Did you see a nativity play in the run-up to Christmas? Perhaps you have a child or grandchild who had a lead role – or the humble job of acting as the hindquarters for one of the stable animals. The most memorable nativity play I’ve ever seen was put on by York University students at their Christian Union carol service. At the beginning, Mary and Joseph stood in front of us looking lovingly at the bundle in Mary’s arms. Then they went up and down the aisle of the church showing their newborn child to certain people – who made all the right noises in response. Mary and Joseph then returned to the front, accompanied by the people in the audience who had seen their baby. At that point Mary took the unusual step of unravelling the swaddling clothes. When she’d finished, everyone could see that the swaddling clothes had been carefully wrapped round a large French-style loaf of bread. Then Mary began passing chunks of the bread to the people gathered with her at the front, who all started eating her baby.
The students weren’t being unconventional just for the sake of it. Jesus himself says to a huge crowd of people, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever’ (John 6:51). He’s calling on people to eat him! These striking words deserve a closer look.
Jesus is teaching people who haven’t eaten all day. They last ate when Jesus fed them all, a crowd of five thousand, with just five small loaves of bread and two small fish. He gave them ‘as much as they wanted’ (6:11), but that was yesterday and this is today and so they’re hungry. In fact, Jesus points out that they’ve only followed him to Capernaum on the other side of Lake Galilee in the hope that he’ll feed them again: ‘I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils’ (6:26-27). They should be looking for Jesus because he’s the long-awaited Prophet, as they themselves recognised after the miracle (6:14). They should be asking him all kinds of questions about God and his plans. But instead they hunt him down because they want seconds. They want more pie. The trouble is, it will never satisfy them in a lasting way.
My guess is that after Christmas lunch you were so full of turkey, roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts and plum pudding that all you could do was move slowly to the sitting room, take a comfy chair, sit down and for a while simply concentrate on breathing. But if you’re anything like me, by 7 pm you were definitely ready to attack the leftovers. Food doesn’t deliver lasting satisfaction. It quickly leaves us empty and wanting more. That’s why every pie is ultimately hollow. And that could be said about everything in this world, not just food. The movie comes to an end – you have to leave the theater and that source of satisfaction is over. The holiday comes to an end – you have to fly home and swap a golden beach for the daily commute. The relationship comes to an end – because of a break-up perhaps, or in due course because of a death. Nothing in this world provides permanent satisfaction. Everything is ultimately hollow pie. Or, in Jesus’ words, ‘food that spoils’ (6:27).
The dark truths above provide the backdrop to Jesus’ stunning claim: ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry’ (6:35). While everything else is hollow pie, Jesus provides never-ending satisfaction. But how do we ‘eat’ Jesus?
Roman Catholics say that the way to feed on Jesus is to attend Mass regularly, but that turns Jesus’ teaching on its head. His whole point is that life isn’t gained through what we put in our mouths but through trusting in him. He says, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent … everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life’ (6:29, 40). So when he says, ‘the one who feeds on me will live because of me’ (6:57), ‘feeds’ must be very closely related to ‘believes’. Jesus’ flesh and blood do count as true food and drink (6:55), because believing in his atoning death (6:51) truly nourishes us, keeping us alive beyond the grave. So feeding on Jesus is a way of talking about receiving the nourishment of eternal life through faith in him. It begins when we first trust in him, and continues as we enjoy the experience of knowing him – which is how the Bible defines eternal life (see John 17:3).
There are three reasons why feeding on Jesus satisfies while everything else in the world ultimately leaves us empty. First of all, Jesus ‘comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’ (6:33). Unlike his hollow rivals, Jesus isn’t from this world. He came down into it from outside, ‘from heaven’, and bread that comes from heaven isn’t hollow. The next reason why Jesus satisfies like nothing else is because what he offers ‘endures to eternal life’ (6:27). If it came to an end it wouldn’t ultimately be satisfying, but it doesn’t. The third reason is simply because he’s greater, better and more wonderful than everything else. We’re told, ‘On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval’ (6:27). Jesus deserves, and gets, the highest praise on offer. No wonder his people never get tired of knowing him.
Do you find satisfaction through feeding on Jesus? Or in your heart and in your actions are you chasing after hollow pie? If you’re conscious of drifting from Jesus perhaps you need to re-engage with the daily challenge of obeying his commands by the power of his Spirit. Jesus says, ‘If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love … I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete’ (John 15:10-11). Take a chunk out of that glorious bread and get chewing.