Someone in your home is baking a loaf of bread. For an hour now the warm fragrance has drifted around corners and under door frames and over tables to tease you with its inviting scent. Despite Dr. Perricone’s warnings about the dangers of simple carbohydrates, you know that when the loaf of warm bread is ready to be sliced, you will be first in line to cut off a large piece, slather it in butter, and slowly savor the way it melts in your mouth.
As you put the bread in your mouth, digestive enzymes begin working, breaking the bread down into smaller, more manageable pieces. As the bread travels through the stomach and intestines, it is further broken down and becomes fuel and nutrients. Much of the bread literally becomes part of you, providing the energy for your day and some nutrients to help your body function. Once the bread passes through your mouth into your stomach, eating the bread shifts from a sensory experience to a primal, biological one.
We are disconnected from the nutritional importance of bread, but for many around the world, that piece of bread would literally give them life. That piece of bread, with all of its nutrients and carbohydrates would fill their bodies with energy, boost their immune systems, and give them hope.
Thousands of years ago, wandering in the desert, God’s chosen people also needed bread. They had been walking for years, without regular food and drink, and were exhausted. To make sure they relied completely on him, the only food they received was directly from God. When God did choose to provide food for the wandering Israelites, he first chose to shower them with manna, a mysterious, heavenly food that resembled, of course, bread.
This manna fed the wanderers, but did not ultimately satisfy them. After a few hours of eating manna, they were starving again. And when they became hungry again, God’s generosity completely slipped their mind and they began complaining almost instantly. But still, the manna sustained them for many years.
Finally, after 40 years of wandering and complaining, the Israelites entered the promised land. The land was rich with food-fruit, vegetables, meat, and ingredients for all the bread they could bake. The Israelites needed the manna no longer.
Fifteen hundred years passed, and even though the Israelites complained about the manna while they were in the desert, as a people they never forgot about it. Manna became a symbol of God’s faithfulness, and the importance of relying on God, rather than your own resources.
Do you remember two weeks ago, when the gospel reading was about the feeding of the 5000? (Yes, yes you do.) This is the passage in which Jesus miraculously turns a few fish and a loaf of bread into an abundant feast. The people who experienced it were amazed, and told all their friends.
Once Jesus gets off the mountain, people start following him, hoping for a repeat performance. Maybe they are curious, maybe they are hungry, but they want to see the magic man make some bread!
Immediately before our passage today, Jesus makes a speech to them, explaining that they are looking for the wrong thing.
Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.
They go on to ask for a sign, for Jesus to prove that he is special.
So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you. What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.
Jesus is redirecting their curiosity and question. He is saying to them-if you focus on the bread, you’re missing the whole point! Neither the manna, nor the feeding of the 5000 are about bread, they are about God-about God’s abundance and faithfulness. These miracles are about God’s love for his people and the way God looks after us and provides for us.
Jesus is the height of this provision and love. Jesus is explaining that he has been sent as a new kind of bread-a bread that never runs out, that never will leave us, and that gives us not only life-but life eternal.
Manna and other kinds of physical bread, no matter how miraculous-or delicious–will never satisfy us, never fill up all the places in us that are broken, lonely or grieving.
Physical bread cannot give our lives meaning, show us avenues of hope, or help keep us off our high horses.
God sends Jesus to feed us, to be our fuel, to give us the nourishment we need to live lives that are pleasing to God.
At the Eucharist, we consume the body and blood of Jesus. Early Christians were accused of being cannibals because of this. As Episcopalians, we believe that the bread and wine we eat and drink, doesn’t actually turn into flesh, but does contain the full presence of Christ. When we consume them, we consume Christ. Just as a warm slice of bread breaks down and becomes part of us, somehow at the Eucharist we consume Jesus, Jesus becomes part of us, becomes incorporated into our mind, and heart, and hands. As he becomes part of us, we become part of him.
The Eucharist is more than ritual and tradition. The Eucharist is more than remembering. During the Eucharist, we take Christ in to our very being, not only our spirit, but into our flesh. And so the Bread of Life lives on in us, and we in him.