This week I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking and talking about bread. We take bread for granted. In its many shapes and sizes and forms and ingredients, it’s readily available to us and we expect it to be available whenever we want it. We think of bread as an ordinary food, but also as a food with important qualities.
Now I might be about to get into trouble here. As some of you know, whenever the matter of aroma comes up, I have to admit to having no first-hand knowledge. I have no sense of smell, none at all, and never have. This non-talent has resulted in my being given the family roles of chief emptier of litter boxes and chief de-skunker of dogs – because the odors are meaningless to me. I miss the bad stuff, but I miss the good stuff, too. And I’m told that the aroma of bread is among life’s best gifts.
How many of you bake or have baked, your own bread? I’m told that the aroma of bread is pervasive, yes? And that like other matters involving our noses, it brings with it a host of memories. The kitchens of grandmothers and mothers; family meals, both special and routine. My grandmother baked her own bread and, while I may not be able to smell, the sight of a fresh-baked loaf of bread takes me back immediately to her kitchen, and to a childhood as one of several grandchildren seated around her formica breakfast table awaiting the chunks of fresh, warm bread that we would immediately slather in butter and strawberry preserves.
One of the more intriguing things I read this week – and I guess I knew this, but had forgotten it – is that real estate sales agents often tell sellers to leave a fresh loaf of bread cooling on the counter during an open house. The aroma will fill the entire place, and cause potential buyers to think “This might be home!”
And so bread means memories; it means home; it means family. It means hope for the future; it means togetherness; it means that all is right with the world.
What is this ordinary food, that it means so much to us?
For one thing, bread is what we call a staple food, one filled with all kinds of nutrients. One or two slices suffice for many of our biological needs for the day.
It’s also a starch which is filling – even if nothing else is available, as it often is not in many parts of the world, bread can go a long way toward stopping the rumbling of a hungry tummy.
And, of course, in some other parts of the world, especially in the east, it’s rice rather than bread which meets the same needs. As we ate our Chinese lunch at Peking this past week, some of the ladies of the Rebecca Circle talked about China, and about S’s home in Japan. During the time that Jesus walked the earth, people who lived in those places would have been unfamiliar with bread. Jesus always used common symbols and metaphors when he taught the people; had Jesus been born in Japan, he most likely would have said, “I am the rice of life.”
When Jesus says, in a mideastern world, “I am the bread of life,” he is making another of the seven “I am” claims found in the Gospel of John. Do you remember that back in the Easter season, we talked about some of these: “I am the good shepherd,” and “I am the vine.” And we talked about that Greek sequence of words, that Greek construction, “Ego eimi” which, literally translated means, “I, I am.” There’s a great emphasis on identity here.
Let’s talk for a minute about why that is. Scholars today are pretty sure that the Gospel of John was written in the last decade of the first century, sometime in the years 90-100. At that time there was something of a crisis in the early Christian community. The early Christian community was, of course, Jesus’s own Jewish community, plus some gentiles, some non-Jews, who were attracted by Jesus’s teachings and actions. But after he died, a dispute arose in that community: was Jesus the long-awaited messiah, or wasn’t he? Was he the Son of God, or wasn’t he? And so the community began to break apart, into distinctly Jewish and Christian camps, and the question of Jesus’s identity became more and more important. The Christian claim, of course, our claim, is that he is the messiah, which means “the anointed one.” He is the Son of God. And so the preeminent Christian piece of writing during this time period, the one that has come to us as the Gospel of John, is much concerned with this question of identity. “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the vine.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the bread of life.”
We find these statements only in the Gospel of John, where the question of Jesus’s identity is so crucial.
Today’s encounter with Jesus comes the day after the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. The crowd of people, surprisingly well fed the day before, have lost track of Jesus, and so they go looking for him. It turns out that he and his disciples have gone to the other side of the sea of Galilee.
(This scene, like so many in the gospels, reminds me of scenes in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Now I know that a number of you watch Dr. Quinn! If you haven’t, it’s a television series that chronicles the life of a woman doctor in the Colorado territory in the decade after the civil war. I’ve noticed that one of the main dramatic devices in that series involves the crowd, the entire town, running from one place to another when something happens. (Insert a couple of examples.) Well, the crowds who follow Jesus behave in much the same way.)
What do you suppose the people in the crowd are thinking about when they cross the lake and track Jesus down in Capernaum? Surely they are thinking that they have full stomachs when they expected to go hungry. And they are thinking that in feeding them, Jesus has performed what John calls a sign, a miracle. And surely, just as they say, they have a collective memory of hunger, and of what they think was a similar sign – a memory of manna in the wilderness.
Long ago, more than a millennium before, they were a hungry people wandering behind Moses in the desert wilderness. And their God fed them, providing manna – bread -- for them each day. Day by day – God provided only enough for one day at a time. “Give us this day our daily bread” we pray – in part because Jesus taught us to pray that way and in part because he taught out of that collective memory of daily bread.
This crowd, this group of people following Jesus – they are thinking and operating out of an experience of scarcity. They were hungry in the wilderness, physically hungry every day, and God fed them. They were hungry yesterday, physically hungry, and Jesus fed them.
It’s a little peculiar, isn’t it, that they ask him what signs he is going to perform, that they might have confidence in him, since he just performed a big one! But they understand their lives in terms of scarcity. They understand that they will be hungry again, they will not have enough again, and they wonder whether they can trust him to provide more food. More bread.
