This was a common practice for Jesus, to take familiar, everyday items or practices and use them as metaphors and parables when teaching. It was an incredibly effective tool in getting his message across. There are some references that were familiar to his original audience that are no longer familiar, and this can leave modern day readers turning to a bit of commentary to better understand his point. Yet most of his metaphors and parables remain pertinent. None more so than bread.
Bread has been a part of the human experience for over 14,400 years, at least 4,000 years before Neolithic agriculture.* During the life of Jesus, bread was a core staple on every table within the Roman Empire.** Bread has remained such an essential part of life, that some form of bread is in nearly every culture, if not all. We know firsthand how breaking bread together can connect us to one another and the divine. What are your earliest memories of bread?
I remember as a very young child my mother would come home from a long and intense shift as a naval air traffic controller, where she and her colleagues would spend their days directing fighter and attack aircraft to carriers along the East coast. She would be, understandably, exhausted. And since my father was deployed in the Mediterranean she was also solo parenting. Yet even in her exhaustion, she would come home and take two slices of bread, and her tired hands would lovingly spread peanut butter and jelly on each slice. These peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were never just my lunch, it was her time, her love and care. And on some days we would take the stale bread that was no longer fit for sandwiches, and we would tear it up and walk beyond our culdesac to a creek where ducks and seagulls regularly spent their time. When I recall those moments, I can still feel in my body the joy of tossing breadcrumbs together.
I imagine we have all experienced a similar joy when we are gathered at a table with those we love, and a warm, fragrant loaf of bread is shared. And thanks to science, now there are even gluten free and low carb breads so all can truly feel welcome and included in the shared meal. As followers of the Way of Love, we share this communal experience in weekly worship.
As a teenager I was reintroduced to the eucharist, and I watched as the priest lifted up the small, near see through wafer and proclaimed that this bread was the living presence of God. While I thought calling the wafer ‘bread’ was a real stretch of the imagination, I followed everyone else as they stretched out their hands to receive the bread. And as John Wesley once wrote in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”***
From that moment on, receiving bread in communal worship has always been an experience of grace, peace, and a sense of connection with God, creation, and neighbor. That experience only grew deeper roots when one time at a retreat the priest lifted up pita bread and at communion we experienced an actual aroma and texture of bread. And those roots stretched out even further the first time I was given a small piece of communion bread that was lovingly made by the brothers at St. John’s the Evangelist in Cambridge, where they use whole wheat flour, baking powder, salt, milk, oil, water, and honey to create their communion bread.**** The more the substance given to me resembled bread in it’s most beautiful, aromatic, and fulfilling form, the more depth it would bring to my experience of being nurtured, loved and cared for by the living presence of God.
Receiving the bread is a tangible moment of being overwhelmed by grace, and a point of connection, for but a moment, to God’s overwhelming love for all of humanity and creation.
Can you recall your first experiences of the eucharist?
What struck you? What nurtured you?
What has the experience come to mean to you today?
For that matter, what did you learn about yourself during the pandemic, when we were suddenly forced to fast from both the bread and community? My sense is folks felt a whole variety of emotions in their absence.
Some expressed a season of grief and mourning. They longed for community and the bread and wine like they longed for a loved one who was taken suddenly.
Some were afraid. The weekly ritual of church and eucharist was their primary sense of connection with God, and they felt unsure how to move forward.
Some were angry. Frustrated that a pandemic or priests and a bishop would prevent in-person worship and eucharist.
Others saw this as a season to explore the depths of their faith. They got curious about how else they might tap into the sense of connection and nurture they once received in weekly worship. Some found nourishment and connection in the outdoors, in singing hymns, in sleeping in and enjoying time with their loved ones, in feeding hungry people at Sunday Sandwiches. Some found they could still experience connection and nurture at virtual worship.
There are no wrong answers. Whatever you found yourself feeling or learning, God was with you in that moment, and still is today.
Because as Jesus reminds us in today’s lesson:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The living presence of God is in the bread we are so accustomed to receiving. Yet the living presence of God cannot be limited to only bread. God’s presence is in this space connecting us to one another and to those watching from home. God’s spirit is in the wilderness, in the music, in the way we live, move and have our being.
God’s presence is in every act of mercy and justice. God’s spirit is everywhere. We cannot escape it. While we may have felt an absence from the ritual that reminds us of the way the living presence of God endures in our sacramental practice of eucharist, we also know that the living presence of God did not leave us for one moment.
The question before the crowd in today’s gospel, and the question before us today are one and the same.
How will we respond to the living presence of God in our life?
God’s spirit is here amongst us, in us, and always with us. In the bread, in community, in nature, in art, and in acts of love. How will we respond? How will this guide the way we live our lives?
As we move through our days, can we see the presence of God before us? In this worship? In our lunch with friends? In yet another boring meeting? At the grocery store or during our chores?
Can we spot the spirit of God in broken relationships? In the wounds we are still nursing? In the injustices we witness all around us? In the illness we are battling?
How does God’s presence inspire us to live more intentionally in every waking moment? Amen.
* “Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan” https://www.pnas.org/content/115/31/7925 ( accessed 8/3/21)
** “Bread: the extraordinary fate of an ordinary food item” https://www.technogym.com/us/newsroom/bread-history/ (accessed 8/3/21)
*** Journal of John Wesley, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html (accessed 8/4/21)
**** Altar Bread-SSJE, https://www.ssje.org/2017/07/31/altar-bread/ (accessed 8/4/21)
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