Use It Or Lose It
John 6.51 Jesus said, I am the living bread
which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread he will live for
Small wonder that the Jews murmured against him and disputed
among themselves what Jesus might mean by these words. And if we are not
equally disturbed by them, then it can only be because we have not really
thought about what they mean and how they might be true. 2000 years of
familiar use have insulated us from their power to shock.
Jesus is making the following claims, worded slightly differently at
different points in the passage we had read, but summed up in this final
He is bread, he is living bread; he is bread come
down from heaven; he is bread which confers immortality.
What does it mean and how can it be true? Let us briefly consider each
of these four points in turn.
- Jesus is "the bread": This is one of many "I am" sayings of Jesus
found in John�s Gospel - I am the vine, I am the light, I am the
resurrection, I am the way, I am the shepherd, I am the truth, I am the
door, I am the life.
They are not static statements of Jesus�s identity. They are dynamic
descriptions of his function and purpose. Taken all together they
describe a provider of guidance and protection and sustenance and
renewal on life�s journey.
- Jesus is "living bread": This reinforces the point just made. Bread
is of no use sitting on the baker�s shelf. It has to be eaten, digested,
made part of us, in order to give us the strength to live. In the same
way Jesus is no use just sitting on the mountain, or sitting on a page
of the Bible. That would be dead bread. He is living bread, and he has
somehow to be taken into our lives if he is to make any difference to us
and the world in which we live and move and have our being.
- Jesus is bread "come down from heaven": In the Old Testament story
of Israel�s wandering in the desert after escaping from Egypt, God
provided food in the form of a wafer-like bread that appeared each
morning as the dew evaporated. The people called it manna - the food of
angels, bread from heaven - because they did not know what it was or
where it came from.
And Jesus is likening himself to this divine food, which had had one
very important property: it had to be used the day it was harvested. If
anyone tried to hoard it, to keep it overnight, it went revoltingly
mouldy. Only on the eve of the Sabbath were they able to gather two
days� supply, in order not to do the work of gathering it on the Sabbath
Again the previous message is underlined: use it or lose it. Jesus
cannot be hoarded, kept by for a rainy day when we decide he will
be useful. He comes to us as the living bread today, and it is
today we must live in his strength.
- The bread confers immortality: We have seen one important way in
which Jesus is like the manna in the wilderness. He is for today. Now we
are shown an important way in which our bread from heaven is unlike that
of olden times. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and they
died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat
of it and not die. What are we to make of this? What does it mean to
eat this bread? What does it mean not to die?
There are two interpretations of eating the bread, both of which were
probably in John�s mind, and which are not mutually exclusive. One is
sharing in the bread of the Eucharist, called by one of the earliest
post-biblical writers "the medicine of immortality", on account of
Jesus�s words here in John.
The other is a metaphorical understanding. Eating the heavenly bread
is taken to mean hearing and acting upon the words and teaching of
Jesus. The Hebrews already had a similar interpretation of the manna,
taken to represent the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses, given by
God to guide and protect and sustain his people.
But the crunch question is, "What does it mean not to die?" Faithful
Christians have been reading the Bible and receiving the sacrament and
living godly, righteous and sober lives for nearly 2 000 years. And like
the ancient Israelites they have all died.
There is evidence from various parts of the New Testament that some
first-generation Christians did believe that with the death and
resurrection of Jesus all that would change, that Christians really would
not die. But we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that they were
wrong. However the words are to be understood, they cannot be taken in the
simple literal sense that those who eat the bread will avoid the death of
John himself thought in terms of two deaths. This death we all go
The second death comes after the resurrection at the last day, when it
was supposed that the damned would die eternally. It was this second death
from which he would have understood the heavenly bread to secure
That never quite became the official standard Christian view. In fact
there is no single agreed Christian view on this matter.
But however the words of Jesus in John's Gospel are to be understood,
we can rejoice that the loss of a literal interpretation has not destroyed
their power to speak of Christ�s victory over death.
And we should take this lesson to heart when we are tempted to accept
too quickly the literal interpretation of any biblical text.