24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Although it took some different forms, an official seal in the first century functioned in a similar way to an official seal today. A seal served as a mark of identification, either marking ownership or certifying origin. In the first instance, a seal worked as a brand setting livestock apart as belonging to a particular owner and consequently also under the protection of that owner. In the latter case, official documents were sealed to certify their origin, often using a signet ring dipped in wax so that the seal could not be broken until the document reached its destination (cf. Revelation 5:5).
In this week’s gospel, John makes use of this concept of sealing. However, he isn’t referring to either paper or livestock. Instead, Jesus refers to himself as the one on which God has set God’s seal (ἐσφράγισεν—John 6:27). While this can be taken as a mark of God’s ownership of Jesus, similar to the branding of an animal and perhaps commensurate with the seal of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13), it also, and perhaps more appropriately, can be read as God’s seal of origin—making Jesus himself the message that God has sent to humanity.
Understood in this way, Jesus himself is the message that God has sent to us. The bread with which Jesus feeds the five thousand (John 6:1-14) is not the true gift that God intends to send to the world. Or at least not all of it. Rather, Jesus, the true bread (John 6:35), is the gift that God sends to the world. The one through whom both physical and spiritual needs are met.
So, what’s the problem? It’s often easy for us, as I imagine it must have been for the people who followed Jesus back and forth across the sea looking for a loaf of bread, to wonder this. To ask what it really matters why we’re following Jesus, as long as we’re on the right track. It’s the question that moral philosophers have wrestled with for ages. Can one act morally without self-interest? Or does a moral action ‘count’ as an act of morality, if self-interest is involved?
John’s Jesus seems to be after an a priori response—he wants the people to follow him not for perishable bread, but rather because they have recognized the signs that point to Jesus as the Bread of Life. He even goes so far as to suggest that until they seek this everlasting bread, embodied in the eschatological figure of the “Son of Man” (6:27), they have not received God’s message—the seal remains intact.
What messages, I wonder, in our contemporary world, do we fail to receive in this way? Do we fail to receive God’s message of love? Of mercy? Of justice? Do we fail to receive Jesus because we allow our personal concerns and sensitivities to hijack the Word God wants for us to hear?
This, I think, is what can happen when white people declare #alllivesmatter without hearing the cry for justice that the message #blacklivesmatter is all about. This is what can happen when politicians run under a pro-life banner, without addressing the life-crippling situations for women and children that lie behind so many decisions to abort a fetus. This is what can happen when churches celebrate the Eucharist, partaking together of the bread that is everlasting, while neighbors in their own communities continue to die of starvation.
The message that God seals within the body and blood of Jesus is a message of life. Life for the world (John 6:33). May we not only receive this life, but share it throughout all the world.