Life Bread—Bread of life

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scriptures: 1 Kings 19:4-8, John 6:35, 41-51, & Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Sometime in the middle of the week we would bike, walk, or drive about a kilometer down a dusty road through farm fields and past mango trees from Kulp Bible College to Church of the Brethren (EYN) Headquarters and the ZME (Women’s Fellowship) Restaurant. Often Grace was working and would come to the table to ask what we wanted to eat. The menu varied per day, so we would ask what they had and she would list things off—we have white rice, jollof, egusi, and food. Food was not a generic summary of the items found on restaurant’s menu.  “Food” was her translation of the Hausa word—tuwo. A dense cornmeal-based food used to scoop up various kinds of soups or stews. Most everyone farmed to supplement income or food—corn—maize, was a standard crop and tuwo was a standard food. A food so basic and assumed that it could be called simply “food.”

“In biblical times bread was a staple food, a synonym for food itself and even the symbol for that which in any way might sustain physical life. (D.J. Williams, “Bread,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 83). Like Grace’s translation of tuwo, in the New Testament Greek, artos may be translated as food or as bread.

In our reading in the Gospel of John we continue the passage that started 2 weeks ago. With the open feeding of the 5,000 moving toward this claim that he, Jesus, is the bread of life. The bread which truly sustains and truly brings life. Jessie opened this unplanned series with the feeding of the 5,000 based on the gift of 5 loaves and 2 fishes given by a kid. She observed the open and accessible nature of this act. Jeff continued last week, with the questioning and redirecting of these questions after Jesus fed and then crossed the sea. His passage in John ended with the bold assertion in verse 35,  “Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This week we start there and hear some of the reactions to this.

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 

Given the misreading and abuse of passages like this, the designation of “the Jews” is understandably grating. In addition to observing our distance between this scene, and the subsequent terrible history of anti-Semitism, a commentator notes that one of the aims of Gospel of John is group coherence and differentiation in the face of opposition. Recording, retelling, and theologically interpreting the life and words of Jesus is part of this process. So, the potential followers of Jesus are Jewish people—as are Jesus and his disciples—and they even know his family. Jesus calls himself bread—a source of nourishment—that came from heaven, and they say, no you didn’t. You came from just down the road, and we even know your parents. They may have even baby-sat Jesus as a kid.

43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.

 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Not just a good guy with cool catering tricks. Not simply a miraculous provider of food that will soon after digesting need replacing. Not even simply the provider of a spiritual food but is the spiritual food.

In the opening verses of the Gospel of John we read “the Word became flesh.” The Word, which was from the beginning, creating, and being one with God—being God came to humanity and even became human—became flesh. A great mystery. And now this human is claiming to be bread. Reiterating his heavenly origin and linking to the very earthly necessity of sustaining food.

The word became flesh, the flesh became bread.

The word became flesh, the flesh became bread.

Mayra Rivera, in Poetics of the Flesh, writes, “Flesh—or his flesh—is also bread. Before establishing the link between bread and flesh, the gospel draws attention to the need to feed a hungry multitude.” (21-22) She goes on about this passage noting that bread and life are elements that “twirl” around each other. (22)

In the 1 Kings passage we read, the prophet Elijah is sustained in his long journey of running from and searching for by bread miraculously appearing and somehow powering him for an impressive journey—40 days into the desert.

In these passages we do not see a sharp distinction between physicality and spirituality. The material is necessary, and the spiritual is necessary. One points to the other and interacts with the other.

Rivera (p21) Asks if there is a fixed boundary between spirit and flesh and responds, “Apparently not, or not so in any simple way, because those born of flesh are being called to be born of spirit. The word is transformed as flesh and in the process the flesh itself changes.”

Very physical things, even common things, become spiritual and very spiritual things become physical. Simple bread becomes a sign and a spiritually sustaining meal. In the words of pop artist nun, Corita Kent, “God’s not dead, he’s bread.” Acts of care are manifestations of divine love. Within the Church of the Brethren there is a ministry called the Global Food Initiative. At times while I was growing up, we had a can with a sticker from this fund on it. We would put a certain amount of money per person per meal we ate in it for this ministry of addressing the need of food. A sign of gratitude and care—a spiritual act of giving but also quite practical and concrete.

Another ministry we are connected to as a denomination is the National Farm Worker Ministry. This ministry connects churches to farm worker organizing for justice in the fields. In addition to this, again, very practical work, NFWM embodies the act of spiritually receiving as gift. Living in gratitude of those who are ignored, forgotten, or intentionally kept out of public sight. Recognizing that the gift of food comes through many hands and much effort. What Rivera writes of communion bread is also the case for all food. She writes,

“[T]he bread offered in the Eucharist cannot be abstracted from the gifts of the earth and labor that materializes the bread….An elemental materiality connects the bodies of workers with shared bread, with consecrated bread. These are not arbitrary metaphors—bread is produced by the labor of human hands and the fecundity of the earth. Sharing consecrated bread is a practice by which Christians receive and become the body of Christ. These practices overflow the boundaries of both symbolic and economic exchange.” (Rivera 23)

Jesus is the bread of life, eternal life, and invites us to believe. Believe.

But admittedly belief does not always come easily or for everyone or with the degree of certainty that we might hope for. We might, with the crowds say, “c’mon Jesus, we know your parents.” We hedge our theological bets wanting more data—just one more sign.

This is where the inseparability—the resolute connectedness of the physical and spiritual is essential. We experience God, not in the heavenly ether but in the everyday. In bread. We discover a vocation—a call to ministry—in the struggle for justice for farm workers, in the creation of beauty, in the care for a neighbor. We see divine love saturating the changing plants in a garden or along a road. In this observing, watching, tasting, and acting we can get on with faith even if belief doesn’t always feel stable.

St Augustine, who lived from 354-430, a bishop in what is now Algeria, wrote, “A great miracle: but we shall not wonder much at what was done, if we give heed to Him that did it. He multiplied the five loaves in the hands of them that brake them, who multiplieth the seeds that grow in earth, so as that a few grains are sown, and whole barns filled. But, because he doth this every year, no one marvels. Not the inconsiderableness of what is done, but its constancy takes away admiration of it.” (The Works of St Augustine, Sermon LXXX, 498)

These aren’t just radishes that Ayuba and Jessie have been growing. It isn’t just bread that Jesus provided and provides. This is “For the life of the world.” For all life. For our life. Life-bread. Bread of life. Take and eat. Taste and see that God is good. Amen.

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