One Saturday long ago, when I was eight years old or so, I was on the sidelines watching a little league football game. Saturdays at the park were loads of fun, I recall. After playing in my game, I often would hang around and watch other games—this was normal procedure for most boys. Sometimes I got to be the ball boy for the “big guys.” Sometimes—as I got older—I even got to be part of the chain crew. It was always exciting, and it was always fun.
Back to that particular Saturday: it was halftime, and the teams were sitting around in opposite end zones hydrating and receiving wisdom from their respective coaches. I remained near the bench, which is where the medical kit was located. Being inquisitive (and nosy), I opened the medical kit and began rummaging through it. Inside I found the stash of ammonia capsules, which are used to ‘assist’ someone unconscious in returning to consciousness. My curiosity got the best of me as I broke the capsule and lifted it to my nose. Immediately my head snapped back violently and involuntarily. Never before has something assaulted my senses like that ammonia capsule did. Some things have the capacity to overwhelm our senses.
Our five senses are powerful, and they often drive our behavior. Case in point, there is a reason that bakeries leave open their front doors when they are baking their wares. Is there any aroma in the world more pleasing—and more difficult to resist—than the smell of fresh, hot bread? Regardless if we have already eaten, that particular smell has the capacity to make us hungry all over again. Truly, there are few sensory blessings as wonderful as the aroma of baking bread.
In John 6, Jesus feeds a large crowd. The gospels tell us that the number of men in the crowd was 5,000. Accounting for women and children, the total number was surely many times that. Using only a boy’s lunch consisting of five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus miraculously satisfies the hunger of the entire crowd. In addition, there are twelve baskets full of bread fragments remaining. This is a popular and well-known miracle story. It is also significant in that it is the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four gospels.
God had fed bread to his people before, in that case through Moses. Surely most of the people recall that story as they witness Jesus creating bread for the crowd. As a result, they would continue to follow Jesus (though for physical reasons, not spiritual).
The central message in this story, however, is not the miraculous power of Jesus. That is surely part of it, but it is not the most important thing. Continuing the theme of food and bread, Jesus begins to teach the crowds [note that this story begins out in the open near the lake, but John confirms that the teaching occurs in the synagogue in Capernaum]. He urges them to “not work for the food that perishes.” Rather, Jesus tells them to work instead for “the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Throughout this teaching, Jesus makes some profound proclamations about himself. These proclamations are difficult and baffling to some—so much so that very soon there will be division among those who are following him. In fact, just a few verses later in John 6, we read that many who previously had followed Jesus decide to turn back and no longer follow. The sayings are too hard for them. They decide that what Jesus is asking is too much.