Give us this bread forever. We Anglicans say that phrase regularly, as part of Eucharistic Prayer No. 4 in the Book of Alternative Services, and probably don’t give its origins much thought. We think of it as the grateful, humble but confident prayer of devoted disciples of Christ. But it was first uttered by some cynical, selfish, grumbly people who just wanted Jesus to give them what they wanted. According to John 6, Jesus made a pretty substantial impression by feeding 5,000 men (plus an unspecified number of women and children, according to Matthew) with five loaves of bread and two fish. A large group from that gathering hope there’s more where that came from, and they set out to track Him down.
They find Him just after He walks on water in John 6:16-21, and try to break the ice with some small talk. Jesus, never one for idle pleasantries (a GodMan after my own heart), cuts to the chase and points out what really brought them to Him: their rumbly tumblies.
26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
When I hear this verse in my mind’s ear, it’s spoken not with confident anticipation, but with impatient anxiety – sort of a ‘We know you’ve got the goods, so stop blabbing and make with the miracle already!’ tone. It’s hard to blame them, I guess: they probably had a pretty long walk to get to where Jesus is now, and presumably didn’t have any food with them. But on this occasion, Jesus is all about their spiritual bellies, not their temporal ones:
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
That’s not exactly what the crowd had in mind, is it? They’re looking for a repeat of yesterday’s stomach-stretching miracle – not some figurative mumbo-jumbo about having spiritual thirst and appetite quenched and satisfied. What’s more, He’s making some pretty outlandish claims about Himself, isn’t He?
It doesn’t occur to the crowd that the Jesus wouldn’t have been able to feed them all on such a small amount of food if He were really just the son of Joseph. And they don’t question the origins of His supernatural abilities as long as He uses them the way they want Him to. But as soon as He points to the reality that He’s actually the Son of God, and as such He has something to say about what the crowds’ actual needs are, they’re a lot less interested in Him.
Sound familiar? It sure does for me.
The whole story hits pretty close to home, frankly. I’m not selfish and demanding and naïve in the same way the members of the crowd are in this story, but I am selfish and demanding and naïve in many other ways. And unlike the crowd, who had no real idea who they were dealing with, I have the whole Bible and countless commentaries and analyses to tell me who Jesus really is – but I definitely want Jesus to be what I want Him to be, more often than not.
That’s what I find so encouraging about where we began – in Eucharistic Prayer No. 4. If it had been up to me, I’d never have wanted the redeemed believers of today to be identified with the shameful John 6 crowd and their presumptuous demand, ‘Always give us this bread’.
But Bishop Cranmer and his successors knew better, and they built this embarrassing episode into one of the holiest moments in our liturgy. Right where it belongs. Believers still get a lot of things wrong, but thanks to Christ’s work on the cross, our mistakes – past, present and future – are dealt with.
Still, even after our mistakes have been dealt with, we still get a lot of things wrong, and that can be discouraging. But in Verse 28, He tells the crowd that “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent”. Our ‘job’ is not to achieve perfection, but to believe in the only person who ever did. The cross redeemed the crowd, and even the wrong-headedness of the their demand for everlasting bread.
And now we can come to the table confident that our wrong-headedness is redeemed, too – and say those previously dubious, desperate words with gratitude, humility and confidence.
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
Give us this bread forever.
Peace be with you.
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