Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Bread of Life - Sermon Preached on Pentecost 10

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-52
John 6:35, 41-51

Many of the stories in the Old Testament have an epic character to them, where the forces of good battle against forces of evil. This is no less of our story from 1 Kings. The hero of our epic story is the prophet Elijah – one of the last surviving prophets of God. He is a wanted man, for the wicked Queen Jezebel has been purging the nation of its prophets of Yahweh and replacing them with prophets of Baal. In our Old Testament reading (1 Kings 19:4-8), we see Elijah at a tragic, low point in the story… a low point in his life… ready to give up. At first reading, this seems strange, because he has just won a major battle against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). However, no sooner had Elijah defeated the forces of Baal than Queen Jezebel resumed her manhunt with renewed vigor, and Elijah is forced to flee into the barrenness of the desert. In the desert, under a solitary broom tree, Elijah falls into a deep depression and asks God to take his life. “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4). At this point, God sends an angel to minister to him. Upon waking him, the angel bids Elijah to get up and eat the baked bread lying near him on hot stones. He does this twice in fact. And through this bread, prepared by God’s angelic messenger, Elijah is given the strength, encouragement and endurance he needs for the forty day journey to the mountain of God – Mount Horeb.

Once again the connection between our Old Testament reading and the Gospel appointed for this Sunday (cf. John 6:35, 41-51) is the metaphor of Bread. Our gospel begins with the words of Jesus: “I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never be hungry. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Verse 35). Bread is an incredibly powerful metaphor, both in Scripture and in the historical narratives of virtually every culture. Bread is as old as culture itself. Anthropologists mark the beginning of civilization with the cultivation of grains – e.g., wheat, rye, barley, rice. Our earliest human ancestors may have had a diet richer in protein, gathering nuts and fruit and hunting game, but it was not until humankind mastered the tilling of the soil for grain crops that human populations could settle into communities and nations. Ancient Rome was just as dependent on the breadbasket of Egypt to advance its dominion as are Western nations today dependent on oil rich countries to fuel modern society and advance modern values and ideals.

You see, there is more to bread than meets the eye or nourishes the body. It is the root of human ingenuity and industry, the fundamental building block of culture. Bread is fundamentally a human “invention,” yet the ability to make bread depends entirely on God’s goodness in creation – i.e., in creating the seeds of the earth, sending the rains, and providing the nourishment to grow. In a very real sense, one could say that the making of bread defines what it means to be human. Yet if this is true, it is true in the sense that it defines what it means to be human in relation to each other and human in relation to our Creator. This is expressed well in the Offertory of the Roman Mass:

“Blessed are you, Lord, God of all Creation: Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life. Blessed be God for ever.”

It should not surprise us, then, that throughout the biblical narrative God meets his people in and through bread. The preparation, giving and eating of bread is no less than the juncture of divine and human fellowship – whether it is in the unleavened bread of the Passover meal, the Manna in the wilderness, the showbread in the Tabernacle which David and his men were permitted to eat to replenish their strength, or in the bread that Elijah ate to strengthen his body and replenish his soul. Throughout Scripture, God demonstrates his companionship towards humankind in bread. In fact the words “companion” and “companionship” come from the Latin words “com” meaning “with” and “panis” meaning “bread” – i.e., to partake of bread together.

For Jesus then to make the claim to be “the bread that came down from heaven” would have been astounding to his hearers. Remember these were people who were steeped in these stories from the Old Testament; good Jews who knew that Jesus’ statement amounted to a claim that he was in himself the mediator between God and humankind, that God meets us and communes with us in Jesus. Indeed, our Gospel tells us that it was this claim that caused the crowds to complain about him and disbelieve his message; this same prophet who only a day before had fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Is he not a mere man like the rest of us? No doubt they could have accepted Jesus as a good teacher, a rabbi, or perhaps a prophet; no doubt, had he given them the sign they demanded they would even have accepted him as a prophet on par with the great Moses! Even today there are people who can accept Christ as a good teacher or perhaps a prophet. But Jesus claims to be more than this, much more. At one and the same time, his claim is grounded both in the human and the divine. By saying that he is “bread” he is claiming to be fundamentally human (in fact the fundamental human – the founder of a “new humanity”). By claiming to be “from heaven” he claims a divine origination, like the Manna from heaven, and yet much more than Manna that merely feeds for a day. For the Bread that Jesus gives is his own flesh, and the life that he gives through his body is eternal. It is in Jesus, in partaking of him through his broken flesh, that we meet God, that we are strengthened, encouraged, and given eternal life. But more than this…it is in Jesus, in participating in our human condition, that God meets us and solidarity and companionship with God is established.

It is for these reasons that on his last night with his disciples, Jesus gave us the bread and wine of the Eucharist – the holy food and drink of eternal life. Through these actions at the altar, the Church’s primary act of worship together, that we meet the Christ who died for us, the Christ who is risen for us, and the Christ who will one day come again us. This is the Church’s hope and faith. This is our faith as the body of Christ.