Bread of Life

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Sunday’s Gospel lesson exposes a comedy of errors on behalf of those who are trying to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  It would be easy to look down our noses at “those foolish Jews,” and ignore the reality that, if we are honest, every Christian struggles to follow Jesus in a similar way.  Rather than reading the story with a chuckle and thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not like those people,” it might behoove us to look at the narrative arc of the story and see that maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from a crowd of people who, while struggle with faith, have traversed the Galilean Sea several times in search of Jesus and his disciples.

The story picks up sometime after the Feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus, having realized that the crowd, misunderstanding what he came to do, was about to declare him their king, retreated to the mountains for some time to reflect and pray.  In the meantime, his disciples got into the boat and crossed to the other side of the lake, and Jesus caught up with them by walking across the surface of the water.  As day broke, the crowds realized that this amazing prophet was gone, again, and they set out in search of him.

When they found him, the one they claimed as prophet and king the day before, they call him Rabbi, which means teacher.  He’s slid back a bit in the hierarchy over night.  They’ve come in search of him, Jesus notes, not to worship or believe, but because bread wears off, and they are hungry again.  “What you need,” Jesus says, “is food that will endure, and that comes only from the Son of Man.”  Somewhat confused, the crowds wonder what they must do to earn this bread.  Jesus tells them to believe in the one whom God had sent, and here’s where things get interesting.

The crowd, numbering 5,000 men, not counting women and children, which Jesus had fed with five loaves and two fish just the day before says to him, “OK, well, what kind of sign will you give us to prove that you are the one God has sent into the world?  Moses gave the people bread every day.”  This is the ultimate in “what have you done for me lately,” and it is so human as to be absurd.  This is the reality of most of us who follow Jesus, and everyone who lives on the fringes of faith.  We might know, deep in our heart of hearts, all that God has done for us, but in this moment, do we have faith?  In the moment of hardship, when a diagnosis comes or when the pink slip arrives or when our lives don’t work out the way we think they should, do we look back on all that God has done for us, or do we, as is human nature, look up and say, “I thought you loved me!”

To the crowd, and to us, Jesus is quick to point out all that God has been doing in salvation history – the true bread that has been given to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the people of Israel – and the bread that God continues to give in the person of Jesus.  This bread, which the crowds don’t even know they really want, which we often don’t even know we really need, is Jesus who in a bold claim, one of seven “I AM” statements in John, declares himself to be the bread of life.  In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus 1) on par with God who is the great “I AM” and 2) as the one who gave life to humanity at Creation.  Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning.  For those who are hungry, Jesus offers the very breath of God as the bread of life.

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The Breaking of the Bread – a homily

It is Parish Picnic Sunday, so this week’s sermon is short, sweet, and hopefully not too boring for the children who won’t be going off to Follow the Word.  I’m fighting a backup voice recorder, so audio may or may not be available.

I love bread!  How many of you love bread?  Almost everybody loves bread.  Having gotten to know some celiac and gluten intolerant folks, I’ve come to realize that even if you are gluten-free, one of the main goals in life is to find a decent loaf of bread.  Really, since the beginning of human existence, some form of bread has been one of the basic building blocks of life.  “Bread represents the life of the community; various members contribute their time and effort to grow, harvest, grind, and cook in order to provide bread for the people.”[1] People eat bread in many different ways: flatbreads, bagels, loaves, crackers, biscuits, rolls, and even hushpuppies; and it can be made from all sorts of ingredients: corn, wheat, barley, rice, cassava root, even potatoes.[2]  Of course, it is bread made from wheat flour that we are most familiar with.

Bread was very important to Jesus as well.  When Jesus was out in the dessert and didn’t eat for 40 days and 40 nights, it was bread that the devil used to tempt him.[3]  Jesus used bread as an example in his teachings.[4]  When his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray he told them to ask God, “give us this day our daily bread.”[5]  What I find most interesting, however, is how Jesus used bread in his ministry.  First, there is the story of the time Jesus and his friends were out in the middle of nowhere teaching to a crowd of more than five-thousand people.  It came time for supper and everyone was hungry, but all they could find was five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus took that little bit, asked God to bless it, broke the bread into pieces, and told his disciples to share it with the people.  They ate and ate until everyone was full and then collected twelve baskets of leftovers.[6]  Every Sunday, we remember the night that Jesus was at dinner with his friends when he took the loaf of bread from the center of the table, gave thanks to God for it, and then broke it and gave it to his disciples.[7]  And then there’s the story you just heard me read.  It was evening on the first Easter Day when Jesus met up with some friends on the way to a town called Emmaus.  They didn’t recognize him because they weren’t expecting to see Jesus, but when they sat down to eat, he took the loaf of bread, blessed it, broke it into pieces and as he gave it to them, they realized who he was.[8]  The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

