Bread gets a bad rap. It’s the carbohydrate’s fault. Our daily bread sustained humanity for centuries, but now, sadly, it has too many “carbs” for our more sedentary ways. Please, dear God, do not give me my daily bread or I shall roll quickly to the Valley of the Shadow of Death. My old breakfast with an “everything” bagel and cream cheese has given was to yogurt and fruit. I order the wrap instead of the bun. I fit my peanut butter on a Triskett. Todd no longer lives by bread alone, but by every other healthy thing that proceeds from the hand of God.
And then I moved to Northampton and discovered “The Hungry Ghost” bakery. The French Batard will be on the table for my first breakfast with Jesus in Paradise. I hope to be worthy of all eight grains of the multigrain when I meet my Maker. I love to watch them engaged in the holy arts of making bread. Last week I watched two people knead dough, rolling out enough to cover the whole top of a 3’ x 5’ table. Together they lift one end and fold over a thick liquidy blanket. It is folded until the appointed time. And when it is finished it is laid low in a storage bin, where it will rise again. When I come in to the bakery the next morning, I smell the spices used to anoint it, and I see that the oven is empty. As I turn to the shelves, daring to hope, and suddenly I see it, the bread of life! And then I know why Jesus said, “Whenever you eat this bread, do this in remembrance of me.” I pray that I could approach the communion table with the same enthusiasm and sense of satisfaction.
Jesus proclaims “I am the bread of life,” in John’s Gospel after the feeding of the 5000. Where we left off last week, the crowd who learned to share in community from a small boy with his 5 loaves and two fish, wanted to make Jesus King. This would have got him executed much sooner in our story. Besides Jesus had other plans. This discourse after the feeding of the 5000 shows the broad sweep of Jesus’ ministry. On the one hand, he is like the Old Testament prophets, frequently quoting from Isaiah and announcing that God desires justice for the poor and hungry. Jesus talks much more about justice on earth than on how to get to heaven. But Jesus does not confine himself to political and economic matters. His ultimate concern is that we come into a new relationship with God. Justice is a practice that people who walk with God do.
On the first Sunday of Lent the Gospel lesson is often the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted to turn stone into bread when he is hungry. This is often interpreted to mean that Jesus was tempted to be a messiah who focused on revolution for the poor so they would have bread. The feeding of the 5000 reveals that many people want that from a messiah. Jesus counters the temptation saying, “We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus follows the same thinking here in John’s Gospel, telling his followers, “ [You] are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life….” (John 6:26-27)
Some may interperate these passages to mean that the church should confine our work to saving souls and getting people to believe in Jesus so they can go to heaven. But that is taking one passage in isolation from the whole message of Jesus. The twofold nature of Christ’s mission is expressed in the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, soul and mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. For those of us in a progressive congregation like First Churches, where every justice group under the sun comes through our doors, Jesus’ bread of life discourse is a reminder that we are also called to be in a deeper spiritual relationship with God. If we were to achieve every goal we ever had for political and economic justice, we still would not have brought the reign of God on earth. There would still be a God-shaped void within, and as Augustine prayed, “Our souls our restless until they rest in Thee.”
Let me give some practical reasons why this balance is important. For eight years, I managed a homeless shelter and transitional housing program. We constantly evaluated our effectiveness at moving people from being homeless into permanent housing or treatment programs. No matter how hard we tried, we could not get our success rate above 70 percent. As I wrestled with ways to improve, I came to this conclusion. You can give people a room to live in, provide three meals day, offer job training and education, have supportive social workers and therapeutic programs, but you cannot give people meaning, or purpose or hope. These things come from the realm of the spirit. People who were successful in our programs found a purpose to live. A man just getting out of prison wanted to be a better husband and find a job to support his family. A woman out of rehab wanted to be a better mother. An alcoholic found her “higher power” in a 12 Step group, and the love of God healed her empty heart so she could love again. Certainly basics needs for food and shelter are essential. It is challenging to find meaning and purpose when life is in chaos or and basic needs are unmet. We need a social safety net. But life is not meaningful just because our first level of need in Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human need is met. We need community, love, hope and purpose to truly be fulfilled in life. Once the stomach is full, we hunger for love and connection. We hunger for the bread of life.
It is vital in the life of the church that we place primary importance on our spiritual growth, not just on our service to others. This may sound obvious, but the reality is we can come to church every Sunday and not experience a growing love of God in our souls. It is far easier to focus on enjoyable music, pot lucks, programs for social change or figuring out the budget. We like to do what is tangible, and all these tangible things are important. But often keeping all these things running is a distraction from our true purpose. We are here to walk with God, to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. This requires a challenging spiritual journey where we must face ourselves and come to terms with who we really are.
In our reading from John’s Gospel this morning, Jesus’ followers ask:
“What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.” (Jn 6:28-29)
Let’s talk about that word “believe” for a moment. In English, this a word about our thinking, and our opinions. I can believe in gun control, the necessity of human rights and the Boston Celtics winning another championship. Those are my opinions and others may agree or disagree. Our faith is often turned into a matter of our beliefs and opinions. We can hold opinions on whether God exists or not. We may believe Jesus is the second person of the Trinity or we may believe that Jesus was a wise teacher giving us the foundation for moral principles. The church is much divided by opinions about gay marriage and abortion, and these things become litmus tests for what it means to be Christian. These are important issues to wrestle with, but when Jesus told his followers to believe, that has to mean more than we just hold the right opinions about God, the Bible and religion.
Faith is more than what we have in our heads. Believe is an unfortunate translation of the Greek word “pistis,” which meant to act in trust, loyalty or commitment. Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible gets closer with the word “belieben” which means to prize, treasure or hold dear. The German root “liebe” means “to love.” So when I see the word “believe” in the Bible, I try to hear the word “belove,” (as in “Dearly Beloved”) which I think is closer to what Jesus meant. To say that we believe in God should be more like saying “I do.” I pledge myself, my heart, soul and mind, to the way of Jesus. Why? Because I sense a “Thou” on the other side of my trust. I believe, I belove, as an act of gratitude towards the divine source, who first loved me.
John’s Gospel takes us out of our thoughts and into our senses. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” His path fills the deepest hungers in our soul. As we prepare to share together at the communion table, don’t let the familiarity and formalism of the ritual get in the way of the bread of life. I think some day I would like the Hungry Ghost to deliver a dozen hot loaves from the oven right at communion so we could smell and taste amazing bread while we pledge ourselves to live in the way of Christ. Then we could feel, taste and smell that the love of God is as wholesome as any multi-grain, as satisfying as the crunch of the buttery crust of a French Batard, as filled with the surprising joy of finding a whole clove of garlic buried in the dough. When we eat the bread of life, we know we are beloved and God says to us “I do.”