The signs, or miracles, that give form to John’s gospel are shaped entirely around the healing and wellbeing of flesh. There are healings in chapter 4, a miraculous meal in Chapter 6, a restoration of sight in Chapter 9, and Lazarus raised from the dead in Chapter 11. Against the backdrop of what has traditionally been considered a higher or more philosophically developed Christology than found in the synoptic gospels, John’s insistence on fleshly liberation is instructive. It’s an interplay - the relation of fleshly suffering and liberation with heaven or eternity breaking into history – that climaxes in the Easter event. We simply cannot, or should not, think of God’s eternity with and for us without thinking bodies and flesh and this-life and earthly liberation. When John records the I am statements of Jesus, there’s no doubt that these statements speak into this duality.
And yet it is easy for us to jump into speculative spiritual thought, to spiritualise these bodies and spiritualise the signs and miracles before us. Perhaps that has happened in John 6, with many scholars confident the text from 6:51-58 was a late redaction to the text, added to import an exclusive Eucharistic understanding of the bread. Whether this is the case or not, a tendency to jump solely to metaphysical significance at the cost of bodies and physical hunger is a poor reading of the chapter. If the bread is not really real, or very much about filling hungry bodies and sustaining life on the way to full, eternal liberation, then the sign of the bread fails.
In the bread of life discourse, Jesus’ declaration takes up this lived tradition.
The manna had been a twofold sign in the wilderness; a sign that Yahweh was and would sustain the people while leading them into liberation. Some within the Israelite community believed that in the day of the Lord, the miracle of the manna would be repeated (for example 2 Baruch 29:8) and they challenged Jesus for a sign, perhaps expecting he will fail to impress them. But in Jesus’ statement – “I am the bread of life” – the manna, or bread from heaven, is not to be understood solely as a crisis meal for the starving, nor solely as a spiritual meal for those whose food privilege allows them to supersede such physical concerns. The bread of life, of which Jesus both gives and is as host, is the bread of a continuous history of God with and for us. The divisions between history and eternity, physicality and spirituality, are revealed as inadequate interpretive lenses. The bread of life, then, is never far from us, present in our basic human hungers and in our deepest existential pleas. As Mary Daly-Denton insists, “It is not bread of special significance because it represents something more ‘spiritual’. It is simply bread in all its materiality, the stuff of human life on Earth, but bread shared in a spirit of love and service by those who belong to Jesus and see him as the bread that sustains their ‘eternal life’”.