Wednesday, August 8, 2018
What's your favorite kind of bread? For most applications, I prefer rye bread. Turkey, ham, tuna, grilled cheese sandwiches all go nicely on rye bread. I also enjoy a piece of rye toast. Sometimes, though, I need the empty calories of white bread to go with a tomato sandwich or a BLT. And homemade sourdough is a real treat on occasion. And sometimes a hearty wheat really hits the spot. What about you? Do you like some breads more than others?
Yesterday in staff meeting, Fr. Chuck Walling noted that there are two breads being discussed in Sunday's gospel lesson from John 6. I appreciated the reminder, especially since we skipped last Sunday's reading about working not for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life. In this week's reading, Jesus expands upon that concept, explaining to the religious authorities, who have taken issue with Jesus' self-identification as "the bread that has come down from heaven," that their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and died but those who eat of the bread of life (i.e. Jesus) will live forever. Chuck's distinction was helpful for me because it allowed me to shift my focus away from comparing bread and begin to focus on sustenance more generally.
It's easy to read Jesus' words in John 6 and feel like we're comparing breads. The Israelites ate manna in the wilderness and died, but Jesus' bread of life will let them live forever. The crowd wanted more of the loaves that Jesus multiplied, but Jesus urged them to pursue the food that endures for eternity. Of course one wants the bread that Jesus offers. It never goes moldy or stale. It never runs out. But Jesus isn't comparing different breads. Jesus isn't offering us a magic loaf.
This is one of those passages of scripture when the metaphor loses its connection with reality and then becomes an isolated focus. Yes, there is Eucharistic imagery here, and, yes, in next Sunday's lesson, Jesus will tell us to eat his flesh, which makes the overlap with Communion even more clear. But this isn't only about Eucharistic bread. This is about sustenance. This is about being fed in spiritual ways. Jesus is comparing two very different concepts of bread. As Chuck put it yesterday, one is physical bread, actual food, but the other isn't really bread at all but spiritual sustenance.
Think of the other ways we talk about bread. "Give us this day our daily bread." Does that mean only literal bread? Or does that mean sufficient food of any type? Or does it mean whatever physical necessities we will receive for the day, including shelter? Or does it begin to hint at a concept of faithfulness--trusting God's provision more generally?
Jesus' assessment of the crowd is one we need to hear again: "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." The actual bread is just a means to a bigger end. Eating the bread won't give you eternal life. Even eating Communion bread won't give you eternal life. It's belief. "Whoever believes has eternal life," Jesus says. To eat this bread is to believe in him and the one who sent him. It means depending, trusting on God to provide even our most basic necessity. Maybe it's time to get away from the image of bread--not completely but just enough to see that we're not talking about magic crackers. Bread was the natural image through which Jesus could convey a message of daily sustenance that never runs out. Maybe bread is still the best thing we have to do that, but maybe there are other ways to invite people into confidence in God's never-failing provision. Hot dogs, anyone?