8/9/15, Bread for the Life of the World

1 Kings 19:4-8, Eph 4:30-5:2, John 6:41-51

This week I shared a conversation with someone who finds herself strangely drawn to the way Catholicism retains the ancient practices of the Church. Knowing that I had not been born into the Catholic tradition, she posed this question to me:  “While encountering Catholic theology, was there a particular doctrine that struck you as most refreshing and joyful?”

For me, it was the mystery that unfolds in the Eucharistic ritual.  Eucharist is a sacrament: an outward sign of an inward grace.  When one participates in the Eucharistic feast, one receives the grace that is present in the Bread of Life.  Who knows what really happens in that ritual? It is a simple ritual: we share bread and wine for the journey in the company of other pilgrims traveling this path of following the Christ.  Yet, it is such a powerful experience!

There are contemporary stories about men and women who have received the bread and wine of Eucharist without knowing what they were doing or why.  Somehow, their lives were transformed through the experience.  One such story comes from a Sara Miles in her book   “Take This Bread.” Sara had been stumbling her way through life as a cook in restaurants and as an aspiring journalist.  Raised as an atheist, she had no idea why she walked into an Episcopal worship service one morning, listened with boredom to a homily and then absentmindedly joined others in a line to receive a tasteless wafer dipped into a glass of wine.  She shares that experience like this: “Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my experiences to a faith I’d scorned and work I never imagined.  The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food- indeed, the bread of life.  In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.”   And so she did.  Sara’s life unfolded into an amazing social justice ministry of providing food for the homeless in San Francisco.  Her book has inspired multiple such ministries in other communities, including here in McMinnville.  If you haven’t already read this book, I highly recommend it.

Two lines from the scriptures we heard today struck me with special impact.  The Old Testament reading tells the story of a discouraged prophet Elijah.  He falls asleep under a tree, ready to give up on life.  But an angel wakes him, offers him bread and says, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”

And the second line is from the Gospel, where amidst a defense of his identity to the Jewish synagogue leaders, Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life.  The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Today we are still offered the opportunity to receive Bread in the sacrament of the Eucharist.  We pause along the way of spiritual pilgrimage to be fed, because like Elijah we become tired and discouraged with the challenges of life. Sometimes we just want to quit.  The journey is too much for us. Receiving the Bread of Life revives our energy and determination to press on. 

In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus taps into the Jewish memory of their Hebrew ancestors wandering in the wilderness.  Reminding the people that in the midst of their hunger God provided manna as bread Jesus refers to himself and his ministry as the Divine provision of a living bread that will sustain life forever.  How do you suppose the people heard Jesus’ emphatic reference to himself as bread?

In first century culture, bread was recognized as a metaphor for an essential component of life.  Bread was the main course of every meal.  Today, bread is considered more of a side dish that can be accepted or refused. Another interesting detail is to note that while today we use forks and spoons to eat, Jesus and his contemporaries ate differently. Instead of utensils, a person ate with his or her hands. Bread was used to bring the food from the dish to the mouth. As Westerners, we may consider bread as an extra that we can take or leave, but Jesus was offering an image that was basic for the process of eating. Bread was essential for persons to access the food that was placed before them.

Jesus says that that the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. Catholic doctrine has interpreted this to mean that when we eat the consecrated bread at the table of Eucharist, we are eating a substance that still looks like bread but has been transformed into the actual flesh of Christ.  I invite you to consider a line of thinking today that may be a better fit into our 21st century understanding of who we are as the body and blood of Christ.  This is by no means Church doctrine so do not receive it as a statement of belief.   It is simply a reflection of what can happen when we take the time to “live the questions” that have been stirring inside us. 

 Jesus told the people that the he was the Bread of life.  These people used bread as the means for accessing the main meal, probably a stew made of meat or lentils. Might they have interpreted Jesus as saying he was the MEANS of accessing the truly transformative meal?  We know that when we take in food, it becomes our flesh, our body.  Is it possible that when we take in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist, we are transformed into the Body of Christ? We, the community who share this communion, become the fleshly form of the Christ that Jesus spoke of as being given for the life of the world.

 When we receive the Bread of Eucharist it is the means by which WE BECOME THE BODY OF CHRIST, blessed, broken and shared to meet the world’s hungers. This is what happened for Sara Miles.  This is what happens for us, if we choose to yield ourselves as nourishment upon which humankind can be renewed for its journey.

Many Christians struggle with literal articulations of ancient Scriptures.  Such interpretations have produced the sacrificial atonement theories that we find difficult to reconcile with our understanding of a loving Divine Being, the Source of all Life.  Perhaps there is another way to understand the Eucharistic mystery so that people of the 21st century continue to be drawn to the table of Eucharist, just as I was, just as Sara Miles was, as many others have been. 

This is a mindboggling way to look at the 6th chapter of John and the doctrine of the Eucharist.  But let us be reminded that scholars tell us the Gospel of John is meant to lead its readers beyond literal meaning. Seen metaphorically, this gospel calls us into a new and life-giving 21st century relationship with the Divine through the example and teaching of Jesus the Christ.  

Last week I left you with a question to ponder. Here’s one for this week.  When we take bread as part of our daily meals, in whatever form, could we reflect on it “eucharistically?”  Let’s give thanks as we eat that we are called to become the flesh of the Christ, giving ourselves for the life of the world.  

For such questions and the opportunity to ponder them, we say: Thanks be to God!

By Sandi DeMaster