l three Synoptic Gospels – so, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – Jesus tells us that he is bread. We repeat his words, we pray them together, when we celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday morning. Jesus holds out the bread and he says to his friends:
Take, eat. This is my body.
Somehow – impossibly, amazingly – Jesus says, this is me.
It is only in the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, that Jesus adds modifiers when he speaks of bread and of himself and of how he is bread. In John he tells us that he is the bread that came down from heaven, that he is the bread of God, or maybe most famously – we’re going to sing the beloved hymn later on – that he is the bread of life.
At the risk of stating something linguistically obvious, the purpose of a modifier is to add or restrict the meaning of a noun. We don’t use modifiers if there is nothing to add, nothing to modify. If you went to a restaurant and the server brought you a glass of water, it would be very odd indeed if they placed the glass on the table and said:
This is the water of wetness.
As opposed to what?
What we may deduce from Jesus in the Gospel of John is that, by linguistic necessity, there is bread that does not come down from heaven, bread that is not of God, bread that is not of life. We may deduce that there is bread of death.
What might this bread of death be? Or to put that another way, what is the bread that isn’t Jesus? Now, maybe his question – bread of life versus bread of death – is a super mystical idea, wildly esoteric, more than we can possibly encounter or understand. Jesus as we find him in John is certainly capable of speaking in pretty seriously mystical language.
But maybe this is isn’t mystical at all.
Maybe this is as everyday as we can possibly get.
One of the rules about being human and being alive is that we must eat. Unlike other forms of life on this earth, we are not designed to function through water and photosynthesis, we cannot turn the rays of the sun directly into our food. And the example of Jesus is that eating is generally a good and joyful thing – to read the Bible is to encounter a Messiah who is constantly sharing meals with strangers and friends and who delights in doing so.
More broadly still than eating, one of the rules about being human and being alive is that we must consume. It is necessary for us to put on clothes in order to survive the elements and to meet social expectations, it is probably necessary for us to live indoors. And while we may debate their necessity, most of us like the convenience and comfort that comes from having access to a washer and a drier, to a car, to a stove, to a computer, the list goes on.
What if Jesus is telling us that there is a way of eating, of consuming, that is congruent with discipleship, that is Christ-like in nature, that follows the example of Jesus, that is of life. And by contrast, there is way of eating, of consuming, that is incongruent with discipleship, this is not Christ-like in nature, that is out of step with the example of Jesus, that is of death.
Maybe what Jesus is saying is that when you and I consume – and today we mostly do that by spending money as opposed to, say, harvesting a crop or slaughtering an animal that we have raised ourselves – we are by definition making a moral decision. How we choose to consume, in ways small and large, in ways bad and good, shapes reality; not just for ourselves, but for other people, and for creation.
You and I have a big disadvantage in this moral decision making versus Jesus and his friends. First, we have a disadvantage because, we live in a globalised context; when we buy a banana in Portland, we are shaping reality in Central America and the Caribbean; when we buy an iPhone, we are shaping reality in China; when we consume fossil fuels and petroleum products, we are shaping reality across the world. (I don’t know how many Facebook friends in how many different cities have posted over the last few days about stifling and often record-breaking heat in the places where they live.)
For most human beings across most of history, if they wondered about the working conditions under which, say, their horseshoes were made, they could go down to the blacksmith and see. That’s largely unavailable to us – the scale on which we operate is enormous. We just have to take other folks’ assurances that our consciences would feel okay if we visited the planation where our bananas grow.
Second, you and I are rich. Now, I appreciate that not all of us in this room feel rich. But by global standards, by historical standards, 90 or possibly 100 percent of us in this room are wealthy. If you are not wondering where your next meal is coming from, where you will sleep this night, if you can get health care when you need it, if potable water comes out of your tap, you are kind of rich. And the problem for us rich folks is that we have so many more opportunities to buy stuff than the poor and, therefore, we have so many more opportunities to buy the bread of death.
Jesus and his friends have all but nothing – remember when he sends out his disciples to proclaim the Gospel, he tells them to pack light. And packing light for these folks means, among other things, not to take two tunics. These are people, in other words, who, when they are living large, have one change of clothes. Who knows how many changes of clothes I have in my closet at home? Certainly more than two. And when I look at the labels sewn into the collar, labels that explain that my clothes are made in countries that I have never been to under working conditions that, maybe, I don’t want to think about, I wonder: Am I eating the bread of death?
There may be a good reason that Jesus, in one of his most arresting images, says that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to get into heaven.
Now, one of the few stories that appears in all four Gospels is the story that we call the Loaves and the Fishes – in a couple of the Gospel, it actually appears twice.
That tells us that it might be important for understanding who Jesus is, that it might be important for understanding what the bread of life is.
Most of you know the story. It goes something like this: Jesus and his friends are hanging out outside, and a big crowd has come to hear Jesus talk. Suppertime rolls around and folks start to get hungry, possibly even hangry. And the disciples come to Jesus and they say: Send the people away, tell them that they are on their own for dinner. We only have enough to feed ourselves, just a couple of fish and a few loaves.
But Jesus says: You feed them.
And so they do. And once everyone is full, there are leftovers.
There are no fewer than two miracles here. The obvious one, is that the food multiplies. The less obvious miracle, but the one that may be just as big, is that the disciples hearts are transformed. The disciples start the story in a place that you and I probably recognise, a place that consumerism really encourages to hang out in. This is the place of scarcity, of anxious selfishness, in which our dominant narrative says: There’s not enough. What if I run out?
By the end of the story, the disciples have been changed. They have been transformed by witnessing, by participating in, holy abundance. They have eaten the bread of life. And they have shared it with others.
Friends, there is bad news and there is good news.
The bad news is that choosing to eat the bread of life is a choice to change and to be changed. bread of life involves sacrifice.
I’ve heard folks argue that we can lick global warming, but that doing so is going to require most of the earth’s population to go vegan. I don’t know how much I like that idea; I don’t eat a tonne of meat, but I love a good hamburger every now and again, and the idea of a world without chees and cream kind of makes me sad. I’ve heard folks argue that there is no reason that any worker in our country should not be receiving a living wage, enough to live indoors and not worry about food and have access to health care and enjoy some recreation, but that economic justice might mean the stocks in my portfolio are not quite as valuable as they are now. I don’t know how much I like the idea of that bottom line going down. I’ve heard contemporary prophets tell us that there can and will be a place of dignity and equality for those who have historically lived the margins. And while I nod in agreement, I am ashamed to admit that part of me isn’t sure how much it likes that idea either: I have gotten used to the privilege that comes of being straight and male and cisgender and white.
These are not sacrifices that you or I can outsource to someone else. They are mine to make, yours to make.
The good news – well, it comes at the end of the story of the Feeding of the 5000.
How do you imagine that the disciples feel in this moment? Are they angry? Are they cursing Jesus? Do they yell at Jesus, saying: We said that there wasn’t enough and then you made enough and, Jesus, you made us look stupid?
They are joyous. They are amazed. They are set free. How good it must feel to put down the weight of the consumerist story that says that there isn’t enough, that I have to look out for myself, that this is a world of scarcity. How good it must feel to stand in community and, together, tell the story in which there is abundance, in which all of God’s children can thrive.
Jesus says: Take, eat. This is my body. Jesus says: I am the bread of life. Whoever eats will never be hungry. Whoever believes will never thirst.