Jesus had been preaching and healing in large outdoor spaces around the sea of Galilee - think of the parking lot at the boat launch or that beautiful hillside below the 18th tee on the golf course. On this occasion a huge crowd - the account says 5,000 - had gathered, the day grew late, and people in the crowd were hungry. Around our camp, they would say, they were “HANGRY”.
“Philip” said Jesus, “where do we get bread to feed so many?” The church budget was nil and there was no Knapps Trading Post nearby for donuts. What to do? Andrew, back from his fishing trip with James and John piped up: “There’s a boy here with two cans of tuna fish and 5 packs of whole wheat pita bread, but what use is that?” You know the rest. John 6:1-14: Jesus takes the boy’s grocery items in his hands, says a table prayer, much as might be said at one of our family dinner tables: “God is great, God is good, and we thank God for our food. By God’s hand we all are fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” This is a eucharistic prayer, a prayer of thanks, and Jesus gave it in simple language that all could understand.
Then he handed the loaves and fishes to the disciples who moved among the crowds handing the food out to hungry, hangry people, and, low and behold, there was enough and some leftover. When people share, scarcity becomes sufficiency, some would say. A very human miracle. Others point to a supernatural intervention with the laws of supply and demand. Jesus would only say, “God did it.” And then, in the rest of chapter six, Jesus unfolds the inner meaning of the picnic.
There's “Bread” and there’s “Bread” is the theme of this unfolding. There’s Bread 1, which includes all forms of physical earthly food that sustains biological life. Then there is, secondly, “Spiritual” bread, “true” bread, “heavenly” bread that sustains eternal life. This is “living” bread, consecrated bread, bread with purpose, love and indelible divine mercy baked in. And, in conclusion, Jesus says, I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE. IF YOU EAT OF ME, YOU WILL LIVE FOREVER.
It’s clear that Jesus is speaking symbolically, sacramentally when he says this, pointing to the Lord’s Supper he will later institute on the night of his betrayal. He’s not offering his literal flesh. He’s not proposing toenail canapes or knuckle sandwiches. He’s wrapping up, in one symbolic food, bread, all his teaching of self-giving love, all his sacrificial suffering and death on the cross, and his catalytic presence at the center of the Jesus movement we call the church as literal food for thought, food for faith and food for action.
Jesus as bread of life, bread of heaven, is most clearly present in the bread of Holy Communion, our sacrament of community, forgiveness and rededication, “this is my body given for you…the body of Christ, the great of heaven.” But, for those who see with the eyes of faith, the “bread,” the “christ nourishment” of life can also be present in words, or just the touch, of a friend at a hospital bed, the forgiveness of a rival, the grieving compassion felt for panicked people on an Afghanistan airfield or someone sustained by a ventilator in Texas or encouraging vaccinations in Florida. Wherever God’s living and healing purpose for all of life is acknowledged and embodied, the faithful can see and taste the bread of life.
The miracle of our sacramental celebration of the Lord’s supper is that all of life, from peeling carrots to negotiating a climate treaty becomes sacramental. God’s presence is everywhere and can be known everywhere. God is all in all and, with the eyes of faith, miracles are all around.
With faith, the meal you share - or eat alone - after church today can be as eternally life-giving as the sacrament offered in liturgical splendor in a grand cathedral. “I was hungry and you fed me,” Jesus says, in Matthew 25. “When, Lord, did we see you hungry or thirsty or in prison and when did we minister to you?” “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” We are, collectively, as the human family, the Body of Christ. When we share food with the hungry, we feed Christ. When we send contributions to Haiti or to fire victims in Oregon, we’re clothing Christ. The bread of life is present in every act of mercy, every stand taken for justice, every choice made in day-to-day life to sustain a livable planet. Renewable containers can be holy sacraments. Cutting down on red meat to spare some carbon from the atmosphere is a Christ nourishing act.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, those who participate in the life of sacramental abide in me and I in them.”
To the extent that I practice my faith, I live in Christ and Christ lives in me. A year ago we celebrated and bless the marriage of Katy Briggs and Jack Pranikoff. Two weeks ago we married Michael Poole and Mary Elizabeth Williams. Part of every marriage ceremony says, loud and clear, “the two have become one flesh.” This doesn’t just mean physical intimacy, it means now what one does reflects the other, actions and reactions have mutual rewards and mutual consequences.
When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” he is saying, to us, the community of faith “we are becoming one flesh.” In Christ, God is marrying humanity. So, bread of life people, you who are interested in being part of this lovely loaf of holy nourishment, what does this mean to us. Three consequences I would offer:
1. Christ’s presence in, with and through us is always a gift. Earthly bread is always earned through effort - our own, or another’s. But the bread of heaven comes only as a gift. You can’t earn it. You can’t use it to buy favors or prove your importance or do "naner namers" on somebody else: “I got the bread of life. You don’t. Naner naner.” In the life of the eternal spirit you’re on somebody else’s credit card. Somebody else paid the bill. So the only appropriate way to start and end every day is with an attitude of gratitude.
2. Jesus has your back. I’m secretly (my daughter would say “not so secretly”) a very macho guy. I hate to ask for help. Could be a martyr complex. Could be I like hogging credit. Could be that early conditioning that taught me “big boys don’t cry.” Asking for help makes you vulnerable. It’s risky. People can say :”no.” People can mess things up. You can be disappointed, even mocked and ridiculed for asking for help. According to Debby Irving in her eye-opening book, Waking Up White, not needing help and always being in control of self and situations aren’t just male macho characteristics, but tend to characterize white culture in general. This does not work for people who are abiding in Christ. We all need help. We’re all imperfect. We’re all at times inept and need all the help we can get. And Jesus is always there to help. All you have to do is ask.
3. A third, and, for today, last consequence of relying on the bread of life to see you through the day, through life, and right on through death is, and this is a big one, individual freedom and individual possessions are not the highest value. My freedom to move my fist is limited by the nearness of your face. Our freedom to drive cars safely is limited by the rules of the road. Your freedom, my freedom, to pile up cash and to vacation in exclusive and far-off places is limited by our awareness of the needs of others, hurting neighbors, near or far, who need our help. Remember - what is ours is also Christ’s. We are in him and he is in us, and that makes a difference!
Be married to God. Feast on the bread of life, Jesus the Christ in Word, Sacrament and Service! Christ in our heads, Christ in our hearts, Christ to the left of us, Christ to the right of us. And remember: Life is a gift. Jesus has your back. Always strive to balance personal freedom with social responsibility.
Amen! Now let’s listen as the Route 30 Ramblers: Bob Tate, Ann Green, Trey Lyford, Kelley Meggs and yours truly lead us to some bread of life in song.