Over the next few weeks, we will hear Jesus say “I am the bread of life” several times. It is enough to make someone following a low-carb diet despair! But all this repetition raises the question: why does Jesus keep saying this? What is imbedded in that curious message that it is necessary for it to be repeated so that we do not forget?
Well, let’s take a closer look at the idea of bread.
Bread is a basic food – it has been around in one form or another for almost 10,000 years. It spans cultures – there are breads in India (naan) and in Norway (lefse) and in Ethiopia (injera). It was talked about by poets in ancient Rome and Greece, and continues to be a topic of cookbooks – Amazon sells almost a thousand cookbooks on bread alone.
Why? It is a cheap, relatively easy food that provides sustenance. Even the poorest people have some access to the basic materials, and making it, once the grain is ground, can be as simple as mixing flour with water and yeast, either wild yeasts in the air or prepared yeast, allowing it to rise, and baking it.
The ancient Israelites knew about it – the story of the escape from Egypt, when the Israelites fled so quickly that there wasn’t time for the bread to rise, is a familiar one. So, too, when those same Israelites were wandering in the desert nearly starving to death, God responded to their hunger and complaints by raining down manna from heaven. When they were hungry, God didn’t send them pomegranates or garlic or Nile perch, he sent them bread. Bread from heaven, the bread of the angels, as the Psalmist says. When people are hungry, when they need to fill their bellies and feel satisfied, they want bread.
Now all of this sounds sort of academic and formal and, if you are a Bible reader, vaguely theological. But our experience of bread isn’t academic or formal or theological, it is visceral. When you smell a loaf of bread baking in the oven, you don’t think about Moses and manna, or the feeding of the 5000, you think, “I want some of that wonderful-smelling bread!”
Doug and I had that visceral experience when we were in Ireland. Each morning at about 7:45 there was a knock on the door. Owen or Moley or Van or Padraig would come in with a freshly baked loaf of Irish brown bread, or freshly baked croissants. The aroma was luscious. Put a little of the Kerrygold butter on it, a bit of strawberry preserves, and it is heaven on earth.
It didn’t take more than a day for us to become like Pavlov’s dogs, mouths watering at that knock on the door. Here came that beautiful loaf of bread, one for each cottage. Here’s the remarkable thing – there was just enough for each of the five of us, assuming we wouldn’t be greedy.
Pure gift, that bread. A gift of hospitality, like offering someone who is working in your yard a glass of cold water. Like sharing a birthday cake, or a box of chocolates, but extra special because bread fills our bellies in ways that other foods cannot.
We cherished the bread, and we loved the generosity of our hosts bringing it to our very kitchen table each morning. We didn’t have to do a thing. It just arrived. We didn’t have to earn it. It was given out of a hospitable love, and was gratefully received.
Now we understand the power of bread in the story of the Irish cottage and the warm bread each morning. But what does it mean when we think about bread in the context of today’s gospel? What does it mean when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life?”
Jesus was responding to the delighted joy of the people who had witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. They had eaten their fill, even though there had been only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. But they had come to him before that miracle hungry for something else, something that they did not find in their synagogues, something that they did not feel in their relationship with God. They needed sustenance that fed their souls.
Jesus, however, was the ultimate pragmatist. As he always did, he attended to their physical needs as well as their spiritual ones. There had been enough bread and fish to give everyone full bellies, with leftovers gathered afterwards. Yes, he taught them, but he also gave them the bread that would allow them to digest his message.
And then he walked away from them, knowing that they would seek him out, to ask for more.
And that is when he said he had more bread for them, but it was not the bread that had filled their bellies, that transitory bread, as evanescent as manna, as temporary as a snack. No, he explained. He was there among them not only to give them the bread that filled their stomachs, but to give them bread from the heavenly Father, bread that would fill their souls.
Predictably, they said, “Give us some of this marvelous bread.”
And he said, “I am the bread, the bread that gives you eternal life.”
Do you think they understood what he said? Did they think literally, guessing “is this some sort of weird cannibal thing?” Did they wonder if this was Jesus’ way of avoiding making more of that tasty magical bread they had eaten?
Or did they stop and realize the true nature of their hunger…a desire to be filled not just in their tummies but in their hearts and souls? Did they sense that the very reason that they had come to hear what Jesus had to say, all five thousand plus of them, was because there was a hole, a big empty hole, at the core of them that needed to be filled? Did they hope that this was the man who could fill that hole?
Yes, it was a miracle, this moment. They had been fed in a way that left them fully physically satisfied. No more growling bellies that day, this was certain. But they had also been fed a soul-food of the most satisfying kind. Unlike manna in the desert, this bread would not turn to dust at nightfall, needing to be replenished every morning. This would not be a slice of airy white Wonder bread with little in the way of lasting sustenance.
No, this was like that Irish brown bread, warm from the oven, fragrant with health and goodness. It was enough to feed everyone in the place, and then some. It would sustain them, and us, through the length of days. It would fill them and us with good things. And that deep and health-filled sustenance would last in a way that would keep us all from hunger forever.