Bread of Life
Proper 14, Year B (August 8, 2021)
Principle Lesson: John 6:35, 41-51
What Is Your Bread?
According to Brittanica.com, bread is a baked food product made of flour or meal that is moistened, kneaded, and sometimes fermented. A major food since prehistoric times, it has been made in various forms using a variety of ingredients and methods throughout the world. The first bread was made in Neolithic times, nearly 12,000 years ago, probably of coarsely crushed grain mixed with water, with the resulting dough probably laid on heated stones and baked by covering with hot ashes. The Egyptians discovered that allowing wheat doughs to ferment, thus forming gases, produced a light, expanded loaf. They also developed baking ovens. (https://www.britannica.com/topic/bread)
Have you ever had a truly hearty loaf of bread? The region in Italy where my grandfather is from, called Abruzzo, has several traditional breads (as most places do). There’s the fiadone – a traditional hard dough mixed together with sweet ricotta, lemon, and sugar. There’s scrippelle – a rustic pancake-like bread often served with meatballs. There’s the pane de mais – a sweet cornbread baked into a loaf rather than the crumbly southern cornbread we might be familiar with. One of my favorites, which I had for the first time upon visiting the region, is pizza de Pasqua – in which the whole pizza (sauce, cheese, and salume) is mixed in with the dough and slowly baked until the ingredients all become one loaf.
This is the sort of bread that I think of when Jesus proclaims, “I am the bread of life.” And certainly with the follow-on claim: “Those who come to me shall not hunger…” it’s a rich, substantial loaf that fills the stomach, warms the soul, and gives life especially when eaten in community. What kind of bread comes to mind when we hear, “I am the bread of life”? Maybe you think of a tangy sourdough with its fermented starter or a dense rye with whole grain and deep, abiding nutty profile. Or perhaps you think of the Irish Soda Bread, the baking soda and buttermilk creating an incredible combination of crusty exterior and dense, soft interior. Maybe you think of Pita, Naan, Tortillas, or any number of flatbreads with their light and grainy texture. I’m also partial to the Pani Duru, a Sicilian favorite that some might call stale but when its toasted the aroma of the yeast-y bread fills the kitchen and awakens the house. Or you might just prefer the good, old American classic: pre-sliced white bread with an airy, consistent texture, predictable color, and banal flavor that is oddly comforting. It’s the perfect platform for peanut butter and jelly, and toasted, makes a good bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.
Bread for Life and Living
Today’s lesson from the fourth gospel begins with Jesus’ proclamation: “I am the bread of life.” Two weeks ago and earlier in the narrative, we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand, wherein many hungry people are fed on very little bread. This week, our attention is drawn to Jesus as the “bread of life!” Normally (perhaps, rightly so) our focus is on Jesus, the tenor or subject of the metaphor. We have a tendency to gloss over the vehicle of comparison, i.e. the bread). But, I think that it could prove valuable to think more substantially about the bread in order to understand what Jesus was saying about himself.
First of all, then, we must understand the importance of cereal grains and bread in the ancient world. At the time of Jesus (actually, since the Bronze Age and until at least the European Renaissance) an individual would consume fifty to seventy percent of their calories from cereal grains, mostly in the form of bread. Bread, quite literally, was the food that life depended on! And the Roman Empire knew the importance of bread so they controlled it’s distribution in order to control the population. So, when Jesus uses the language of “bread of life,” it is a concept and connection familiar to his audience.
Moreover, Jesus would have been familiar with the rich foundation of stories of feeding and being fed in the Hebrew narrative. Particularly, Jesus was well-acquainted with the Exodus story, and would have known the tradition that the Lord God sustained the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years with manna from heaven. In the wilderness of the desert, the Israelites hungered and were fed. The people are again hungry and Jesus is now prepared to offer them the bread of life that will forever satisfy. Indeed, the Exodus theme permeates John’s Gospel, and it sets up a tension between the manna given from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread that feeds the people in the new wilderness.
Jesus, the Bread of Life
Finally, when Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of life, his audience would have had a certain idea of bread: uggah or kikkar (an unleavened flat bread made in a clay oven, the antecedent of the Exodus manna) or hallah (a richer risen loaf, often used in ritual or offering). In any event, the image of bread would have been an image of grace – as gift in the wilderness, of abundance – enough for everyone, of life – as remembrance of deliverance and redemption. So, what bread comes to mind when you consider grace, abundance, and life: unleavened flat bread, whole grain bread, rye with caraway, blue corn tortillas, a French baguette, sourdough?
When Jesus spoke of himself as the bread of life is it possible that he was speaking of abundance and life, of richness, texture, and boldness? When Jesus offers himself to us as the bread of life could he be inviting us a great feast in our life of faith? I think that if this vision of bread in the fourth gospel teaches us something about Jesus, the first lesson to keep in mind is that Jesus, the bread of life, is many-textured, multifaceted, and complex in flavor! Jesus was teacher, healer, exorcist, and miracle-worker. He loved those forgotten, forgave those expelled, and corralled the lost. He challenged Empire, persisted in justice, and rebuked the careless. He was tender, enjoyed meals with strangers and disciples, taught in the temple, and raised the dead to life. He drank wine at a wedding, washed filthy feet, and wept over the death of a friend. So, when we hear Jesus proclaim, “I am the Bread of Life,” let us hear all of these things and many more. Then, as we live our lives and live our faith, as we eat the bread of life, may we ourselves be rich in texture, of bold flavor, and nourishing to the world.
While searching for bread this week on the internet, I came across a blog entry about an Austrian bread called Sonnenblumenbrot – Sunflower Seed Bread.
“I’m partial to the sonnenblumenbrot, the sunflower seed bread, a dense whole-wheat loaf with a variety of whole grains mixed in. When you eat bread here in Austria, you understand why it’s so hard to find something that even comes close to good enough. Bread in Austria is Food, with a capital F. It’s not some spongy filler or a vehicle for a spread; it’s a Food with its own merits. The other day we were at the Merkur, a new chain supermarket that recently opened in Liezen. They have a bakery and they had just packed up a fresh batch of sonnenblumenbrot. When I picked it up, it was still warm. It held the warmth until we got it home and when I sliced the end off, sunflower seeds scattered across the bread board. I ate my fresh slice with a slab of butter. It was delicious and satisfying.”
So it is with our Lord, the Bread of Life! So should it be with our life of faith in the world: delicious, satisfying.