This Sunday we heard more of Jesus describing himself as the Bread of Life in John 6. Here’s what I said.
Why is bread like a bus?
Well, just like the proverbial bus that doesn’t come along for ages and then three come at once, so in our readings we go for months on end without any reference to bread, and here we are for the third week in a row with a gospel reading about bread. Having had the feeding of the five thousand on five loaves and two fish two weeks ago, last week and this we get Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life.”
This makes life difficult for people like me who take services. There are only so many hymns about bread in our hymn book. And only so many sermons you can preach in a row on the same theme! And count yourselves lucky! Next week, if it wasn’t for the fact that we are keeping the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary – which is really next Saturday but we do it a day late – you’d be getting Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life” for the third week in a row!
So why is bread – living bread – so important?
Life seemed so much simpler when I was a child.
Buying food, for example, was so much easier. Fruit and vegetables were only available in season – no looking down the rows of vegetables in the supermarket wondering what to buy this week– you simply had what was there. Well, let’s face it – there were no supermarkets – only the wonderful old Sainsbury’s with its one long counter and lots of assistants ready to get everything for you.
And as for bread – well, for starters it was delivered to the door by a man in a van. I can still remember the man who used to deliver ours. He came three times a week. There wasn’t a great deal of choice. He could fit some of each kind of bread into the basket that he brought to the back door – large white, small white, Hovis – that was it, and all baked at his own bakery. And – and I know people who have never actually done this – you had to slice it yourself! I can still remember when he turned up at the back door and proudly announced that he would be adding Mother’s Pride sliced white to his range.
It’s a little different today, isn’t it. The bread man couldn’t get all the different kinds of bread in his van, let alone his basket. Have you tried counting how many different kinds of bread you can now buy in a supermarket? I tried in Tesco this week – I gave up around the 60 mark. Large, small, sliced, unsliced, thick sliced, medium sliced – white, brown, half and half for people who can’t make their mind up, toastie, pitta bread, nan bread, olive bread, ciabbatta, French sticks, French pain de campagne, rye bread, soda bread – the list goes on. And perhaps – with bread, like every other kind of food – being available in such quantities and varieties – we have forgotten just how basic bread is to our survival, and take it rather for granted.
For most of human history, and still in much of the developing world, bread is perhaps the most important foodstuff. And for many people more than any other staple, bread represents life. It’s known as “the staff of life”. To eat and to feed one’s family is a basic human need and should be respected as a basic human right, and for many it’s bread that has been and continues to be the most important foodstuff. And many don’t have the mind-boggling choice we have – any bread will suffice.
For the lives of many in our world depend – and have always depended – upon such a simple food for their survival. At the time of Jesus bread was the all-important commodity of the ancient Near East. What we know of the price of grain at the time gives us infallible index to the economic conditions of the time. Not interest rates – but the price of the grain with which to make bread.
And when Jesus chose bread for his symbol of life he knew that in speaking the language of the humblest table his followers would understand the message because everyone bread in one form or another. They had to in order to live. The problem we have is that bread – and so many different kinds of bread – are so readily available that we no longer understand the real impact of what Jesus is saying. Bread for us is not a necessity – but for the people to whom Jesus spoke it was. Bread meant staying alive – no bread meant no life.
And so Jesus identified himself with the nourishing and life‑giving properties of bread. As one cannot live without bread, one cannot live fully without the Son of God – this is his message. Because to accept the bread of life that is Jesus, to embrace the life that feeding on him brings, is the only way to know God and enjoy life for ever. As Jesus explains this in the Gospel he says something deeply shocking. He says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Elsewhere in this three week narrative about the Bread of Life he tells people that they must “eat his flesh and drink his blood”. To us who hear this kind of language week by week in our communion service we miss the impact these words would have had.
For this was deeply shocking to Jews for whom the partaking of blood was against the Law. And as for eating someone’s flesh! The man must be mad. And John goes on to say that because of Jesus’ words here some of those who followed him followed him no longer.
It’s obvious that John, writing after the event, quite clearly expects those for whom he is writing to connect the words of Jesus with the eucharist. When we share bread and wine, Jesus becomes a part of us and we become a part of him. Jesus was sent by God: “I am the living bread come down from Heaven,” he says. Living bread, nourishment directly from God, so closely identified with God that to eat it is to share the life of God and – to live for ever.
The living bread, Jesus himself, is food enough for our eternal life. That’s our gospel message today.
At the Last Supper Jesus made his statements about himself into a living reality when he instituted the eucharist to become the foundation of his relationship with the people of God throughout the coming ages.
At the heart of our faith, at the heart of the Church, the eucharist – the Lord’s Supper – shows the presence of the Lord with his People. Here in our communion service is the bread of life come down from heaven so that we may feed on him. And as we feed on him in the broken bread and the wine outpoured of the eucharist Jesus fills us with his life, and strengthens us that we might go out and share his life with others.
Jesus said, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” and then he calls us to give of ourselves for the life of the world. At the Last Supper Jesus took bread and wine and said, “This is my body broken for you, this is my blood shed for you.” And a day later his body was broken for us, his blood was shed for us, on the cross.
And our response? As Oswald Chambers, the great early 20th century Scottish minister and writer has so aptly put it: God will make us broken bread and poured out wine to feed and nourish others.