Little children often play games where they describe a character or act out something and then ask, “Who am I?” They do this in the belief that every individual has traits that distinguish him from all other individuals. They can say, “The farmer caught me in the garden. I tried to run, but my jacket got caught in a net, and I barely wriggled out of it in time to escape. Who am I?” Most of the children would know it was Peter Rabbit.
Jesus didn’t play games with his disciples, but one day he did ask them some “Who am I?” questions. One day he asked them who everybody else thought he was. He had been wandering from town to town, teaching in synagogues, healing sick people, giving sight to the blind, and so forth. Jesus asked his disciples how people interpreted these things. The disciples responded by telling him that people thought maybe John the Baptist had come back to life, or maybe Elijah. Jewish people all knew that Elijah had not really died, and they knew there was a prophecy that he would return, so this idea was common. There were various other interpretations.
Then Jesus asked “Who am I?” He actually said, “Who do you say that I am?” but the real question to the disciples was more piercing. He wanted them to answer from their hearts. Simon Peter spoke right up. “You are the Messiah,” he said.
Jesus needed to be sure that his disciples understood who he really was, because otherwise, they would misunderstand everything he did. People in general misunderstood him for a lot of reasons, but it was important that the disciples get it right. They did not know what was coming, but Jesus knew, and he knew that if they did not understand that he was God come down among them, then they would never be able to do the work of telling the good news to the whole world.
After the feeding of the five thousand, people gathered around Jesus with questions that made it clear that they did not recognize who Jesus really was. They actually pursued him all the way across the Sea of Galilee from the remote location where five thousand had been fed. When they found him, they asked him to explain himself. First they wanted to know how Jesus got to Capernaum. He responded by piercing the façade that hid their real desire to know how he had managed to feed all those people. He answered the real question, where did all that bread come from? Jesus knew, because he always knew what was going on inside people, that each person who asked was actually trying to figure out how to get in the bread line again. The moocher society did not sprout full-blown for the first time in the twenty-first century. Even in Jesus’ day, there were plenty of people who wanted benefits, not jobs.
Jesus said they needed to work, not for daily bread, but for the food of eternal life. Eugene Peterson captures the response of the crowd well when he says that they “waffled.” Of course they waffled. We all do. We want to ask God for what we want, and we want to receive what we want. We don’t want God to tell us to get to work, and we certainly don’t want to be expected to work for things we can’t see. Peterson’s translation/paraphrase records that they responded saying, “Why don’t you give us a clue about who you are, just a hint of what’s going on? When we see what’s up, we’ll commit ourselves. Show us what you can do.” (John 6:30-31) In other words, prove yourself to us.
I encounter people all the time who say the same thing. They consider faith in Christ to be akin to belief in a four-leaf clover. Or the tooth fairy. The culture of the US today is growing daily more cynical about the existence of God, and doubt of his existence leads to doubts about his right to expect anything of human beings. At this very moment, a lawsuit is in process in a US federal district court in which the ultimate question is whether a person ought to obey God or live according to human reason. That is not the way the question is worded, because it is about contemporary law and political administration and a businessman who believes he should live according to his faith principles, even in his business. But the real question is the same question the disciples had to answer over and over after Pentecost: Must Christians obey government, namely human beings, when government expects Christians to disobey or deny God? The government, like the people who chased Jesus down in Capernaum looking for free bread, challenges the very existence of God by challenging God’s authority in people’s lives and daily work.
The people questioning Jesus made their case by asking Jesus to prove himself to them again, as if the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish had been merely a sideshow. They pointed out that in the wilderness, their ancestors at manna, the bread of heaven, a miracle they attributed to Moses. Presumably, since the manna had been provided for nearly forty years, they hoped to see Jesus provide bread for a similar period of time. Jesus refuted their premise by pointing out that Moses was not the source of manna; God provided the manna. Then he said that God’s bread comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. The people liked the sound of that. Bread from the sky, bread they could eat and live and never worry about being hungry any more. They wanted this bread.
This is the moment when Jesus named himself. Jesus, God in the flesh, named his name just as God had done at the burning bush when Moses asked “Who are you?” Well, not in those words, but anyone can see that he was tap-dancing when he said that the Israelites would ask for the name of the god who had sent Moses. If Moses had already acknowledged in his own heart that he was talking to God, he would not have asked God to explain himself. To Moses at the burning bush, and to people seeking bread for life, God said, “I AM.” Jesus said, “I AM the bread of life.”
A long discourse follows this moment, and there is no record that Jesus (God) was interrupted. Up to this moment, people had been engaged in conversation with Jesus, asking impertinent questions, expressing their snickering skepticism, but when Jesus said “I AM” it set them back. They said nothing for a long time, and when we next read that they did speak, they werenot speaking with Jesus, but rather, they werearguing among themselves. When Jesus claimed to be God, claimed that he himself was the bread of life, they were afraid to argue with him. They believed and trembled, like the demons of whom James wrote (James 2:19), but they didn’t believe and follow, at least not at that moment. Unlike Simon Peter who clearly saw that Christ was the promised Messiah for which Israel had been waiting, the people who had eaten their daily bread at the hand of God were not ready to commit themselves to the One who offered himself as their eternal bread, the bread of life.
Are we that different? Do we love and serve Jesus for the eternal and infinite blessings of his kingdom, or do we pray with skepticism, asking God to prove himself by giving us what we want, doubting his loving sovereignty when things don’t go our way? Do we respond to our daily challenges by asking “How could God let this happen?” or do we respond like Job, praying, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Jesus identified himself as God, and that means that his every word is the nourishment that sustains us. He himself is our bread of life, a truth we celebrate every time we celebrate Holy Communion. Each time we receive that bread, we ought to remember Jesus’ real question to us every moment of our lives, in every choice we make: Who am I?