Grace Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2020, Pentecost 14A (livestream)
The Life of Bread, The Bread of Life
I made fun of them so much when I first saw an ad for them, several years ago.
“The body of Christ, processed for you,” I cracked. “The recyclable, foil-sealed plastic cup of salvation.“
I am speaking of “pre-filled communion sets,” which consist of two small compartments attached to one another. The smaller one, typically on top, is just large enough for a small, thin wafer of the type frequently used for the Eucharist in some high-church liturgical traditions. The larger (but still small) container is filled with grape juice. (I have not seen any purporting to be filled with actual wine.)
When I first saw these advertised a few years ago, it seemed ridiculous. Even for taking communion to members of the church at home, it’s not hard to put together a small flask of juice, a few communion cups, and a small piece of bread. Paul Gillespie used to have a kit for exactly that purpose. Not hard. Breaking the bread and filling the cup worked just fine. What exactly was the point of these prefab sets?
Flash forward to present day, and these “pre-filled communion sets” are now probably the safest and least Covid-susceptible means of observing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in person.
Don’t think the manufacturers and suppliers of these kits are unaware of this. The advertising has gotten so much more intense since the onset of the pandemic and necessary precautions surrounding it. Just this week such an advertisement from one supplier showed up in my email box with a new name for these kits: “The Miracle Meal.”
And for all that, whenever we are able to try to gather in person for worship and observe the sacrament, these kits will very likely be part of the meal.
The bread of life…broken for you.
The rice of life from heaven came
to bring true life from God above
Receive this gift; God’s mercy claim;
in joy and pain give thanks for love
Way back in Exodus, the wandering Israelites were in a hard way for food, and (as usual) had no problem letting Moses know about it. God heard their griping well before Moses did, and announced to Moses how he was going to deal with it. In the evening the camp was covered with quail just begging to be eaten, apparently. In the morning a fine dew covered the camp, and when the dew lifted, there was this … stuff. Verse 14 describes it as “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.” Later, in verse 31, it is described as “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” The people looked around and said, “what is it?” That, in the form of the word “manna,” became the name of the bread of God’s provision. Each household gathered enough for that day, and on the sixth day each household gathered enough for two days, so that the Sabbath might be kept the next day. Each gathered just enough for that day, and no more (else it got all rotten and wormy). According to verse 35, the Israelites ate that “what is it?” for forty years, until they came to the land of Canaan.
The bread of life, given from heaven.
True rice the hungry world has fed,
the rice required for life below
Provide this gift, God’s mercy spread;
in weakness God’s compassion show
The folks who followed Jesus from the lakeside up to the mountain to which he had retreated knew all about the manna. The crowd is quick to bring that up to Jesus, once they’d finally tracked him down on the other side of the lake, after the truly miraculous meal in which five thousand had been fed from five loaves and two fish. Jesus, of course, knows what’s really going on with them; as he says in verse 26, they came looking for him because they got full, not because they saw what was happening. Then the crowd goes on to prove they didn’t get what was happening by asking for a sign, like the manna that had been given to the Israelites. It seems like some kind of serious gall to ask for a sign after five thousand people had just gotten fed from five loaves and two fish, but there it is.
There’s another story in the gospels where bread is part of a sign, so to speak. Luke’s gospel isn’t as big on the language of “signs” as John’s is, but what happens to those two disciples who met Jesus unawares on the road to Emmaus feels pretty sign-like. You remember, how those two didn’t recognize the risen Jesus from any of the teaching he did on the road, but recognized their Lord when he broke the bread?
It’s not hard to guess that bread provided a useful image for Jesus in his teaching and life not only because of that background story from Exodus, but also because bread was about as much a staple food as his people had. The harvesting and winnowing and grinding of grain was one of the most basic survival tasks of the culture in which Jesus lived and taught, and any reference to bread would quickly conjure up images and associations both historically theological and practical.
Perhaps it’s also not an accident that, in the time of pandemic-induced isolation that quickly spread through this country in the spring, one of the go-to “comfort activities” that started popping up all over the place was the baking of bread. I know my social media feed got overwhelmed with fresh-baked bread at times, and still does on occasion. Not only the staple comfort of bread itself, but the elemental labor of it – grain, yeast, liquid for mixing (I saw some interesting recipes for exactly what liquid might be involved in some cases), kneading and preparing, then the anticipation built into the act of baking.
So, for most of Jesus’s immediate audience, and many of those who have received this word across the centuries, bread is a captivating and meaningful way to speak of the word, to speak of God’s provision.
But is it that way for everybody?
The bread of life…given for who?
The rice of God for all is meant
No one who comes is turned away
Believe in Christ whom God has sent
In humble trust God’s will obey
Bread doesn’t conjure the same comforting and welcoming image for everybody. The kind of bread that seems homey and welcoming for many can be a difficult or even painful image, for example, for those who suffer from Celiac disease or other gluten-intolerance disorders. In awareness of that condition, the seminary I attended had instituted the use of a gluten-free bread for communion, with a recipe that managed to appeal to pretty much all tastes. I remember the bread being pretty good, although it could be a challenge to dip it in the cup without losing a chunk of the bread in the cup.
For some, the challenge of the image of bread is different. For some, it isn’t necessarily a difficult image, but one that just doesn’t have that much meaning.
J. Andrew Fowler, an American mission worker who served in Malaysia, found himself facing that kind of challenge. For the people among whom he served, bread simply was not a particularly important part of their diet. The true staple food, even the true comfort food, was rice. It was the food that connected families across generations, much the way a handed-down bread recipe might connect a family across generations (or even some recipe more varied, like Grandma’s secret method for making the best fried chicken). Rice was the stuff of life, to the point that a meal without rice, no matter how filling, simply was not satisfying.[i] The hymn that has been interspersed through this sermon was the result of this experience.
What such an interpretation does is bring us – bread-eaters or otherwise – to the ultimate point of Jesus’s saying in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life.” The point of such a saying is not to sacralize bread into some kind of idol-like mandatory representation of Christ or the word of God or whatever gift of God is being represented in the hymn or song or sermon. The point is not to heap shame upon those who can’t eat plain old wheat bread. The point is not to shove bread upon a culture that isn’t a big bread-eating culture as the only way to understand Jesus.
The point is this: Jesus is what sustains us. Jesus is like the food that keeps you satisfied, that keeps you alive. Not a “food” that destroys or ruins or brings illness or decay; the food that gives life.
The bread of life, that never leaves us hungry.
The food of life, that never leaves us hungry.
The living rice, for all a sign
Came down eternal life to give
Abide in Christ, the living vine
In Christ, with people die and live[ii]
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: #460, Break Thou the Bread of Life; #500, Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread
[i] See Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion, 522.
[ii] “The Rice of Life,” Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, #524. Text: J. Andrew Fowler, 1983. Copyright 1990 Christian Conference of Asia (admin. GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission OneLicense #725345-A. Music: Tune BÍ-NîU, I-to Loh, 1984. Copyright 1980 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission OneLicense #725345-A.