Homily for Proper 14, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Jesus, the true bread that comes down from heaven: leaven us with your Holy Spirit, that the world may know the abundance of life in your new creation. Amen.
(from Enriching our Worship I)
Last week, Buck’s homily offered us an appetizer in this “season of bread” in which we find ourselves immersed in our lectionary readings. I have to admit, I wonder at times if those who compiled the Revised Common Lectionary were trying to finish up Ordinary Time in Year B right before lunch! All joking aside, I agree that there was great intention in Jesus’ choice of analogy in these texts. Our human minds can’t fully comprehend the fullness of humanity meeting the fullness of divinity. But we can understand the more observable mysteries of substance-changing-substance that we see playing out in our ordinary lives, including the food science that happens when we bake bread.
During our recent road trip to upstate New York, my daughter and I were talking about bread, which is one of the things we not only enjoy eating but also baking together. That conversation and some of her astute observations got me thinking more about Jesus’ repeating statement this week, “I am the Bread of Life” in the context of my own embrace of bread-making. This week, I hope to lead us on a culinary and theological foray embracing both the bread that feeds our bodies, and Jesus the Bread of Life who nourishes our souls.
Bread begins with a base of grain: maybe it’s wonder bread white flour, or whole grain wheat, or a less glutenous alternative like amaranth, millet or corn. Every bread, at its base, is made from grain that is sown and grown in the earth, harvested and then pulverized into a fine flour. Think about that: the very substance of bread is dependent on the abundance of the earth and the toil of human labor. The very substance of Jesus, the Bread of Life is divine creation made incarnate in human nature. Or, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “God is the ground and the substance, the very essence of nature; God is the true father and mother of natures. We are all bound to God by nature, and we are all bound to God by grace.”
What binds our bread? Very often, it is that other essential and life-sustaining natural substance: water. Water is the source of life, the fountain of salvation. We are baptized in the living waters of our faith, and sustained by our thirst and love for God. Jesus refers to himself as the living water in other Gospel passages, just as here he takes on the bread of life reference here. Water is essential, moving and swirling over the surfaces of the earth even in our stories of creation.
One of the things that I’ve been pondering is that bread also requires something sweet and something salty. In order for yeast to rise there needs to be a pinch of sugar, a bit of honey, or the sweetness contained within a particular grain or liquid added to the mixture which activates the leavening. Salt is the ingredient that regulates the intensity of the rise: slow and steady, or fast and bubbly. Saltiness and sweetness change the nature and character of the bread that results: we need some of both. There’s a place for the salty and the sweet in the realm of God. It reminds me of the exhortation in Ephesians, too, after reminding us to keep our propensity for human saltiness towards each other in check: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Finally, bread needs to have the agent that catalyzes the leavening process. Whether we use cultured yeast or a natural fermentation process like sourdough which draws the wild yeast from the air around us: we are building on the chemistry of substance and air, harnessing the ways in which microscopic bacteria work to create the delicious rise and crustiness that we have come to know and love in our bread. We add to that with the activity of kneading the dough to physically initiate the process of all those ingredients coming together. Yeast converts the sugars present in dough into carbon dioxide and the salt level regulates its activity. When we finally bake our bread dough, the yeast dies and the air pockets it leaves behind “set” into the bread giving the final product a soft and spongy texture created from…and yet distinctly different than…any of its original ingredients.
Even in our baking of bread there is evidence of creation and resurrection! It’s truly a fitting image for us, the Body of Christ, to inwardly digest.
John’s Gospel also gives us a glimpse into Jesus, the Bread of Life, speaking this metaphor to those in Jesus’ own cultural, Jewish context. Those who took his words literally were shocked and horrified; we’ll hear more about that group over the next two weeks. But today’s Gospel gives us insight and helps us understand their confusion as they attempted to process this image. Jesus had fed his followers on the mountain side in miraculous ways, and they were seeking to be filled again. They had just experienced the “bread of heaven” as miraculous loaves which had fed 5,000 hungry people from a young person’s lunch. Now, they wanted more.
Jesus moved that gathered crowd from meal to metaphor, describing himself as the bread of heaven, more life-giving than bread that fills our stomachs and, in fact, even more life giving than manna in the wilderness. To the ears of those devoted Jewish followers, manna was the bread that came down from heaven, one of the primary historic actions of a loving God toward beloved people to sustain them in the wilderness, recounted at every Sabbath observance along with the bread that is shared. Their listening ears heard, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” in a different way than our 21st Century Christian ears. Jesus wasn’t just pulling out a general image of daily life or waxing poetic. Jesus was using a metaphor specific to the people hearing him, situated in their shared cultural and religious context, in order to open their eyes and ears and hearts to a new understanding about God’s providence, and Jesus’ own divinity. This statement would have been jarring to their ears and their imaginations, opening up an entirely new understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry.
We all need these moments of being shaken from our expectations to open us to new possibilities, but we don’t always receive that new information well. Continuing the bread baking metaphor, I might even suggest that we get a little salty! So, no surprise that Jesus’ hearers do what we all do when we are overwhelmed by new and challenging information: we fall back to practicalities: wait, isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s son? How could he possibly be the bread that comes down from heaven?
When we read this lesson, though, we should never blame this group of people for doing exactly what we do all the time. All of us, even those who consider ourselves devoted followers of Jesus in this age and context, have a long history of dismissing that which is mystery in favor of something we can more easily wrap our heads around. But that fall-back position may keep us from being broken open to receive a new and vital message.
When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” he extends the metaphor across time and place, aligning not just with his own cultural context and surroundings but with all of us, broadly and uniquely: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.”
I’ve sometimes heard those words misused in an attempt to limit eternal life to particular groups with certain fixed beliefs. But Jesus isn’t limiting the extent of love and grace; Jesus is being expansive. Like the sweetness added to the yeast, these words activate the life-giving nature of Jesus’ message to expand beyond that fixed point of time and space, reaching out across time and context to nourish hearers in every age.
Time and again this week, I come back to the thought of how wonderful it is that bread looks and tastes differently from culture to culture and region to region. Someone hearing this lesson about the Bread of Life might imagine a San Francisco sourdough, or a dense eastern European pumpernickel, a crunchy French baguette, a spongy Ethiopian injara or a pillowy naan from India. Jesus is the Bread of Life whenever and wherever this Gospel is proclaimed. It is a profound reminder to us that the bread of life does not have to look and taste the same in order to nourish and sustain us. Jesus is the bread of life. The gifts of grace and salvation present in Jesus Christ extend to all.
Like those gathered around him, Jesus invites us to be fed with the Bread of Life so that we can celebrate the ways in which we become that which feeds the world. Our Epistle lesson reminds us we are called to become imitators of God. Paraphrasing St. Augustine, “Behold what you are; become what you receive” as is sometimes said as an invitation to communion during the Holy Eucharist. Every ingredient is essential; every person is a member of the Body of Christ.
Nourished by the Bread of Life, our Christ-filled-ness transforms us to break bread with the world. Christ becomes known in the bread we share with friends, and with strangers. Christ the Bread of Life becomes known when we feed those who hunger in body; when we extend the Good News of the Gospel as the spiritual food to those who yearn for love; when we allow ourselves to feed and be fed as one community, one body where differences are welcomed and celebrated. We are one bread, and one body in Christ who gives us life.