Among the many unique features of the Gospel of John is its record of the seven so-called “I AM” statements of Jesus. Today’s Gospel concludes with the first of the seven: “I am the bread of life…” This “I AM” statement provides a rich banquet for our pondering today.
The words “I AM” are biblically significant because this was how God revealed himself to Moses in the Book of Exodus (cf. Ex 3:14). Today’s first reading comes from a little later in the Exodus story. God has revealed not only his Name but also his great power and glory. He has freed the Israelites from slavery and from the power of Pharaoh and his armies. Now, through Moses and Aaron, he is leading his people through the desert toward the Promised Land. One would think that after all God has done for them – striking down the Egyptians and parting the Red Sea – the Israelites would put their trust in him, but this was not what happened. Instead of trusting the Lord, they grumbled.
Hunger is one thing, but grumbling is another. God expects us to turn to him for our daily bread. The Israelites, however, focus their attention on Moses. They accuse him of betrayal, as if he deliberately led everyone into the desert to die of starvation. Forgetting their hard slavery, they dream about sitting by their fleshpots and eating their fill of bread.
Thankfully for them, God is God, the I AM who is unchanging in his love for his people. He sifts through all their grumbling to find at its core the legitimate need that is provoking it. He knows that they need food, so he provides for them, despite their ingratitude, a new kind of food, the manna. The Psalm celebrates this magnificent gift: “He commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven; he rained manna upon them for food and gave them heavenly bread.”
The crowd in today’s Gospel has also received a magnificent gift. Prior to today’s passage, Jesus Christ miraculously multiplied bread and fish to feed the multitude. The next day, seeking more of this free heavenly food, they search for Jesus and find him in Capernaum. Jesus accurately calls them out: “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” Though this crowd is not grumbling like the Israelites were, they are still like them in that their focus is on filling their bellies.
But Jesus has come to do much more than merely satisfy people’s material needs. He reveals that there is such a thing as “food that endures for eternal life.” When the crowd expresses interest in this “bread of God” which “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” Jesus declares, “I AM the Bread of Life.” He himself is the I AM, the One who alone can fully satisfy our deepest hunger. When God reveals himself to us like this, we must make a decision: will we put our trust in this I AM or not? He challenges us to rise from purely material concerns like bread to spiritual food like his living word. The Gospel Acclamation reminds us that, indeed, we do not live on bread alone, “but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
St. Paul’s message to the church in Ephesus zeroes in on this challenge: “you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self.” Our “old self” keeps falling for the lie that material things will satisfy us; our “new self” knows that if we turn to Jesus, we “will never hunger,” and that whoever believes in him “will never thirst.”
We still experience all sorts of hunger and thirst! Our faith in the I AM is tested. We may not be wandering in a desert without food and water, but we still face situations of dire need, and we experience moments of searching for Christ and not finding him. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the whole world to grow in faith. It threw us into situations of anxiety and bleakness. Many got sick; some even died. Jobs disappeared, opportunities were lost, savings wiped out. For a time, we could not even visit our churches or receive the Eucharist. The Lord was asking us to persevere in the pandemic desert and to trust in him, never forgetting that he has always provided for us all that we need.
When we are sustained by faith in the I AM, we remember with gratitude and we share generously, even when we are still in the desert. One concrete manifestation of our faith is joyful proclamation: “We will declare to the generation to come the glorious deeds of the LORD and his strength and the wonders that he wrought.”
Do I hunger more for the perishable things of this world or for Jesus the “Bread of Life”? Am I often grumbling to the Lord because I am dissatisfied with my present situation in life? What hinders me from putting away the “old self” of my former ways to put on the “new self” of Jesus?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.