Lessons – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78:14-25; Ephesians 4:17-25; St. John 6:24-35
When I accepted the call to come to Smyrna to plant a church, we had a house to sell back in Chattanooga. The house was basically sound but it did have some problems. To help us along, each time the house was shown by a realtor, Beth would put some dough in her bread machine and time it so that the house would be filled with the smell of baking bread while folks toured the house. Needless to say it worked. The house sold quickly and we learned first hand of the power of bread. The baking of it evokes memories and emotions for many.
Now I don’t know if the people of the Bible had the same memories of grandma and accompanying good feelings that baking bread gives us. But I do know that they did not see it as the almost poison that the no carb folks do today. For the people of the Bible bread was an essential of life. And nearly every culture has it in some form or another to this day. From tortillas, to hot cross buns that miraculously look like Mother Theresa, it is the universal food.
But more than just sustenance, bread was a symbol of God’s divine provision and prosperity to the people of the Bible. When they journeyed from Egypt God kept them alive by giving them manna, which the Psalmist called “the bread of angels.”Later when the king of Assyria was trying to lure the people away from following King Hezekiah, he made them this promise. “I come and take you to a land like your own, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards….Choose life and not death” !(I Kings 8:32). Thus it is not by happenstance that Jesus used this powerful symbol to teach His followers more about Himself. In this Gospel, as well as last weeks, He unpacks what it means for us that He is the bread of life.
First when Jesus speaks of being the bread that comes down from heaven, His hearers would have immediately thought of the manna in the wilderness that I just mentioned. Manna was an interesting phenomenon because it came down each day and was collected each morning. It was only good for one day except the day before the Sabbath and then it lasted for two days so that they would not work on the Sabbath to collect it and thereby violate the Sabbath laws.
Just as manna was God’s miraculous provision that sustained them day by day so Jesus is saying that He is that for us now. And the fact that the manna came each day reminds us of the Scripture that tells us that God’s mercies are new every morning. Jesus is the incarnation of that mercy and we are invited to walk with Him new every morning. With Him every day is a new fresh start.
But Jesus also contrasts Himself from manna. He says, “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”
In this comparison manna can be seen as a symbol of the Old Covenant. Jesus came to fulfill the temporary Old Covenant and replace it with the eternal New Covenant. He did this because Manna and the Old Covenant were like tophu. It may be healthy for you but you’re still going to die. The Ten Commandments can show us how to live but they cannot give life. Just as manna was a temporary provision so the Old Covenant was a temporary bread until the coming of Jesus as the true and living bread that gives life to the whole world.
Next in this same discourse, but a few verses earlier, Jesus says of Himself that He is the “true bread from heaven.” The word true here is significant because it shows yet another contrast.
They say that you are what you eat but if that were true I would be a 6ft block of Velveeta. And yet in a spiritual sense, that saying is very accurate. We become what we consume spiritually. And we also suffer spiritually when we fail to consume the right bread.
In calling Himself the true bread Jesus is implying that there is a false bread , a bread that does us harm. In Matthew’s Gospel, just after He multiplied the loaves and the fishes, Jesus warned the disciples “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” What is the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees? It is a showy religion that looks good on the outside but is dead on the inside. You may remember that Jesus didn’t speak well of this bread. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. (Mt 23:27).
I would suggest that this is one of the greatest challenges of a faithlike ours that is so steeped in history, tradition and our catholic forms of worship. We have a treasurein the Book Common Prayer and in the way that we worship but we all know that itis possible to only say the words with our lips and never have themtouch our hearts
We must be careful that candles and colorful vestments and sweet smelling incense are SIGNS of the beauty of holiness and not window dressings that camouflage cold hearts. We can come into this sacred space and get a good fix of religion but then go outside of those doors and fail to care for our neighbor which the Scriptures tell us would make our religion null and void.
Jesus as the true bread replaces the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He causes the inside to match the outside. When we “feed on Him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving” we become united with Him. Then our hearts are filled with love and gratitude. Then we find that the Book of Common Prayer gives us the right words to express our love. Then we express true worship that involves lamps and colored vestments and whatever else that represents the best that we can offer. But it goes even further. When we are full and know that there is no end to this bread that comes down from heaven, then we want to invite our neighbor to receive this bread so they too can eat and live.
