Bread that Spoils
Below is a reflection that I offer for John 6:24-35. If you want to see my detailed exegesis of the text, click here.
I once heard a breadmaker being interviewed on NPR, whose words have stayed with me: “There is a very fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” One reasons so many store bought sliced loaves of bread are chocked full of chemical preservatives is because of this propensity for bread to spoil. The same metabolical reactions that ferment the yeast in bread dough are the reactions that ferment bacteria in spoilage. In those societies that pre-dated modern refrigeration or artificial preservation of bread, putrefaction could mean the difference between eating or not.
The writer of the gospel of John seems to be carrying out several polemics, the objects of which we can only tease out through carefully pieced guesswork. That fine line between fermentation and putrefaction, the chemical process that creates in one moment and ruins in the next, may be the space where John sees many followers of Jesus heading. They follow Jesus, to be sure, sometimes with great zeal and ardent work. But, they are following for the wrong reasons, for bread that delights in its taste and satisfaction of hunger, but which also spoils over time.
I feel like I’m just now catching on to the rhythm of this chapter, even though I’ve read it a zillion times. The crowd of 5,000 ate the bread that Jesus produced out of five loaves, with twelve basketsful leftover. Jesus gave specific instruction to collect the leftovers so that “nothing may be lost,” a phrase similar to Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17. It occurs to me that those twelve baskets are the leftover miracle bread the crowd is following Jesus to eat again. And, why not? They were part of something special, something heavenly, something that echoed God’s gracious manna from heaven that fed the people of Israel on their journey. Why not follow Jesus for more of that? After all, he is the one who provided it in the first place. Surely it is a good thing.
Jesus does not deny that the bread he multiplied is a good thing. But, he avers, it is not a lasting thing. It was good; it met a real need; it was welcomed with thanksgiving; it was shared; it was collected afterward so that nothing would be lost. Yet, if that is why people are following Jesus, then they are sure to be disappointed because the bread that Jesus multiplies miraculously will not last. It will spoil. The creative powers at work in fermentation are also the ruinous power of putrefaction. If the analogy holds, there is a way of pursuing faith that is wonderfully attractive but which can also prove ruinous in the end.
What Jesus offers, instead of the bread that he produces, is the bread that he is. To follow this train of thought throughout some of the “I am” sayings of John’s gospel, Jesus offers the truth that he is, the life that he is, the way that he is, the resurrection that he is. One can enjoy the truth that Christ offers – propositions, wise sayings, meaningful parables, and insightful teaching. But, until one follows the truth that is incarnate in Christ, for John’s gospel one has not yet found the wellspring, the source, the fountain of truth itself. This may be John’s way of engaging those other Christian groups that are not enemies necessarily or even wrong necessarily, but who also have not yet grasped the eternity of God that is made flesh in Christ. John’s polemic against those who have attained a semblance and measure of truth but not truth itself may also speak volumes to our own day, when we encounter those who have no problem giving allegiance to the words of Christ, but who seem to be far away from the spirit of Christ.