According to the Book of Common Prayer, one of my main jobs as a priest is to “celebrate the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood,” which is a fancy way of saying that I am a bread breaker.[9]  Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Father Keith or I recall for us all those moments of sharing when Jesus took the bread, gave thanks and asked God to bless it, broke the bread, and shared it with his friends.  Like Cleopas and his companion, I see Jesus every time the bread gets broken.  As I look out at the congregation, I see Jesus in the eyes of the faithful gathered in worship.  I see Jesus in the wide eyed smiles of children with arms outstretched at the altar rail.  I see Jesus in the withered hands of an aging great-great-grandmother.  Of course, I see Jesus in a lot of other places as well.  Just this week, I saw him in Joseph, the Red Cross employee, who was handing out Waffle House biscuit sandwiches to those who had been displaced by rising water.  I saw Jesus in the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Deputies who were taking a moment amid the busyness of the flood to break bread over lunch.  I saw Jesus in the outpouring of care that neighbors have given each other in the aftermath of all that rain.  I’ve seen Jesus all over the place this week: in helpers and those in need; in the mundane and the profound; and often in moments of broken bread.

[10:30 ONLY In just a minute, we are going to renew our baptismal vows and Father Keith will ask you if you’ll continue in the breaking of the bread and if you’ll seek and serve Christ in all persons.  To me, they might as well be the same question.  When we break bread, whether it is at church, in the cafeteria, or at home, with God’s help, we see Jesus in the faces of our companions.]

I love bread.  I love it in biscuits, loaves and rolls; ciabatta or pretzel; plain or toasted; I even secretly love those ridiculous wafers we call “Eucharistic Bread.”  I love breaking bread: be it at my dinner table or standing at the altar. I love the power of bread to bring people together.  Even our word “companion,” someone we spend time with, comes from the Latin for one with whom we break bread.  Bread creates community, even in the depths of sadness, and especially when we follow the example of Jesus by taking, blessing, breaking, and most importantly sharing it with those around us.  And so, on this Parish Picnic Sunday, our prayer is simple “be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.”  Amen.

 

[1] Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 289

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_breads

[3] Luke 4:3

[4] Luke 6:4, 7:33, 11:5, 14:15, and 15:17

[5] Luke 11:3

[6] Luke 9:13-17

[7] Luke 22:19

[8] Luke 24:13-35

[9] BCP, 531

Take, Bless, Break, Give

I once read somewhere that the average college degree is out-dated in about seven years.  I’m thinking my MDiv was probably useless before the ink was dry on the Dean’s signature.  Scholarship is constantly changing, even in disciplines thought to be arcane like Koine Greek, theology, or liturgics.  One of the required readings for my discernment process was a book by the late Reverend Canon Leonel Mitchell called “Praying Shapes Believing.”  Mitchell was one of the leading voices in shaping the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer and he published his theological commentary in 1985.  Not only was this book required reading, but his use of Dom Gregory Dix’s Four-Fold Shape of the Eucharist was the driving organization force in our process of discernment.  By now, Dix’s four-fold shape has come under scrutiny, some might even say they are out-dated, but the action of Taking, Blessing, Breaking, Giving continue to be central to my identity as a priest and liturgist even today.

While there is now plenty of historical evidence that suggests there was no standard form for celebrating the Eucharist in the ancient church, those four actions Dix found weren’t made up out of thin air.  First and foremost, we find them in the actions of Jesus in scripture.  They all appear in one sentence in the Road to Emmaus story appointed for Sunday.  “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”   No manual actions, no words of institution, not even any wine, just the four-fold action of Jesus and a loaf of brown barley bread, and in an instant, Cleopas and his companion knew that Jesus was sitting before them for he had done the exact same thing in the Feeding of the 5000 (Luke 9:16).

As you can probably tell, I’ve been on a bread kick this week.  It is partly because I love bread: biscuits, loaves and rolls; ciabatta or pretzel; plain or toasted and made especially delicious thanks to the Maillard effect; even those ridiculous wafers we call “Eucharistic Bread.”  Also, and more importantly, because of the power of bread to bring people together.  As I noted earlier this week, a companion is literally one with whom we break bread.  Bread creates community, even in the depths of sadness, especially when we follow the example of Jesus by taking, blessing, breaking, and most importantly giving: sharing with those around us.