I don’t know how closely you’ve been paying attention to the lectionary lately, but there has been a lot of whining and a lot of bread. Two weeks ago, Jesus fed the 5000 with just a few loaves. Last week, the Israelites started whining about being hungry in the desert and were fed manna from heaven. This week we’ve got Elijah whining in the desert and Jesus describing himself as the Bread of Heaven.
Well, maybe Elijah is not whining, exactly. You see, Elijah has been locked in an epic battle with a powerful woman named Jezebel. Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab and had worked with her husband to encourage the worship of Baal among the Israelites. And frankly, that is about the nicest thing I can think of to say about Jezebel. She was not a kind person. Elijah was not afraid to confront her about her many failings as Queen of the Israelites, but Jezebel was not really open to criticism. Instead of listening to Elijah, she ordered his death. Elijah ran away, into the wilderness.
Elijah is exhausted from running. He has no future that he can imagine. There is a death sentence waiting for him if he returns home. In his exhaustion he asks God to kill him and then promptly falls into a deep sleep.
What happens next is one of the loveliest moments in all of Scripture. Instead of killing Elijah, or telling Elijah to pull himself up by the bootstraps, or berating Elijah for his lack of faith, God sends Elijah an angel. The angel gently wakes Elijah from his slumber and gives him hot bread to eat and cool water to drink. Before the angel leaves, he touches Elijah one more time, encourages him to eat and then disappears.
Elijah has spent a lot of his life defending God of Israel against other gods. Elijah has spent a lot of time helping people to see the power of God, the strength of God. But in this small moment, Elijah experiences the intimate God, the loving God. God gently encourages Elijah to press on and gives him the literal bread he needs to build up his strength for the journey.
For Elijah, his whining, or murmuring, or cry for help is met by God with nourishment, not rebuke.
Elijah’s need is met with love.
Most unpleasant behavior can be attributed to either hunger, fear, anger or loneliness. Elijah was certainly experiencing hunger and fear! When humans feel these unpleasant feelings and can’t quite sort out how to get our needs met, we lash out at whomever is around us.
I don’t know about you, but when I get cranky, nine times out of ten what I need is food. My husband knows this by now and when he hears a certain snappish tone in my voice he immediately looks around to figure out what he can feed me before my unpleasantness can fully reveal itself.
The natural response when someone is cranky or whiny or unpleasant is to steer clear of the offending party. But instead of moving away from us when we are at our worst, God moves toward us. God nourishes us.
And maybe the lectionary spends four weeks in August dwelling on how Jesus is the Bread of Life, because this concept is so counterintuitive. This concept is almost as hard to imagine as an angel waking you up and offering you a hot breakfast.
Jesus is easy to understand when he is standing on a mount or a fishing boat and telling us about God or how to live our lives. When Jesus is speaking to us, we understand that he is the teacher and we are his students. The relationship is safe, the boundaries are clear.
But when Jesus describes himself as Bread-as something we bite and chew, swallow and absorb, those boundaries blur.
Ronald Rollheiser, the Catholic theologian, makes the connection between Jesus being the Bread of Life and being present in the Eucharist. He writes:
For most of [Jesus’] ministry, he used words. Through words, he tried to bring us God’s consolation, challenge, and strength. His words, like all words, had a certain power. Indeed, his words stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions. But at a time, powerful though they were, they too became inadequate. Something more was needed. So on the night before his death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart.
Words are important. I believe in words. I have included many of them in this sermon. However, words alone cannot convey love.
I spent a lot of time this week watching the footage of the journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee reuniting with their families after being prisoners in North Korea. I’m sure they spoke words, too, and will continue to speak about their experiences to their loved ones, but their first reactions were to run toward their families and hug them as tightly as humanly possible.
Those hugs, their tears, her husband wrapping his arms around Euna as she clasped her daughter to her chest-those small acts conveyed more love than any speeches the women could have made to their families.
In the same way, Jesus was limited by words to express the fullness of love he felt toward humanity.
And so, Jesus becomes Bread. He becomes a kiss. He becomes our nourishment. He moves beyond words to commune with us in a way both spiritual and physical.
And like the angel gave Elijah bread to give him strength for the journey ahead, Jesus gives us himself for the very same purpose. Whether we are cheerful or cranky, strong or weak, ready or unprepared, Jesus moves toward us and embraces us.
Jesus is the Bread of life, given to us. And that is beyond words.