Jesus Himself is our Spiritual Food
(Readings: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35)
Introduction to Mass
In today's gospel Jesus describes himself as the "true bread, come down from heaven" to provide eternal life to those who eat it. Jesus not only emphasises the priority, or the precedence, of the spiritual aspect of our nature over material concerns, but he makes a claim about his own unique role in revealing the true face of God to us.
Coming together as God's family, with confidence let us ask the Father's forgiveness, for he is full of gentleness and compassion.
Often in his preaching Christ used images of food, particularly bread, to emphasise our need for spiritual as well as physical nourishment. He warned his listeners about having too much of a preoccupation with their material needs - or what they imagined to be their needs - and he criticised them for not being attentive enough to their more crucial need to be well-fed spiritually.
"Do not work for food that cannot last," he says here, "but work for food that endures to eternal life - the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you".
He spoke in a similar way at the outset of his minstry when he rejected the devil's temptations and said that man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
There are two conclusions that I think we can draw from these kinds of statement Jesus made.
One is not to exaggerate what he said. Jesus never made out that our ordinary physical or material needs are irrelevant, or that they're not real needs.
It's not being unspiritual to acknowledge that we all need to eat. And it's not being selfish to tray to gain a certain minimum of security and stability in our material circumstances before start, in earnest, to cultivate the spiritual side of our lives.
Some exceptional, graced individuals might have the gift of great serenity even though they lack any security or order in their lives. But for most of us, if we're caught up in great anxiety or upheaval in the outward circumstances of our lives, it's much more difficult to pray and to concentrate on God in any sense, and at those times we often have to be content with whatever brief, distracted prayers we can manage.
What Jesus tended to warn his listeners against wasn't the idea of maintaining a certain minmum level of stability in their material circumstances. More often he warned against the temptation to make the material side of life the whole of life; making it an end in itself; getting over-concerned about money, possessions, or about the level of comfort that we have; hankering after a luxurious style of living.
According to Christ's way of seeing things those sorts of preoccupation alienate us from God. They stifle the spiritual side of our nature and they erode the bonds of care and compassion that we're supposed to have towards other people and their needs. These are never the dispositions that bring us closer to God.
But then there's a second aspect of this Sunday's gospel reading we can look at, because Jesus does more here than stick up for spirituality in some vague sense. When they ask him how they can get this bread that he's talking about, bread that endures to eternal life, Jesus answers: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst.
To enter into friendship with Christ, to grow in knowledge of Christ, is like a path we have to walk along if we want to come to a full, truthful knowledge of God.
In spite of the fact that the other religions have a lot of very valuable insights and many elements of truth about them, Christ's role in the history of God's dealings with the human race is unique. His role in bringing about our salvation is unique, so that any attempt to approach God that leaves Christ out is going to give rise to an inadequate and partial, and indeed distorted, picture.
The claims that Jesus made for himself in this regard elicited a hostile reaction from the people he was talking to and it goes against the grain of some of our modern ideas about religion as well.
Religion, in the modern sense, is often understood to be a sort of extra dimension of human life, not the means by which we enter into the mystery of God's life. Rather than a set of truths which comes to us by God's initiative, the tendency today is to see religion as something akin to other areas of human invention, like culture and art - it's one of the things that we create, in other words.
Often religion is interpreted as something designed to provide emotional well-being or a sense of uplift and fulfilment, and the content of religious faith is added-to or subtracted-from, in accordance with each person's individual tastes.
It may be true to say - as some church leaders are fond of saying - that a lot of people in our society are searching and yearning for "something more" in life. But if these same people happen to approach the Church as part of their spiritual wandering, very often it turns out that what they're looking for isn't what we have to offer.
Finding God - the way we understand it - isn't just a product of our human imagination or capacity for creativity. We find the true God revealed in the person of Christ, and faith is the attitude of acceptance of what's revealed by Christ.
And it's through this attitude of acceptance towards the person and work of Christ - acknowledging him for who he says he is - that we're led into a life of closer communion with God. Without Christ's ministry and preaching, without his Passion and death, we would know a certain amount about God, but we would still be waiting for the most important facets of God's nature to be revealed to us.
This seems to me to be the point Saint John is making about Jesus when he writes about him in a figurative way as the "bread that endures to eternal life" and so on.
John wrote his gospel in the first place because he was convinced that in Jesus, God has been revealed to us in a final, full and unsurpassable way. He wrote in the hope that as many of his readers as possible would be led to the same conclusion.
So these are some of the lessons I would draw from this part of Jesus' discussion with the people who are questioning him about the "bread of life".
He repeats what was a frequent theme of his, trying to persuade people not to become mired in the preoccupations of material life. And at the same time he goes further, insisting on his own unique vocation to lead humanity towards knowledge of, and communion with, the true God.