You can always tell when you’re in a restaurant that is trying to be a better class of establishment. Perhaps a local pub for a Sunday roast with family, or an evening out with friends. Because on the menu it will say seasonal vegetables as though that’s something special. Not just any old vegetables that happen to be in the shops. Seasonable vegetables!
When I was a child seasonal fruit and vegetables were nothing special. They were always seasonal – there wasn’t anything else. 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. They could do that, because everything that was available fitted onto the shelves behind them.
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 you had to slice it yourself. I can still remember when he proudly announced that he would be adding Mother’s Pride sliced white to his range. My mother never bought it though – far too modern!
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.
I had a look at the Tesco website yesterday. Want a white loaf of bread? You’ve a choice of 41 different kinds. A brown loaf is easier – only 22 kinds to choose from. But on top of that you’ve got seeded bread, half and half, rye bread, soda bread, spelt bread.
Want some bread rolls? 38 different kinds of bread rolls, plus crumpets, waffles, muffins, bagels, croissants, pittas, naan, wraps, thins. What on earth are thins? Perhaps someone could enlighten me!
And perhaps – with bread, like every other kind of food – being available in such quantities and varieties – we have forgotten just how basic it is to our survival, and take it rather for granted. And so we don’t really understand the profound meaning of Jesus’ words about the bread of life. We don’t have the same kind of emotional reaction to those who heard Jesus say, “I am the bread of life.”
This is the fifth week in a row that the gospel reading has been taken from Saint John’s teaching on the bread of life in chapter six of his gospel – that’s how important this is! We had a week off last week because we kept the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but we are back to it this week. And today Jesus says: Whoever eats me will live because of me … This is the bread that came down from heaven … the one who eats this bread will live for ever.
For most of human history, and still in much of the developing world, bread is probably the most important foodstuff. For many people it’s rice that’s important – but in our culture historically it has been bread. And for many people more than any other staple, bread represents life. It’s known as “the staff of life” – a term coined by Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels. People have always needed it, still need it, to live. Bread, historically, has been more important to us than any other foodstuff.
We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God will give us each day our daily bread. We thank God for his provision for our daily needs – for the food we have, both the food we buy in the shops and the spiritual food we need to nourish us. The problem is we have a tendency today to take our food for granted – the supermarkets are full of food from all over the world. And the problem for many is not a lack of food, but the lack of money to buy it with.
And to really understand what Jesus is saying about being the bread of life we need to remember that the lives of many in our world depend – and have always depended – upon such a simple food as bread 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.
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 most of the known world in the time of Jesus ate bread in one form or another. They had to in order to live.
Jesus identified himself with the nourishing and life giving properties of bread. As one cannot live without food, one cannot live fully without the Son of God – this is his message. Because to be fully alive is to be living in an intimate relationship with God and without Jesus this relationship cannot be forged.
And as Jesus explains this in John’s Gospel his teaching takes an unexpected turn. And through these ‘bread of life’ readings from John’s Gospel, we see how what could have been a simple analogy becomes much more. Because it is not simply “Jesus is like bread, we cannot live without him”.
No – Jesus tells his disciples that they must “eat his flesh and drink his blood” in order to abide in him. This was quite shocking to the Jews for whom the partaking of blood was against the Law. He requires of his followers that they become so closely identified with him as to become a physical part of him, as he becomes part of each believer.
This bold assertion is quite breath-taking in its implications. When we take holy communion, Jesus becomes a part of us and we become a part of him. Jesus was sent by God and he refers to this directly when he said “This is the bread that came down from Heaven”. 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.
And in John’s Gospel Jesus makes this abundantly clear. The Living Bread, Jesus himself, is food enough for our eternal life. And the only food that will bring us eternal life. You’re not faced, like in a supermarket, with dozens of options to choose from – Jesus is the only option. Jesus is the only bread worth having.
At the Last Supper Jesus made his statements about himself into a living reality when he instituted the communion to become the foundation of his relationship with the People of God throughout the coming ages. Those who participate in the sharing of the consecrated bread and wine share in the life of Jesus and take a part in the coming of the Kingdom, preparing for eternal life, and strengthening us as we go out in Jesus’ name to share the good news that we have received.
For we are all called to proclaim Christ’s Kingdom by the healing, feeding, teaching, forgiving, liberating actions of justice by which our allegiance to Jesus should be recognised. Jesus makes himself one with us in holy communion, and we become fully one with him when he and his Spirit fill and direct all aspects of our lives – when our minds and hearts, thoughts and actions, fed by the bread of life, Jesus himself, bring us closer to the perfect example of earthly living set by Jesus and recalled every time we approach his table.
For Jesus broke bread and poured out wine at the Last Supper saying, “This is my body … this is my blood.”. And then his body was broken for us and his blood shed for us on the cross.
And we feed upon Jesus in the broken bread and the wine outpoured of the communion service. And in so doing, Jesus fills us with his life, and strengthens us that we might go out and share his life with others.
And now he calls us to follow him in the way of the cross. Like him to become broken bread and wine outpoured as we serve others in his name. And that’s a tough call.
I’m going to finish today with the words of Oswald Chambers who puts this so much better than I can. Oswald Chambers was a great Scottish evangelist who lived over a century ago, and his wife recorded extracts from many of his talks in the classic book My Utmost for His Highest. I read him in my early years as a Christian.
He said this:
Are you willing to be broken bread and poured out wine for the benefit of the kingdom? I don’t know what you’re going through, but God does. My prayer is that you would trust our Father in how He is preparing you for kingdom work.
We are here to submit to His will so that He may work through us what He wants. Once we realize this, He will make us broken bread and poured-out wine with which to feed and nourish others.
May we all feed on the bread of heaven, and then go out and feed others in his name.