The trouble with bread is.... We all have particular associations with it - the smell of bread baking, crusty fresh warm bread, bread as the containing excuse for holding together every filling we can imagine and calling it sandwich. Bread goes along way in feeding our hungry world, but its not culturally universal, not known everywhere, not eaten in many places. Bread is a staple that goes moldy, takes hard work to make and for some, just causes indigestion or worse!
Jesus used bread as a metaphor for the giving of himself. "Eat my flesh, drink my blood" and the metaphor from earliest times led to scandal and misunderstanding!
The trouble with such a colourful and direct use of language is that the words can be so malleable, twisted into unintended directions.
There was an unfortunate rumour circulating around the Roman Empire in the 1st century. It was a rumour which led people to despise Christians, and made it much easier for authorities to launch vicious persecutions against them. This rumour had it that Christians were cannibals. It was reported that when they met early in the morning of the first day of the week for their religious observances, they ate human bodies and drank human blood.
..... Cannibalism, in all developed civilisations has been regarded as unquestionably repugnant.
It is not difficult to see how this rumour started and took off. Anyone who listened in to a Christian service, even standing outside the door, might well draw that conclusion. They might hear a person reading the words from a letter of Paul about the Lords Supper: "This is my body......eat this remembrance of me. This is my blood....do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." Or they may have listened to them reading from Johns Gospel: "I tell you plainly: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." You can understand how such words may have shocked outsiders.
Also there is no wonder that Jesus shocked his listeners when he first used similar words. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. It sounded horrific to those critics who were present; these were easy words to put to mischievous use. For us some 2,000 years later the metaphor is comfortably familiar, it has little shock value and as a consequence can easily sail through our grey matter, hardly disturbing a thought on the way through!
But Jesus most shocking statements are usually about the most profound truths, so I want to see if there is a little fresh leaven left in the lump for us still today.
Jesus tells these crowds who've followed him that the resources and the sustenance for true life will come from him. "My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Whoever eats this bread will live forever."
The crowd who followed Jesus on that day had wanted Jesus to do what Moses had done, something miraculous and spectacular. If this Jesus was to be a great leader and saviour of the people he ought to feed them as Moses had done with the Manna in the desert. These people were pragmatic and "realistic", if they were going to follow this Jesus they wanted concrete proof and some tangible benefit, it would be manna for all, thank you. But that was not what they got. Jesus is about offering something different.
Now I need to lend some emphasis to this point. People crowded after Jesus in his day, they looked to him with needs both ordinary and unfathomable. To multitudes of people, here was a man who could really feed them. And this story of the bread of life was an absolutely key story. It grows out of the experience of the feeding of the 5000 - one of the few stories that gets a run in all 4 gospels - the Christmas story only rates in 2 gospels for example - this feeding story rates 5 mentions, and not only that but this bread of life discourse in the gospel of John goes on for some 71 verses and there are about 21 references to bread in it. I get the feeling that Jesus had a lot to say on this point! True bread, bread from heaven, lasting bread, bread for eternal life, "my flesh" "the bread of life."
So why bread? People have many needs, hungers and thirsts and Jesus spends time getting it straight what it is that he is offering, it is himself, his way, his spirit, the substance of the Christ to somehow meet the real needs of each person. There are many needs.
Our time in history is similar in many ways to Jesus time.
People are hungry, looking - not in the church so much at the moment - but looking in so many odd places for spiritual sustenance.
To the hungry, Jesus said" I am the bread of life and you must feed on me."
Bread of life, now we know from his conversations with the crowds that Jesus doesn't mean that he is to feed everyone with the physical bread they need to live on. He says that the bread God gives is about having eternal life, a life in abundance that isn't bounded by death, and that this bread is for the whole world.
In the Greek, verse 51 it says literally that Jesus gives life to the whole "cosmos". This is what John was talking about when he says at the beginning of his gospel that Jesus, the word, was in the beginning, that all things were given their life through him and that everything is sustained, kept alive in him. Jesus in fact is the source of life from the beginning of all things, he offers abundant life now and eternal life for the future. It would be an understatement to say that John's gospel has a wide vision, it's not hard to see why the people could have misunderstood what Jesus was doing and talking about.
Jesus feeds us and sustains us, but not just us as individuals in some private mystical way, Jesus says that he is that which sustains the whole cosmos.
We don't come to church for a slice of Jesus to keep us going, but we do look to Jesus for things that give us life to sustain and feed our spirits.
I want to suggest three things that Jesus offers us that we have basic human needs for. They are, if you like three slices of the bread of life that Jesus comes to bring and they are the basics for our living as Christians, they are elements of life that we in the church both need to feed on and need to find new ways to offer to a hungry world.
The first slice is love. Jesus came because God loves the world. The whole world, everything, every one! The whole purpose of Jesus is to show God's saving love to everyone. Jesus came not just to give us love that we take in like a sponge soaking up water, but to learn from his way and to love as we have been loved.
I guess in the language of bread and feeding we could say that we are fed and at the same time called to feed others in the same way. Love is about sharing, about reciprocating and not being selfish. Now those who cook regularly know that it takes effort to feed others, it takes thought and planning as well as the shopping and cooking. Where then is our effort, our effort as Christs body to feed a hungry world?
Jesus gave himself in love for others; helping, healing, feeding, teaching, liberating.
We come to Jesus for these..... and learn to follow his way of love as we give of ourselves to help, feed, teach other people too, because Jesus love is always a two way deal - being fed and feeding - receiving and giving love Jesus. The bread of life feeds us with love.
The second slice of the bread of life that Jesus offers is peace. Jesus came bringing peace. Not the lack of war type of peace, but the sort of peace that leads to wholeness as a person, even despite what may be going on around us. This peace that Jesus feeds us with is the sort of peace that brings healing from old hurts, freedom from old bitterness's and acceptance of what can't be changed.
This peace that Jesus feeds us with doesn't remove us from the conflicts and problems of life so that we have a rose garden life with no thorns. Followers of Jesus are called to take up their cross to follow in the way of the one who brought peace to others at personal cost to himself, including a crown of thorns. Making an effort to bring peace to our relationships and in our community is part of our being fed and feeding on the bread of life. Reconciliation with our Aboriginal brothers and sister is just one challenging example that needs our efforts to bring peace.
The true bread of life feeds us with peace, the shalom of God, we are then to be agents of that wholeness and peace in a sad and troubled world.
The third basic need that Jesus meets in us is the forgiveness and the acceptance that we need as people. We all need to be accepted for who and what we are, we need to be forgiven and set free from our guilt. Jesus offers us this basic food of life and calls us to be forgiving and accepting of others. It's an element of love and a prerequisite of peace. Jesus acceptance and forgiveness is to all who will receive it. Much of it will be offered through those who claim Jesus name as Christians.
Much is given to us who will receive it, but we will only truly be Jesus followers if we do as he did, and share the richness we are given with those who lack. The world is hungry!
The bread of life that Jesus offers us is that which gives our lives meaning and purpose and hope in a way that material things can never do. And when we have this bread of life we ought to work at finding ways to share what we have with others who need it.
The bread of life is something we can celebrate!
God has given us love and peace and God accepts us as we are.
These are the amazing realities of God's grace to us and to the whole cosmos.
Thanks be to God - the God who feed and stirs us.