SJF • Proper 13b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”+
When I was a child one of our local bakeries in Baltimore installed what must have been one of the first automated systems in any kind of factory. Their slogan was, “The bread untouched by human hands.” They had a grainy black and white TV ad that showed robot hands at work kneading the dough and shaping it into loaves before it was baked. One of the local Baltimore TV personalities who was kept busy doing many different things at the TV station — he hosted “Dialing for Dollars” in the morning, he was the weatherman in the evening, and, in the after-school hours in between, he played Bozo the Clown on the kiddie cartoon show. It was there, I think, that he made fun of the bread company and its slogan, “Untouched by human hands,” by cutting to a grainy black-and-white film of a chimpanzee dressed in a baker’s costume furiously pounding on the dough! I hope he didn’t get fired for offending a sponsor.
In any case, clearly, there is bread, and then there’s bread. And where and who it comes from makes all the difference.
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In our Scripture readings today, we hear about three different kinds of bread. First of all, there is earthly bread — and let’s not ask about who it was that baked it! This is the earthly bread that the Israelites in the desert have run out of, and the bread that Jesus multiplied to feed other Israelites in a different desert. One might observe that the touch of his human hands worked wonders!
Then there’s that miraculous bread from heaven — the bread that God showered on those Israelites coming out of Egypt in a form that at first they did not recognize as bread — who, after all, would recognize that a light dusting of frost on the ground is something you might gather and eat. And so they called it manna — which means, basically, what’s it? So it was that God fed them withwhazzit scattered through the camp every morning, through those forty years.
Finally there is a third kind of bread, and it appears in John’s Gospel. It is neither bread from an earthly oven, nor some previously unknown dusting of a mysterious substance on the ground, appearing with the morning dew. This third kind of bread, Jesus says, is the true bread. This true bread, the Bread of God, comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
The people who followed Jesus still didn’t understand what he meant and they ask to be given this bread. And then Jesus tells them that he is that bread. In many ways they were like the Samaritan woman who appears a few chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, and she’s right there in our stained glass window. You will recall that Jesus tells her that he has a source of living water; and thinking this is literal water she asks him to tell her how to get it so she won’t have to go to the well with a bucket. And then Jesus reveals to her that he is the source of living water, the Messiah, “the one who is speaking to you.” That moment is preserved in our stained glass window there, as Jesus reveals himself to her and she looks up, in that instant of being startled and amazed, before she turns to go back to tell the rest of the people in her town the miracle that has happened.
Both she and the people who came to Capernaum looking for Jesus are like a third character in John’s Gospel — this is a consistent theme in John: Martha. Remember how after she affirms her belief in the resurrection, telling Jesus she believes her brother will rise again at the last day. Remember what Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
In all three of these instances Jesus proclaims himself to be what the people are looking for; he proclaims that we who also seek him, we who bear the name of Christian, through faith, believe him to be: he is the son of God, he is the source of light and life, he is the satisfaction to all our earthly hunger and thirst. He is resurrection and life. Just as I said last week that we cannot have unity and peace in this boat we call the church without Jesus being on board with us, so too we cannot have eternal life and release from hunger and thirst without him: the One who is the true source of life and nourishment.
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So it is that we have been told what the true bread is. It is not the bread we bake ourselves, nor even the earthly bread that Jesus multiplies when the people turned it over to him. Nor is it even the miraculous bread that nourished the Israelites for the years of their wanderings, but which ceased upon their arrival in the land of promise. No: it is Jesus himself: the true bread who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, such that whoever comes to him will never be hungry and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty.
As I’ve tried to show, this is a particular angle of John’s Gospel — whether living water, or the life of the resurrection, or the bread of life — it is all about Jesus. He, John says, is the answer to all our questions.
But I would like for a moment to relate this to what I said about our Gospel from Mark from last week: Mark’s account of that rocky boat ride, stabilized only upon Jesus’s arrival. For it seems to me that the message for the church is the same in this case, in Mark and John: it is only in Jesus that we will find our peace, our life, our nourishment.
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And yet, how many appear to spend their time whining about the lack of bread, like the Israelites in their hunger in the desert? Or how many scan the ground seeking some other miracle than the one God offers? Or how many think that they can make do with merely earthly bread — bread that grows stale and fails to satisfy even as it eaten?
Paul writes of this latter sort, who try to turn back or away from the Lord, or cling to their former way of life: the life that did not give them life. They are like the Israelites who longed for the fleshpots of Egypt, and who were ready to turn back to slavery rather than to accept the freedom God offered them through Moses. It was bad enough to live that way when they had not heard of Jesus — but once they had, how much worse to turn away and go back to that former way of life, that old self, corrupt and deluded. When offered the opportunity to be clothed in a new self created according to God’s own likeness in righteousness and holiness — who would turn back to the disorder and disaster of merely human life, a life untouched by divine hands?
Unity and peace in the church will not come about through our doing — neither our bread nor the bread we gather from the hillside (even when it comes from God) will unite us. Unity and peace in the church is rather only through God himself in Jesus Christ, true bread come down from heaven and given for the life of the world. Our unity is in Jesus Christ — and he has given us the means to share in that unity by his own everlasting promise: when he took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.” That bread: his Body.
Unity and peace in the church will come through our participation in the holy meal at this holy table, and all the other holy tables set up throughout the world and consecrated to the unity for which Christ gave himself, and gives himself: Unity through communion. This is a miracle greater than the manna that fed the children of Israel; this is a miracle greater than the broken bread that fed the multitudes that followed Jesus in the wilderness; this is the greatest miracle — that Jesus Christ should come to be with us in, with, and under the form of visible and edible bread, bread we take into our hands, place on our tongues, and eat, in fulfillment of his commandment: take, eat. He is the bread of life, the Bread of God from God’s own hands, and it is here at God’s table that we unite with him, and become one with him, in communion with each other through communion with him.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, give us this bread always, the bread of your Son Jesus — bread which earth has given, and human hands have made, but which through your gracious gift has become for us the bread of life; for it is in sharing this bread that we are both nourished and built into his Body; so that at the last we shall hunger no more, and thirst no more, but sit at your table in your heavenly kingdom for ever; through Jesus Christ our Lord.+