Proper 13 (18) | John 6:24-35
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
Bread is evil, or so the internet tells us. Never mind that we humans have looked upon bread as our most basic foodstuff for millennia — now we hear that eating bread makes us fat, inclines us to diabetes, and perhaps even to worse things than that.
I do not intend to give it up. I like bread. Any food so central to the human experience as to become a symbol of life itself is worth keeping.
Bread is the metaphor that Jesus repeatedly uses for himself and for God’s relationship to humanity. “I am the bread of life,” he says in the Gospel of John. Later in the same Gospel, Jesus uses even more vivid language, declaring that his followers must take and consume his broken body. Some Romans — not surprisingly — wondered whether early Christians were cannibals. These words of Jesus, combined with descriptions of the ritual of communion, raised doubts.
None of it was meant literally, of course. Jesus was not urging people to take a bite out of him. He may not even have meant to limit the metaphor to himself. So much attention goes to his claim of being the bread of life that we gloss over the preceding statement: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
That which comes and gives life — that is a much broader statement. It is no longer just bread, no longer just Jesus. How about light and warmth? How about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the trillions of atoms, molecules, interactions, and energy sustaining us?
What about the touch of a loved one, the smile of a child, the kindness of a stranger? What are they but a trail of breadcrumbs leading to God?
They sustain us as surely as our daily bread.
Daily bread — it is a phrase we have from the prayer Jesus taught his followers. The Greek word is επιούσιος, epiousios, and it is a peculiar one. It is a hapax legomenon, a word or saying found only in one context, in this case the Lord’s prayer. Matthew and Luke each contain versions of the prayer, drawing on the same source and preserving this odd term.
επιούσιος might mean daily, or needed, or necessary. It might mean something else altogether. We have nothing for comparison, no other use of the term.
Perhaps it means “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”— that kind of bread.
For people of faith, everything that sustains us is the gift of God. Such faith-speak puts off those who are wary of the not-yet-known, and anything dressed in God-language is rejected by the devoutly non-religious. Nevertheless, what we couch in the language of faith does not loose its reality or power.
Knowing that the effusive light bathing our world is flung to us in particles and waves from the star at the center of our planet’s orbit does not harm my faith. Light, energy emitted by the sun, is natural. As the warmth on my child’s face, it is miraculous. The one thing does nothing to lessen the other.
On a hot August day, understanding how ice cream is made does nothing to lessen the wonder of it. Knowing the science of baking bread does not diminish the taste of it.
The ritual of communion has been explained by theologians so many ways. For some, the bread is miraculously, if metaphysically, the actual body of Christ. For others, God is present in some way that is just beyond expression or comprehension, somehow behind or with the bread. For still others, the bread is merely a symbol, a way of imagining the simple and sustaining gift of God’s presence.
No matter how we explain a symbol, the reality behind it remains. No matter how long the trail of crumbs that lead back to the origin of life on this planet, all that sustains us is of God. Explanations of love need not stand in the way of experiencing it.