This week we find ourselves in the middle of a five-week stretch in the lectionary where we take a break from the Gospel of Mark and focus in on chapter six of John’s Gospel. It begins with Jesus feeding of the multitude with bread and fish, followed by a long discourse between Jesus and the crowd. It’s known as the bread discourse because in it Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as bread, bread of heaven, living bread, the bread of life. Some of his hearers are intrigued but most are confused, some even hostile. The whole thing even cost him some disciples.
Why? Why such a reaction to what Jesus is saying? And what is Jesus doing when he says he is the bread of life, the living bread? What does he mean?
The comparison to bread is a powerful one. It is a staple of life for most every culture in the world. In some cultures the word for bread and life are the same. Civilization as we know it exists because of our ancestors’ ability to grow wheat and transform it into bread. It enabled them to settle down in one place, allowing science, technology and art to flourish. In the ancient world, and still today, bread was central to our basic diets. This is especially true of the poor. If you’re too poor to buy meat, veggies or fruit you can probably still afford bread. A sharp rise in the price of bread still leads to economic, political and military upheaval. Many revolutions have started because of high bread prices.
Bread plays an important role in our own lives too. The smell of baking bread taps into our olfactory senses and unlocks an array of memories and associations, triggering hunger and nostalgia. Try to imagine a family meal that doesn’t involve some type of bread. Bread brings people together. The phrase ‘break bread’ is a synonym for friendship and intimacy.
Bread itself is a very simple thing: flour, salt, water, yeast, heat. Alone these ingredients can do much for our nourishment, maybe help you survive for some time. Baked together, though, in bread and you could survive indefinitely. There appears to be something supernatural about bread. In bread we get much from a little. It’s a miracle.
Bread is mostly air – nothing. It’s those pockets of air that contain gases that pop in our mouths when we chew, sending those aromatic gases up to our olfactory sense, thus triggering all those sensations. This air or nothingness is another reason for the spiritual connotations of bread. The ruach, the pneuma, the spirit or the wind and air is in the bread. Air is associated with the spiritual because it can’t be seen or touched. It carries with it a sense of the unknown. Seeds and yeast carried on the wind are brought together to create this miracle food made mostly of air. Bread truly is a mystical food.
While made of all natural ingredients, bread is not natural. It doesn’t grow but is assembled. Though simple, bread is a complicated thing.
A farmer plants and cares for the wheat.
The wheat is transported to granaries where it is milled into various types of flour.
Flour then comes to the baker who expertly combines flour, water, salt and yeast to make bread.
In our modern world it is then packaged and transported to supermarkets and restaurants where we, the consumers, purchase and eat the bread.
It truly takes a community, a network of people, building on each other’s work to make bread.
Over the centuries we have tried to make bread more efficient and profitable. The result is flour and bread that our bodies can’t handle. Thus the rise in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. The bread we eat today is very different from the bread that our ancestors ate 100, 200, 500, 1000 or 5000 years ago. Actually, right now bread is going through a dark time. More and more people are deciding to go without bread. In trying to make bread more efficient, cheap or profitable, we have lost the essence of what bread is. Good bread takes time. There is a process. Many people must work together.
So what does Jesus mean when he says he is the bread of life? What does it mean in our world for Jesus to be the bread of life?
Of course in the church we have sacramentalized bread and dressed it up in liturgical garb. For us, bread points to something else. Bread becomes the body of Christ, broken just like his body was broken on the cross. This simple act of coming to church, taking a piece of bread in our mouths, eating it together has become the cornerstone of much of the Christian faith. For Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians especially, to be Christian means to eat bread together. This act, that anywhere else is an act to fulfill our physical hunger, when done here fills our spiritual hunger. Like the water and light of baptism, this sacred meal nourishes and sustains our very being.
Actually, the older I get the more I see there is not as much of a gap between spiritual and physical, between matter and mystery, between heaven and earth as I once used to think. Now I see the spiritual as deeply physical and the physical as deeply spiritual. Maybe that’s why Jesus referred to himself as the bread of life. Bread is the ultimate soul food where physical and spiritual meet. He knew that in feeding each other physically it became a spiritual encounter; in gathering to feast spiritually we receive the physical stamina to keep going.
Jesus was on to something else when he calls himself bread – the truth that it takes many people to make bread. Maybe that’s why the church is called the body of Christ. In the same way that it takes a community to make a single loaf of bread, it takes all of us to make up the body of Christ, the true bread. All of us have a part to play, an ingredient to add, a part in the recipe to contribute. If Jesus is to truly be the bread of life, then it is us, the church, who will make that bread in such a way that people will want to come and feast.
What’s behind this meal of bread and wine is the simple act of welcome and hospitality. This is so in spite of the regalia, pomp and circumstance, and bureaucracy that the church often piles on top of this simple meal. Maybe that is one of the reasons why more and more people just can’t digest the bread we’re offering them.
This meal proclaims the truth that we can’t make this bread on our own, that we can’t feed ourselves. The church is just a gathering of people who realize that good bread, living bread, is best when shared and eaten with others. We know that true community, love, reconciliation, healing and grace really only happen around the table as we break bread together.
It is here that we invite each other and the entire hungry human family to taste and see that the Lord is good.