1 Kings 19:4-8 | Ps 34:1-8 | Eph 4:17-5:2 | John 6:35, 41-51
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘bread’? A crunchy, crusty loaf fresh from the early morning trip to the bakery? That piece of toast you always enjoy under your lashings of butter and honey? The mouth-watering smell of home-cooking sourdough that you learnt to make during lockdown? Or maybe now you’re fondly remembering Aunty Gwen’s egg and lettuce sandwiches from family picnics, or dreaming of tonight’s heart-warming serving of hot bread-and-butter-pudding for dessert, fresh from the oven… For many of us, we take for granted this most basic sustenance that we simply pick up from the shop, but the bakers among us have much to teach us.
In our western culture when we hear the word ‘bread’ we generally think of traditional wheat-based products, although other primary ingredients are gaining popularity. Biblical historian Robert H. Stein tells us that ancient Israeli bread, most often made from wheat – or barley by the poor – could also be made from any mixture of grains such as beans, lentils, millet etc. This would be ground coarsely, then mixed with water, salt, and surprisingly – old dough! After kneading and being left to rise, this dough would be baked either on hot stones and covered with hot ash; cooked on an iron griddle; or placed in an oven heated by stubble, grass or twigs.
In our readings today we hear Jesus refer to himself as the Bread of Life, encouraging his listeners to come, take of him and be forever sustained. We may have some form of spiritual understanding of what this means, but if we look at Jesus’ life there are similar ingredients here to the construction of a healthy, satisfying loaf of bread. Jesus was born as a baby human, as a seed or grain is nurtured from a parent plant. Over time, the raw kernel of the perfect holy child Jesus was ground open into many finer particles of things like scripture quotes and other temple teachings, current society and culture, and family influences. Add to this grain the old dough of his Jewish ancestry, the waters of Baptism by John, and the salt of his disciples and followers, and Jesus rose for three years before dying in the heat of political struggle that saw the various ingredients of his whole life come together in death, to become complete life-giving bread for us.
We are also each a loaf of bread, offering our experience of the Holy Bread of Life to others as we live out our daily lives in communion with the world. As we develop in our faith, our relationship with God, our study of Scripture, our understanding of ourselves and each other, some of the ingredients that have made each of us a loaf might no longer be good for us OR those we share ourselves with. The theologies of our childhood and young adulthood – the type of grains, the amount and quality of the old dough, the measures of water and salt we needed, and our rising times, may no longer combine to offer us as healthy bread to ourselves or those around us. – Our recipe may need to change…
So let’s talk about Vegemite for a moment. As many of you would know, I am gluten and dairy free, and the consequences of these serious allergies have only been recognized by me, and also society, in the past 40 years. My favourite childhood lunch at school was Vegemite and creamed honey sandwiches… Now – in our fridge and pantry, there are two versions of almost everything. For years I didn’t have Vegemite in my home because I knew it had gluten in it. But then David came along and he LOVES Vegemite, so suddenly the temptation for me to go back to consuming something that was extremely harmful to my health was ever-present. However, in the past few years a wonderful Brisbane lady has developed a Vegemite substitute which, while not tasting exactly like Vegemite, my palate has learnt to enjoy because I have accepted that it’s holistically healthier for me, and therefore better for those around me who might otherwise suffer from my sickness brought on by MY choices. My ‘recipe’ had to change – something I had enjoyed the flavour of was no longer good for me, and therefore no longer good for others around me.
How does this understanding of Jesus – the Bread of life as our most foundational sustenance, influence our faith, our beliefs, our ideas about the mission of the church, and how we interact with the world we live in? What we personally perceive for ourselves as life-giving beliefs, understanding of Scriptures, and how we apply our attitudes and behaviours towards people may have catastrophic consequences for others… This idea covers many aspects of our faith and life together as an individual parish, the wider church and the world we live in. Some of the social and relational areas in which we can be holding stale beliefs and emotions include racism; immigration; criminals – including those who have perpetrated sexual violence; the LGBTQIA+ community; politicians; and those who suffer from mental health issues and other illnesses, just to name a few. Our unhealthy attitudes can even be as subtle as how we feel and think towards the neighbour who continually puts their dog poo bags in your wheelie bin, or the barista who burnt your morning coffee… There are, of course, moments and events where it is only right to respond with righteous anger to injustices. But we are still called to only judge the actions of others and not discriminate against them as fellow humans – they too, are beloved children of God.
Throughout all of our Scriptures bread has been the basic sustenance of human life – when Elijah lay down to die under the broom tree, an angel woke him to eat bread, to strengthen him for the journey God had called him on. In our relationships with ourselves and God, are we recognizable examples of Jesus, the Bread from heaven? Is the mix of ingredients that each of us is, still healthy Bread of Life to others around us? Or are there some old substances – like prejudices and judgements – that we like to keep mixing in, even though they may no longer be life-giving for those around us who taste Jesus from our offering? In this difficult time of pandemic and lockdowns, are we able to offer the divine recipe of love, grace, forgiveness and inclusiveness towards those loaves in our lives that we may find confronting or offensive?
As pastoral theologian John McKinnon states about our gospel today – “The offer of Jesus [to the crowd, to come to him] was not confined: whoever comes… whoever believes… Its outreach was inclusive, and expressed the universal, unconditioned love of the God” from whom Jesus himself came. McKinnon concludes – “Jesus was the fulfilment of the Scriptures, the bearer of the ultimate liberation begun with the first Passover. The original manna [in the wilderness] had been but a shadow of the transformatively personal sustenance that God now offered the people in Jesus.” May we, in the week to come, examine our own recipe of who we are and what we believe, and look with open hearts to see if our ingredients align with the life-giving Bread of perfect love. Amen.