“I tell you solemnly, you are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.” (John 6:26) These words of Jesus remind of a curious remark made earlier in this Gospel: ‘During his stay in Jerusalem for the Passover many believed in him when they saw the signs that he gave, but Jesus knew them all and did not trust himself to them.’ (John 2:23-24) Jesus had just fed this ‘five thousand’ strong crowd with only ‘five barley loaves and two fish’ and there was plenty left over. (John 6:9ff) This so impressed the crowd, we are told, that they wanted to make Jesus king, but Jesus fled from them. (John 6:15) These people are impressed by Jesus’ power; they see him as one who can work wonders: here is one who will be able to take care of their needs and fix all our problems — and how often do we only turn to God when we are in need, expecting him to take care of it? We should not be surprised that he flees from us as well.
Jesus calls what he does: ‘signs.’ Signs in themselves are not worth much; they are only useful for what they can tell us about something else. So Jesus says to the crowds, “You are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.” Some little time before this (John 6:1) he had said to them, “The works my Father has given me to do, these same works of mine testify that the Father has sent me.” (John 5:36) This is what they have not seen in the sign he just gave them. It’s a bit like looking at that diamond-shaped, yellow sign down on the corner of our road that you would have all driven past coming in this morning, and merely thinking how pretty it is in its yellowness contrasted with the black of the arrow in its middle … without bothering to wonder about what it is trying to say, and so being caught by surprise by the sharp corner a hundred metres farther down the road. So here, Jesus wants the crowd to read the sign, instead of merely being impressed by the wonder of it.
“What must we do?” (John 6:28) Jesus tells them to stop looking at the food, which is here today to be eaten and then is finished; it is only a sign of what he is really offering them, and which he calls ‘bread from heaven.’ (John 6:32) They do understand what he’s saying, for they respond, “Why should we believe in you; what sign will you give us?” (John 6:28) — which is a curious question, for only yesterday he had fed them all with only five loaves and two fish. They had, indeed, not seen the sign! They point out to him that Moses had fed their fathers manna in the desert (John 6:31) — and yet they still don’t make the connection to what he did the day before when he fed them in that ‘desolate place.’ (Mark 6:31, 35) So he puts it to them more plainly: “It was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven; but it is my Father who gives it to you.” (John 6:32) But they are still looking for him to give them something: “Give us that bread always,” they say. (John 6:34) So, he finally has to say to them, “I am the bread from heaven.” “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst.” (John 6:33, 35)
This kind of begs the question: What is it to come to him; what is it to believe in him? In Mark’s Gospel, which we have been reading up until the last couple of Sundays, when Jesus appointed the Twelve, we are told: “And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.” (Mark 3:13-14) In the Middle Eastern world of Jesus’ day, words like faith, belief, fidelity, and faithfulness describe the social glue that binds one person to another. They are not acts of the mind (as in: I believe this) so much as sentiments of the heart, which are expressed in values like loyalty, commitment and solidarity. It is this that St John means when he has Jesus say, “This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29) — not believe what he says, but believe in him. This is what is implied when St Mark says, “He called to him those whom he desired … to be with him.” (Mark 3:13-14) They were to be his ‘companions,’ which comes from the Latin for ‘breaking bread together.’
Thus we see a connection with Jesus’ bread imagery; they are meant to have fellowship with him and in him. “This is working for God,’ says Jesus: “you must believe in/be a companion of the one he has sent.” It is a work, for you have to do what you can to ensure that we can and do continue to gather together; it is not something that just happens. (C.f.: John 13:21ff) It calls for loyalty, commitment and solidarity and things like love and forgiveness, without which we will stop coming together. This Jesus says to us in Matthew’s Gospel, “Where two or three gather in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) We gather in Jesus’ name; he is here in our midst. In breaking bread together, which we will do shortly, we are his companions. We, too, have to work at making sure we can continue to gather and break bread together. For it is in our fellowship that we come to have life, life to the full, by eating the bread from heaven our Father gives us: fellowship with his Son. (John 6:35)