Proper 13: Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78.23-29; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6.24-35
GOD’s purpose in leading Israel through the wilderness is “to form them as disciples”. He “places them in an existentially threatening environment in which their dependence upon him will be particularly acute. . . They are to learn that the Lord has the power to do whatever is required to sustain them in being, but will do so only if they learn to place obedience to God before all else” (Thomas White, Brazos Theological Commentary: Exodus).
From the beginning, this work of formation meets with resistance. After he delivers them from the hands of Pharaoh, God’s chosen people do not remain grateful for long. Rather, they are quick to complain, and all too slow to place their trust in him.
Their lament in our first reading is a case in point: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” It seems that they would prefer the certainties of enslavement in Egypt to a journey in which they must depend entirely on the Lord’s guidance and protection.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus’s concern is also the formation of disciples. Having just fed the crowd (in the miracle of the loaves and fishes), he knows that their gratitude is likely to be equally short-lived. As he observes, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Their hearts need to be transformed — and this requires not “the food which perishes” but “the food that endures for eternal life”.
Jesus explains the nature of this eternal food by contrasting it with the manna that the Israelites received in the wilderness: “I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Whereas the manna in Exodus 16 was a gift from God, in the “true bread from heaven” God himself becomes the gift. Christ is our food, as his body is offered for us on the Cross and received by us at the altar.
As St Augustine observes, when we eat earthly food, it is absorbed into our earthly bodies. In contrast, when we receive the eucharist, we are drawn into Christ’s body. Through this sacrament, we dwell in him and he dwells in us. Jean Vanier describes the way in which this forms — and, indeed, transforms — us: “We are no longer filled up with ourselves. We find our joy now in being and living with Jesus, the Beloved, and in doing what he asks of us” (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John).
When the people ask “What must we do to perform the works of God?”, they imagine that Jesus wants them do the impossible: to conjure up better works from hardened hearts. Jesus’s response is to say, instead, that they must believe in him. This faith will enable them to feed on him, so that he can live in them. This alone suffices.
As Benedict XVI writes, the bread of life “cannot be ‘earned’ by human work, by one’s own achievement. It can only come to us as a gift from God, as God’s work” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration).
In the wilderness, the Israelites are not simply being formed as individual disciples, but as the people of God. This Sunday’s Epistle emphasises the corporate and ecclesial aspect of our Christian formation. Having “ascended far above all the heavens”, Christ now “fills all things”.
As he pours his love and his gifts on us, we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”. Margaret MacDonald observes that the writer “aims to unite this notion of divine initiative with the idea of the giving of gifts that shape community life” (Sacra Pagina Commentary: Colossians and Ephesians).
By the power of the Spirit, the life of Christ is poured into each believer, but they are made one in him. As we feed on the “bread of life”, we are are “built up in love” into the Church of which he is the head.