The Bread of Life
Bread is a staple in nearly every culture in the world from Mexican tortillas to Irish soda bread. There are breads made from different grains such as corn bread and rye bread. There are yeast breads, flat breads, quick breads and unleavened breads. Bread has been a prominent food around the world since the dawn of agriculture. And bread plays an essential role in both religious rituals and secular culture. Bread is mentioned at least 492 times in the original languages of the Bible. Bread is important. In today’s readings bread plays a dominate role, being both bread for the body and bread for the soul.
In Exodus the people complain to Moses and Aaron that having left the abundance of Egypt, they are now hungry and thirsty as they wander through the desert to the point of claiming it would have been better for them to have died in Egypt. God hears them and responds by giving them food from heaven. When they see the mana God has provided they do not understand that this is the bread they asked for until Moses tells them “This is the bread God has given you to eat.” And this bread nourishes and sustains them through many generations in the wilderness appearing there in the morning while every evening there are quails to eat – bread and meat. Because the bread is different — a bread from heaven — and the quails from heaven, too, the process of when, where, and how to obtain both is different from the usual. God listened to their hunger and responded by giving them food to nourish and sustain them. Food for the body.
The Gospel reading for today follows the feeding of the 5000. Jesus had taken a couple of fish and some loaves of bread and feed all who where there – every man, woman and child. And everyone had their fill. When they were finished his disciples collected baskets of leftovers. They ate until they were satisfied. They had enough. But what is enough? Would this Jesus, who had just fed them, always provide them with enough to eat? Would there be an unending supply of food for the body just as the Israelites had as they wandered through the desert. Jesus fed hungry people; he told his disciples to feed people; and he tells us to feed the hungry with food for the body, but he also promised that he himself would be enough. Enough, not of nourishment for the body, but as food for the soul. He wants to be our sustenance, our nourishment, our daily strength, our source of satisfaction for he tells us “I am the bread of life”, not the life of the body, but the life of the soul. Jesus is bread, a bread to satisfy the hunger in our hearts. He wants to fill the emptiness inside us, the longing we feel for something more than ourselves. A deep spiritual hunger is implanted in every human heart. Different people will seek to fill this need in different ways, but the hunger is not unique. We yearn for a deeper connection, an eternal spiritual connection, and when that is lacking we will seek any means to be fulfilled.
Jesus had fed their physical hunger with bread and fish and the crowds followed him perhaps wanting more, but Jesus does not feed their physical hunger – there are no more fish and bread instead Jesus points to their spiritual hunger. This is the hunger Jesus seeks to fill. We were created to love God and love others as ourselves, and this need to love must be fulfilled, must be nourished, must be fed. Jesus compares the daily bread of mama, the bread God provided to his people as they wandered in the desert, to the bread of life, which God offers in Jesus. Jesus promises: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus offers us the nourishment that will fill our most basic need – our spiritual hunger. Jesus said he came that we might have life and that abundantly. Yet, he who offered fullness of joy was often met by people with simpler, lesser needs. Recall the story of the Samaritan woman who Jesus met at the well. When Jesus told her that he could give her living water, she didn’t understand and longed for this living water so she wouldn’t have to keep returning to the well each day. Jesus started with that basic need for water and used it to forge a relationship with her that resulted in her leaving her water jug at the well and running into town to share this new living water that Jesus had told her about. Jesus is that living water; Jesus is that bread of life. Perhaps our first thoughts when we heard Jesus say he is the bread of life is to think of the Eucharist. In the mystery of the Eucharist we eat the bread and drink the wine, and in so doing we partake of the body and blood of Jesus. But is it just his death and passion that we remember as we celebrate the Eucharist? When Jesus states he is the bread of life, he still has two more years of ministry. So much more happens before Jesus celebrates that last supper with his disciples. Jesus’ self-giving act in communion is more than the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus’ whole life will institute the sacrament of communion. Faith is not in Jesus’ death and resurrection alone, but in Jesus’ whole life – from Bethlehem to Golgotha, from the empty tomb to his ascension. God’s revelation to us was and continues to be the life of Jesus – who he was and what he did. Just as we can not separate one part of Jesus’ life from the rest, we can not have a Christian part of our lives separate from the rest of our lives. In the Eucharist, we don’t merely listen to the words, “Take eat,” we physically take and eat the bread. It’s not just the bread that we take, bless, break and give. God took Jesus’ whole life, blessed, broke it and gave it to us. We are to let that story of God’s love for us take us, bless us, break us and give us back to the world.
Jesus wanted those who followed him after having their fill of fish and bread to discover real spiritual nourishment so that they would never hunger again. And yes, one is fed through the Eucharist, but this too is only part of the picture. Our Sunday worship is to be just a part of how we are fed spiritually. Just as we cannot satisfy our physical hunger with one meal a week, we cannot satisfy our spiritual hunger with only the Eucharist on Sunday and for the past year and a half, many have not been able to receive that spiritual meal even once a week. So how else can we be fed spiritually?
There is no better way to nourish your spiritual side than through a daily meal of prayer and scripture reading.
We spend a lot of time thinking about the food we will be eating – planning menus, shopping, cooking. Do you think about what you’re going to have for supper right after eating breakfast or looked forward to a holiday meal long before the holiday? Perhaps you prepare your supper early in the day using a slow cooker and all day long the aroma of that meal fills the house wetting your appetite and making you hungry for what you will be eating. Do we hunger for our spiritual food? Do we put our time and energy into preparing for our spiritual meals? Have we set aside a place where we are fed spiritually? Have we set aside times for our spiritual “meals”? If we are so concerned about what and when we will eat food for our bodies, how much more so should we be concerned about our spiritual food. Meeting our physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, money) never loses its appeal. We work long and hard to meet them. But if we are to truly love and serve God we cannot lose sight of our spiritual needs. Jesus said “Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (v. 27a). Jesus challenges the crowd to raise their eyes to see beyond the physical realm.
Jesus is not saying that physical needs are unimportant. In Matthew, he speaks of food, drink, and clothing, assuring his listeners that “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things,” and promising that, if they will seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, “all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:32-33). Much of Jesus’ earthly ministry is focused on healing people’s physical ills. But now he calls the crowd to acknowledge their need for “food that endures for eternal life”—promising that the Son of Man will give them that food. We too must acknowledge that hunger, that need for spiritual food. May we give our spiritual hunger the planning and preparation we give to satisfy our physical hunger. Yes eat to fortify your bodies, but eat also too fortify your souls. When we diet to lose weight, our bodies shrink from the restrictions of food, but when we restrict our spiritual food, it is not our bodies that shrink, it is our souls. So eat hearty and often. May we fortify ourselves with spiritual food – the bread and wine of communion, the Bible and prayer – that we may grow in faith, in love, in service.