When I had my first confirmation class at All Saints’ I asked a man who had been an Assemblies of God minister if he wanted to be confirmed. He said that he wasn’t sure because he did not understand why we did all the “stuff.” When I asked him what he meant by the “stuff” he said, “You know, the candles and vestments and bowing and sitting and standing etc. Why can’t you just worship without all that stuff?”I replied, “Imagine it is your anniversary and you goal is to give your wife an anniversary dinner. You can take her to McDonalds drive through or you can get dressed up, pull out the table cloth and china and light the candles, put on your best clothes etc. In both cases she is going to get fed but in the latter case you are conveying to her that she is the most important person in your world. And that is why we do the “stuff.” We go to all the trouble to convey to Jesus that He is the most important Person in our world.” He got confirmed.
There is another kind of false bread that stands in contrast to Jesus as the living bread. Do you remember when rice cakes became popular? I had a friend who introduced me to them and touted them like they were the best thing since… well, since sliced bread. In fact they were supposed to replace sliced bread. Supposedly they were better for you, had less calories, and were easier to digest.
I gave them a try and I discovered why they had so few calories. It’s because there are no calories in air! I had to pile so much garbage on them to make them palatable that I would have been better off eating a loaf of bread.
The false bread that Jesus warns us about is like those rice cakes. It is a life that the world tells us to pursue but in the end does not satisfy. We break our necks trying to get happy but happiness eludes us. “If I just find the right career, if I just meet the right person, if I just made more money.”And as we pursue these things with all of our hearts we inevitably neglect our spiritual lives. And still we find that we are empty and hungry and not even sure why.
Please don’t misunderstand. It is not that careers and family and money are bad. They are gifts from God. But they are not the things that ultimately sustain our life nor fill our ultimate hunger. As St. Augustine put it, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”We have been created to first have a relationship with God and then He adds these other gifts as we need them. We are to seek first the kingdom and these other things will be added to us.
We need to also understand when Jesus says He is the bread that gives life to the world that He is declaring Himself to be essential. Just as the children of Israel would have died without the manna, so Jesus is moving His listeners to understand that there is no life apart from Him. Sadly some today treat Him as if He were an optional appetizer that they can take or leave. Others treat Him as a dessert that rounds out their lives nicely. But we need to see Him as our only hope for eternal life and therefore give Him the premier place in our lives that He deserves.
As Anglicans we see the obvious connection that this whole discourse has with Holy Communion. Particularly when Jesus says, “and the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” But allow me to unpack this a little more.
Here in the South there is a tradition of something called a “hoe cake.” It is a small pancake type bread that gets its name because it was cooked on an open fire by field hands, using their hoes as griddles. It is a food that was associated with slavery and hard labor. But somewhere along the line that image was redeemed because I have been served hoe cakes in some fancy steak restaurants. And they often offer it to you as a treat before the dinner arrives. This bread is no longer associated with slavery and hard labor. Now it is associated with fellowship and celebration.
The Jews also had a bread that was associated with slavery and hard labor. It was unleavened bread. They were ordered in the law of Moses to observe the Passover feast this way. “Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste–so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.”
At the Last Supper Jesus redeemed that image by changing the unleavened bread from the bread of affliction to bread that is His flesh when He said,“This is My body.”What was once a symbol of their bondage in Egypt now becomes more than a symbol. It becomes an actual conveyer of life. And so we no longer take this bread to remember our departure from Egypt. We take it to be united with Him and He to us. A somber feast that looked back at a past of suffering has been converted to a celebration of the freedom and joy that union with Christ offers us along with the gift of a hope and a future.
Shortly after I was priested I was going down the altar rail serving communion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a little girl standing on her tip-toes staring it me. At first I couldn’t figure out what she was doing and why her momma was letting her stand on the embroidered cushions. But as I got closer I realized that she was trying to see what it was that I had in the silver cup that I was putting in people’s hands. So when I came to her I leaned down so that she could see inside the ciborium. She glanced inside and saw the bread. Then she nodded to me and turned to her mother and said, “Mommy I just saw Jesus.” It took my breath away. It is my rule to not engage with people when they come to the altar rail because this is their time with Jesus not their time with the priest. But in this case I broke my rule and as I gave her mother the bread I said, “I love your daughter’s theology.”
I just wish that I had the eyes of the child to see Him veiled in the bread too. Perhaps one day I will but until then I will just have to take it by faith. As Anglicans we don’t try to understand this glorious mystery, we just accept it. I love how poet and priest John Donne put it. “He was the Word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it, and what the Word did make it, I do believe and take it.” Just know as you come forward today that you are doing more than merely “receiving communion.” You are uniting yourself to Christ. You are eating His flesh that is the life of the world. You are receiving grace that will keep you in eternal life. You are a branch receiving the life of the Vine. So “therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”