Bread of Life

12th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B – Rev. Aimee Baxter

Bread. There is something about this ordinary everyday staple that has the power to cause so much controversy. It seems to be the source of great debate in our culture and in our faith.

There’s the dilemma of whether we eat it at all. Carbs or no carbs? Or if we do, what type? White or wheat? Gluten free, perhaps?

Just last week, I had lunch with a group of clergy women from various denominations and we discussed what is the best type of bread for communion. The Methodists favor Hawaiian bread for it’s sweet flavor and ability to soak up the grape juice. The Episcopalians supported the use of the wafer for the host. The Presbyterians at the table liked homemade bread. While we didn’t necessarily argue over it, it was clear each of us had strong feelings and were pretty passionate about the type of bread we use.

In fact, The Great Schism began with an attempted discussion between the Eastern and the Western church about whether or not to use leavened or unleavened for the Eucharist. They fought about that and then began to argue over a whole bunch of theological and political differences that eventually lead them to split. True story.

My own family disagrees over how we pray for our daily bread when say, “God is Great”. Do we thank you Lord for daily bread? Or do we ask God to give us, Lord, our daily bread?

It seems so silly, doesn’t it? Fighting over something as benign and simple as bread, takes away from its intended purpose. And yet, we see that we regularly disagree over how to use it and what to make of it.

Jesus finds himself in a similar situation when he speaks of bread in our Gospel reading for today. He stands before the crowd and makes a bold proclamation that he is the bread of life come down from heaven. He says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

For us, these statements sound like good news. Why would anyone want to argue over this type of promise? It’s important to understand the context of the original hearers of Jesus’ words.

The Bread of Life is described by Jesus in two ways: come down from heaven and gives life to the world.

This proclamation as the Bread of Life is one of Jesus’ “I Am” statements in John. When Jesus uses this phrasing, He is revealing the central core of who He is to the people. It’s interesting to note that in all of his “I Am” statements, he uses common symbols and elements of the day and time, not just for people of the Jewish faith, but for the culture in general: bread, light, life and truth. So, in this moment, Jesus is taking something that seems ordinary to reveal that what people need for life is available through Him. He’s also opening up the Kingdom to those beyond the Jewish faith by using these everyday symbols.

For the Jewish audience, the descent language - “come down” – would remind the people of God’s provision of manna coming down. This story of Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness was cherished by the people and held as one of the great miracles from God to give the people what they needed. For Jesus to use this same language, would mean that he was not only associating himself with the miracle, but declaring that he was God’s manna for the people now.  This is a bold assertion that ironically is met with the same complaining that the Hebrews had done so many years ago. The life-giving and sustaining bread had come down once again from heaven and yet here they are still grumbling. 

They grumble for a few different reasons:

1. He can’t be what He claims to be - after all isn’t he Joseph and Mary’s son, the people we know? This can’t be. Some immediately dismiss his claims based on their familiarity with his family. That’s it.

2. There’s a receptivity issue. God has taught them, but they haven’t learned or heard the lesson. Jesus has offered the gift of eternal life for those who believe. Jesus reminds them that their ancestors who ate the manna died as a result of their grumbling and unbelief. Knowing that the crowd isn’t happy with him, Jesus essentially tells them they are choosing death instead of life if they don’t receive him as the bread come down from heaven. Complaining wins out over believing.

3. It’s an audacious claim. This metaphor of bread that once referred to the presence of God in the OT, now points to God present in Jesus. Jesus is essentially proclaiming himself as God, and it’s a hard pill for many to swallow. He is telling the people that he can provide more than anyone on earth for God’s people, including these Jewish authorities. They don’t like it. They want the people to rely fully on them because they can keep their position of power. The fight isn’t about bread - but power. 

Before we start to feel too good about ourselves and want to roll our eyes at the crowd, it is worth asking where we have done this very same thing.

Are we guilty of dismissing someone’s message based on who they are connected to or their status?

Have we complained and grumbled because we don’t feel like we’ve received the blessing that we are asking God for? Are we missing the very manna and presence of God in front of us because it may look different than what we had expected? 

Are we fearful of a new idea or understanding of God that may threaten our way of being or our position in the church or the world?

Jesus is God’s life-giving gift to the world and the people just don’t get it. My prayer is that we won’t miss it in the same ways they did.

Bread can cause controversy, but for those who are willing to listen and hear the good news, bread’s true power is to bring the body of Christ together as one. 

For it is in the breaking of the bread and in the sharing of it together, that we experience what Jesus means when he says “I am the bread of heaven.”

Beverly said it a couple of weeks ago, this bread has the ability to fill you up in a way that is really unexplainable. It’s the great mystery of the Eucharist. 

This bread - something so common with such a strange history of dividing people - was always intended to draw us to one another and sustain us for the journey. 

I grew up in a small UMC in Salem, AL. In most UM contexts, communion is only celebrated once a month. I lived for these Sundays. They were my favorite and mostly because of the bread. Someone in our church would make homemade bread that was so fresh it still gave off its aroma as we gathered around the altar. And it was delicious! My sister and I were some of the only children in the church so we usually were bestowed with the gift of the leftover bread with the promise that we would consume it and not throw it away. Our car rides home from church were filled with us feasting on the communion bread, and by the time we got home we were full. 

What I didn’t realize until much later was that my heart and spirit were full as well. Each communion Sunday, my pastor would entrust my sister and me to distribute the bread to those gathered around the altar. That’s not necessarily standard practice in the Methodist church, but Rev. Warren, included us in this sacred act regularly. 

I was offering up the bread of life to God’s people and in turn receiving life as well. I just thought it was good food for the belly, but God was filling my soul with God’s presence that continues to sustain me to this day. When I want to doubt my calling, God has a way of reminding me that Rev. Warren saw something in a little girl a long time ago.

That’s the power of the Bread of Life. It sustains us in ways that we can never imagine. It brings sustenance to our bodies, and it feeds our souls for years to come. 

We simply have to be open to receiving it. Faithful to partake of it. And the rest, we trust to God. 

I’ll leave you with this prayer from my daily devotional: “Give me neither poverty, nor riches Lord; but bread for today and hope for tomorrow.”

May this bread which we break be enough for today and bring hope for tomorrow.