Sermon for August 19, 2018: Bread of Life (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Who doesn’t like bread? I love bread, all kinds. When I was young my mother would bake bread every Tuesday. The wonderful smell of the baking bread would fill our house, to me the smell of love and home. My sisters and I would vie for the first slice of the still warm bread.
Bread has an importance beyond mere nutrition in most cultures in the West and Near and Middle East because of its history and modern-day importance. A Recent archaeological discovery in the Jordanian desert discovered that bread has been around for approximately 15,000 to 12,000 years. 6,000 years earlier than had been thought. The sheer number of types of bread testifies to its importance. There are 1300 varieties alone across Europe alone. The word companion comes from Latin com- "with" + panis "bread". Bread is so important that it is used as a metaphor for companionship, and a whole meal. We say we break bread together to share a meal, “bread and butter” is used to refer to the basics of sustenance, and "bread basket" to an agricultural area where wheat etc. is grown. Bread was also an important part of the Jewish temple sacrifice. In Exodus the Hebrews were fed manna (bread from heaven) by God in the wilderness for 40 years.
The last few weeks we have had Gospel readings from John chapter 6. We heard that out of compassion for more than 5,000 hungry people, Jesus used a boy’s lunch to feed them all. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, that miracle or sign as John likes to call Jesus’ miracles became the background to what Jesus said next, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever.”
The bread he shared with them in the first encounter would last for a day at most but eating and drinking his flesh and blood would lead to eternal life. It’s not surprising that not everyone found this appetizing. Eat me, consume me, swallow me, gnaw on my flesh, get as much of me as you can because in me you will have life forever. It serves as a reminder why many of Jesus’ early followers were so put off they abandoned him, and many contemporaries of early Christians thought they were cannibals.
Bread has been a basic food down through the ages and like water so important to daily survival. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”, “I am the living bread” he is saying that he is essential to the life of every person on this planet. No-one can do without this bread if they want to get out of this life alive.
Now it is obvious that this discourse in John takes on a Eucharistic interpretation. In the Gospel of John there is no institution narrative as there are in the three synoptic Gospels. Instead John tells of Jesus getting on his knees and washing his disciples’ feet.
By the time this gospel is being written the Eucharistic institution is well established as we read in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Which is pretty much the same institution narrative you hear in our Eucharistic prayer. John is writing to his community in Jesus’s words what they and we receive from participating in communion; eternal life.
I find NT Wright’s contemporary translation The Kingdom New Testament makes what Jesus is saying more understandable about eternal life.
“Anyone who feasts upon my flesh and drinks my blood has the life of God’s coming age, and I will raise them up on the last day. My flesh is true food, you see, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I remain in them.” Also “This is the bread which came down from heaven; it isn’t like the bread which the ancestors ate and died. The one who eats this bread will share the life of God’s new age.”
In Wright’s translation Jesus’ offering eternal life is phrased the life of God’s coming age and the life of God’s new age.
We have two options for our reading readings during this post Pentecost season or ordinary time. They are given as track one or track two. In track one we generally proceed through one book of Hebrew Scriptures at a time. Recently we’ve been hearing readings from the book of Kings. In track two the Hebrew Scriptures are chosen to mesh with the gospel appointed in the readings. The track two Scripture reading for today is a section of the book of Proverbs. This section is a poem about Wisdom setting a banquet for all. This echoes the parable of the wedding banquet in the Gospel and of course the Holy Eucharist.
John contains Jesus’ promise of eternal life for those who partake of his flesh and blood. Wisdom’s Feast echoes that promise, making it clear that eternal life is about much more than life after death. Wisdom’s banquet is happening now, as evidenced in the sacraments shared at the communion table. There is no other way to get this kind of nourishment; people try all sorts of different things and others deny they need this important life-giving food. They are starving themselves.
In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of partaking worthily and discerning the body. It seems clear to me that Paul is speaking of the horizontal dimension of the supper. That leads to the question—how do the vertical (divine-human) relationships intersect with the horizontal (human-human) relationships?
Remember right at the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as the “Word who became flesh” – the eternal God became a human being. So, when Jesus is urging us to “eat this bread that you will share in the life of God’s coming age and in the life of God’s new age. When he said “this bread is my flesh” he is first saying, Believe in me. Swallow the truth that I am the eternal God who created the universe, the world and everything in it and then came into this world as a human being with skin and bones just like you. I was born as my mother Mary cried out in pain in the same way as your mothers cried out. I bled just like you. I bled and died on a cross”.
Again in 1 Corinthians Paul writes the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participating in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participating in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
In this vertical – horizontal intersection we are all made one body in Christ in which we are assured that Eternal life is not just about timelessness and death but is full-filled life here on earth that makes us yearn it will never end. Living life to the fullest as disciples brings joy in the present and a hope for the future that we must share with the world, even with the least of God’s children.
Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 12706-12708). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T.. The Kingdom New Testament, eBook: A Contemporary Translation (p. 186). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.