What is Jesus trying to tell them? “I am the bread of life.”
Jesus wants them to refocus and reframe their experience. Jesus wants them to know abundance, not scarcity.
This is something of a constant in the gospels of both Mark, on which we’ve spent much of this year, and John, into which we dip for a short period at the end of the summer. In Mark, we have the dunderhead disciples, who never seem to “get” anything that Jesus tells them about himself, or to understand anything he does. In John, we have a constant interplay between those who long for what Jesus has to share, people like the woman at the well, and like Nicodemus, and those who struggle, often against, what he has to share.
Over and over again, what he has to share is about his identity.
What he has to share is about abundance: God’s abundant love. God’s love that is about so much more than food, about so much more than one exceptional meal.
In the 300s, a man named Gregory of Nyssa lived in what we would call south-central Turkey and was a bishop and theologian. Gregory of Nyssa is known as one of the early church fathers, one of that group of early Christian leaders who thought through and articulated much of what we understand about the Christian faith. You may never have heard of him, but he has had a profound influence upon your life in the form of the teachings of the church.
Gregory of Nyssa had this to say about Jesus’s self-identity as the bread of life:
“The bread of life is the antidote for having eaten the forbidden fruit.” *
Think about that: The bread of life is the antidote, the medicine, the healing offered, for having eaten the forbidden fruit.
God is not about scarcity or limitation. God is not about “not enough.”
“I am the bread of life” means that life and love are God’s gifts to us, God’s creatures who sin, God’s broken creatures who have responded with such inadequacy to all that God offers us.
It’s astonishing. It’s an amazing way for God to behave. And yet, is it really?
Do we, who reflect God’s image, not love our children so much that no matter what they do, our response to them is always more love, more life? And what does Jesus have to say about that? In the Gospel of Luke, he makes his point. “Who among you, if your child asked for an egg, would offer a scorpion?” If we are so loving toward our own children, is not God more infinitely loving to us?
Who might you have been in this scene, this moment in which God’s loving gift of self to us is identified by the one who brings it? If you were one of the crowd, if you were someone who had witnessed that unforgettable feeding of 5,000 of your best friends the day before, what would you be thinking about today? What would you have seen?
Would you have seen scarcity?
That’s what the Israelites in the desert saw, right? No food. “Take us back to Egypt!” they cried to Moses. They didn’t see the opportunities that lay ahead: freedom, land, a national future. God was offering them abundance, but their empty bellies spoke to them of scarcity.
What about us, today? Where do we see scarcity? In illness, in drought, in confusion, in death? In the troubles in our lives for which we see no solution? In this past week’s terrible accident in which DB, a young husband and father, a beloved son, was killed? In a situation like that, it may seem that God has become scarce. That there is not enough to go around. When a young man dies so suddenly, when the lives of everyone in his family are altered so completely and so quickly, we think: Not enough. Not enough years. Not enough time in which to be a father and husband. Not enough time for his children. Not enough time in which to be a son to his own parents.
For what are we hungry? When we experience such scarcity of realized hopes and dreams, for what do we hunger?
Where does the bread of life appear in our own lives?
For the Israelites, it came as manna in the desert, and that’s what the crowd who followed Jesus expected. And for us, the bread of life also often comes in the form of God’s daily providence: assistance when we are ill, companionship when we are bewildered and confused, presence when we are lost in grief and sadness.
But Jesus tells the crowd, “My father gives you the true bread.” Gives – present tense. “I am the bread of life.” Am – present tense. The true bread, the bread that gives the fullness of life – that bread is Jesus himself.
This afternoon our church will be offering a meal for the B family as they return from the funeral home. We don’t provide a meal just because we are nice, generous, sympathetic, people – people who ourselves are grieving – although we are indeed all of those things. We don’t offer a space for community meals just because we are friendly, although we are, and we don’t produce pancake breakfast extravganzas just because we are a community-oriented congregation – although we are.
We offer these meals because we are called to share the bread of life. Because we are called to share Jesus.
For what are you hungry? Perhaps the gift we receive in response to our hunger identifies the source of our hunger: we are hungry for God, for God’s love, for God’s abundance. We are hungry for the fulfillment which only God can provide.
Next Sunday we’ll be sharing a communion meal. Communion, the meal through which we recall Jesus’s presence to us, the meal in which we are nourished by his spiritual presence, is not merely a ritual, not merely an experience in which we go through some ancient and somewhat meaningless paces.
No, communion – the bread we share together - it is life itself.
The bread we share is much like other bread. It evokes memories, it announces the presence of family, it calls us to hope in the future. But the bread of Jesus, the bread of life, gathers us into the memory and the family and the future of God.
Last week, as we shared in our wonderful anniversary celebration, we prayed with the apostle Paul that we might be filled with the fullness of God.
Communion is God filling us. What are we hungry for? We are hungry for God to fill us with God’s own life. We recognize our own limitations, and we are hungry for the abundance of God -- and God extends that abundance to us, over and over.
So come to the table next week. Come and receive a whiff of the aroma of God.
Not because you have done good works, not because you are a fine person – although you have, and you are.
But come and receive the bread of life because you have been given the gift of God’s very self through Jesus Christ, because you are loved, because God longs to fill you with bread from heaven and to offer you eternity through the One in whom you believe.
*I found this quote in the wonderful blog Interrupting the Silence.