholic camp pointed to John chapter 6 as support for their traditional understanding of the Mass. Papal protagonists latched onto Jesus’ line that ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.’ Bingo, they concluded: if you don’t attend Mass, you don’t abide in Jesus.
  • But the iconoclastic Protestants replied by telling the Catholics not to be so crudely literalistic. ‘We are fed, they said ‘by Jesus’ teaching. His claim to be the bread of life must be a sapiential thing, a wisdom thing; it has nothing to do with the Eucharist.’


So what is it going to be? Is Jesus the Bread of Life in his Eucharistic presence or through his teaching? The truth probably lies somewhere in between, a both/and not an either/or.

  • There is truth in the Protestant idea that we “eat” Jesus when we study the Bible in Church and at home. Jesus’ line that ‘whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (verse 35) suggests a response of the will to his message, not a ritual action.
    • This means that we need to open our Bibles if we are to feed on the living bread. When did you last do that? This morning we have found some deep-down nuances associated with manna but we will never dig deep enough to recover these buried treasures if we do not open our Bibles – more frequently and for longer, and with a good commentary to support us.
  • There is truth in the Protestant reading of the bread of life as teaching, but there is truth in the Catholic claim as well. The latter part of John chapter 6 is clearly more eucharistic than sapiential. For instance in verse 55 Jesus says ‘my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’. This is earthy corporeal stuff – it is not just a metaphor for wisdom. So we are not only being encouraged to read our Bibles more frequently, we are being encouraged to come to Communion more often.


I should note that to be fed by Jesus at Communion is not the same as accepting the idea of transubstantiation, the notion that the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Christ. I do not believe that this is possible because the story of the ascension tells us that Jesus’ body is in heaven not on earth. What I do believe is that in the mystery of our shared meal we are drawn up spiritually into heaven. Through an upward movement of our souls we join the worship of the saints around God’s throne. Sursum corda, lift up your hearts, we will shortly say.


In summary, we have seen that Jesus, as Gift and Giver, offers us the food of angels, a token of the messianic age.

He is ‘living bread’ – something which has life in itself – as well as bread which gives life – a foretaste of eternity.

And we receive this great gift in faith when we listen to his teaching and celebrate his eucharistic presence together.

Bread of heaven – feed me now and evermore. Amen.


Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons