The Bread of Life
“I am the bread of life.”
I have to tell you that I’ve been looking forward to giving the sermon this morning. When I realized that it was right in the middle of this “bread section” of John’s gospel, I got very excited… For the last three weeks we’ve had texts that focus in one way or another on feeding – and on bread: a huge crowd gathers and it’s not clear where the food will come from. Crowds can turn violent – or simply melt away – when they’re hungry, and at first Jesus’ disciples worry about where the meal will come from. The ancient Israelites – this was last week’s Old Testament reading – are fed up with wandering in the desert. It was better where we came from, they think; we were slaves but at least we had something to eat. And Elijah, in today’s reading from First Kings, has gone out into the wilderness to die – to concede defeat – when an angel appears with bread and water. He’s being called back to life and to the fulfillment of his mission from God.
One of the things I love about many of our scriptures is how tactile and real they are. The images in Jesus’ teachings are drawn from the lives of everyday people – people who knew vineyards and sheep and fig trees and the importance of well water in times of drought. His incarnational ministry involves speaking in language drawn from the life of the body – sometimes (as in the passage from John) in ways that seems almost shocking. There’s a lot about this passage from John that is beyond my comprehension – and in any case, would take me far off track from what I want to talk about today. Because today I want to talk about incarnate, real bread: baking bread, sharing bread, eating bread; the bread of our fathers and mothers; the bread of our community; the bread of life.
I think almost everybody here has probably eaten bread that I’ve baked. I’m one of the regular bread bakers for Trinity – Betsy is the other one. I have the recipe for our Trinity loaf held by a magnet on my fridge at home. It’s made of whole wheat flour, olive oil, honey, salt and yeast. Simplicity itself. Last week we had a conversation about whether we could make it with gluten-free flour, so when I bake this coming week for next Sunday, I’m going to give that a try.
I learned to bake from my mother, who had learned from her mother. I’ve brought a small piece of lace that says “bread” – that was my grandmother’s; it went in the bread bowl that was always on her table.
I don’t know who did the daily baking in Jesus’ day, but I imagine it was the women, and that girls learned to bake as I did, by helping out the older women in the household. Did each household do its own baking? or – as is the case in so many traditional cultures – did baking get done communally, perhaps a way to share the tasks of gathering wood and heating what I imagine was a big adobe oven, not unlike the ones you see in the American southwest. This past week, archeologists announced that they had found evidence of breadcrumbs from over fourteen thousand years ago – pushing back the date when humans began baking grains and eating bread by many thousands of years.
The bread I make is leavened, which means it has yeast in it. And yeast themselves are living creatures: they’re micro-organisms, and they originated millions of years ago. When you add water at the right temperature they literally “come alive” – and start reproducing. What had looked dead and inert starts to move and grow. If you think of it, when I bake bread it’s not quite me who’s doing it… it’s a collaborative process between me and wheat and these wonderful little micro-organisms… but it’s also a collaboration of literally millenia of knowledge – much of it gathered by women – learning what grains to pick, then learning how to sow them, then learning when to harvest and how to winnow and then how to bake. All of this makes me think of each of us as tiny little organisms in a vast bubbly batch of starter…. in which any one agent needs all the others to produce this final thing called bread.
What is the bread of life? It is of course the literal bread that is at the center of our shared meal, Sunday after Sunday, when we gather around this table and symbolically acknowledge that we are all connected, all part of the broken body of Christ. Broken into pieces, but what was once whole cannot be completely undone. There is so much symbolism in that brief gathering and sharing that we could probably each offer dozens if not hundreds of ways in what that weekly Eucharist means. There are Sundays when I feel quite overwhelmed as I watch each of us – each of you – take a small piece of bread in your hand and eat it. We are in some small way still participating in the ritual meal that Jesus blessed two thousand years ago.
The bread in these stories from John’s Gospel is literal bread – the loaves gathered by the lakeshore, that begin with a very small number and wind up with leftovers beyond what anyone imagined. But if this is the bread of life it is clearly something that is shared. I’m tempted to say it must be shared. It can’t be hoarded or kept to oneself. Maybe that’s what turns the simple loaf of yeast and wheat into something that enables us to live forever.
It’s also bread that somehow banishes fear. There’s an undercurrent of fear, or defeatism, in these stories that is worth paying attention to. Think of the disciples’ fear that there will be some kind of riot if they don’t find enough food for the crowd. Think of Elijah’s discouragement, or the Israelites’ anxiety that they’ll all die in the wilderness. Or think of the Disciples’ reaction when Jesus tells them – just after today’s passage – that he will be departing from them in body, but will remain with them in spirit forever.
Because bread is so elemental, it evokes powerful emotions, of generosity and love, but also of scarcity and hunger. We live in a world that treats natural resources as commodities to be hoarded rather than goods to be shared. Anxiety, fear, anger, defensiveness – the nightly news is generally made up of these, along with all those other bad behaviors on the list Paul draws up in his letter to the Ephesians. I suppose there’s some small comfort in knowing that even the Ephesians were just human; they needed Paul’s cheer leading to remind them what it mean to be a community of love and sacrifice.
What keeps us from the bread of life? what keeps us from sharing, from opening our hearts, our minds, our doors, our pockets? I’m fascinated by the thought that ordinary bread becomes bread of life only when it’s shared, or given without question or restraint. What if that very same bread becomes a brick if you don’t share it? What if it becomes the bread of death instead of the bread of life? Maybe it’s like the ancient fable of Midas: the miser is cursed to have living things turn to stone. And worst of all to have one’s heart turn hard.
Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him. If we ourselves are to become something like bread for the world – generous, sacrificial, trusting, open to those who are least like us – then we have to trust in a way that is elemental and absolute. Trust that Jesus is indeed the bread of life. Trust that there will always be enough, if we open our hands. Trust that hard little specks of matter can be turned into something that lives and grows and changes, that sustains us in ways we never thought possible.
Let us pray.
Gracious and holy God, You have given us the bread of life. Help us to open our hearts to your transforming spirit. Pour your blessing on the yeast of our lives. Challenge us to open our hearts, to live a spirit of compassion, courage and abundance, rejoicing in the knowledge that You are with us always.
In Christ’s name we pray.