Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
When God and God’s people want to say something about the essentials of life, we often express it in terms of bread. That’s because in ancient eastern Mediterranean culture – and in many cultures in any time or any place – bread is essential for life. In the ancient diet, bread was the most important staple food. Everyone ate bread … because if you didn’t, you would starve.
Bread has been an essential staple of our western Canadian diets, too, but in recent decades I think it has become less significant. There are various reasons for this, including globalized food markets, our changing dietary preferences, and our growing awareness of gluten allergies, too. But it also has to do with our increasingly diversified population. My friends with Chinese backgrounds tell me that they don’t have bread in their culture; what they have is rice. That has influenced everybody else here in our Canadian society. Rice has now taken a greater place in the diets of all kinds of people.
Even so, some people still persist in serving bread at just about every meal. It might be sliced bread for toast or for sandwiches; squares of focaccia to dip in a concoction of olive oil and balsamic vinegar as an appetizer; or chunks of baguette to accompany the main course. Most of us still eat bread. It’s still an important component of our diets and our cultures.
You can divide bread into two broad categories: the dough that can be easily leavened to produce light, fluffy loaves; and the dough that doesn’t rise well or not at all. The best flour for making light, fluffy loaves is whole-wheat flour made from spring wheat, because it contains the highest percentage of the gluten protein. It’s the gluten that makes the dough elastic when you kneed it. Without that elasticity, the yeast wouldn’t have much effect.
So in the gospel story that was read in our churches within the last few weeks, when Jesus and his disciples were faced with the challenge of providing food to a multitude of people, the five loaves that the boy was carrying would not have been light and fluffy. They were made of barley, which contains only a little gluten. The loaves likely would have been heavy and hard. This was the food that was commonly available to peasants. That – and two pieces of processed fish – is what Jesus used to feed the multitude that had flocked to him. Such peasant food was what our Saviour used to produce leftovers to feed the world.
Now, leavened bread does have a role in the gospel story … but it’s not a favourable or positive role. We western moderns typically have warm thoughts about nicely leavened loaves, but in the New Testament leaven is almost always associated with the opponents of Jesus. You see, the ministry of Jesus appealed especially to the peasants and outcasts. Leavened bread was associated with the elite classes of that ancient society. And it was the people of those elite classes who earned critical attention from Jesus.
In any case, precisely because bread was so essential to ancient life, the Biblical writers also used bread figuratively, in order to impress upon us the importance of things other than literal bread.
Our spiritual forebear, Martin Luther, caught this sense and conveyed it eloquently in his Small Catechism: “Daily bread includes everything in the necessities and nourishment of our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honour, good friends, faithful neighbours, and the like.”
That is his explanation of the Fifth Petition of The Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread.” Notice how thoroughly down-to-earth and neighbourly Luther is. He is confessing his faith in terms of the concreteness of everyday life. He’s telling us what’s really important in daily life, and he’s confessing that God provides it all.
But at the same time as he was thoroughly down-to-earth, Luther was utterly heavenly-minded. He was transformed by God’s Spirit, continually working in and through him by the means of grace, which includes the spoken word. This, too, is bread. This is the living tradition of the Christian faith.
Thus, more particularly, “bread” is God’s word in the living, active sense – the live address or speech. It is the verbal “enfleshment” of the living God, for the sake of anyone who has ears to hear. It’s the words that you hear from the pulpit when the Word is preached faithfully, and it’s the words that you speak when the Good News is upon your lips.
So, when Jesus taught his followers about bread, he was speaking not about frills or optional delicacies, but about essentials. And when he speaks about himself as bread – and not just plain, ordinary bread, but the living bread from heaven – then he is saying that he himself is essential to life.
What’s on your menu of essentials? What feeds you?
Many of the contemporaries of Jesus complained about his teaching and his claims. They took offence at him, first because he spoke in such uncompromising terms about life, and secondly because he claimed that he had come from God-in-heaven (and acted like it, too!).
Is there much difference between people in ancient times and ourselves? Isn’t it true that we, too, want God on our terms? We want a God who comes packaged for our convenience like food on the supermarket shelf – a God whom we can take if it happens to be our fancy … or pass by as we are lured by the clever packaging of the other options further down the aisle.
In Jesus Christ, God comes among us as the most important thing of all. This living bread from heaven isn’t a convenience or an option. It’s the most important thing! It’s essential!
What feeds you? A sense of religious obligation? Do you find spiritual satisfaction in doing “the right thing,” keeping a set of rules? God sent the only beloved Son, Jesus, to fulfill the demands of the law precisely because you and I cannot – precisely because you and I inevitably will try to make demands of each instead of feeding with the food that God gives.
God’s food is this: the righteousness of Jesus! Jesus came to satisfy the demands of righteousness. God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ displaces any and all existing schemes for salvation, including the demands that we inevitably create for one another.
The Living Bread from Heaven is the incarnation of Divine mercy. Jesus is forgiveness in the flesh. By such grace, though faith, God in Christ frees you so that you may take up life with your heart and mind transformed by the Spirit – so that your eyes are opened to God’s purposes for you, for the good of your neighbour and all creation.
O, taste and see that the Lord is good!