The Bread of Life -- A Sermon for World Communion Sunday
Each Sunday Tim Morehouse mixes up some bread, which he hands to me at the end of the service so I can hand it off to a visitor. It’s always hot bread, so with a little butter or without butter if that’s your choice, one can make a meal of it on the drive home! It’s offered as a sign of welcome and hospitality.
While bread is a useful sign of hospitality, it’s also a sign of something much deeper. Bread is often referred to as the staff of life. Along with water, bread is the foundation of human existence, which is perhaps what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he said: “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” This physical hunger is so powerful that it must be tended to if we’re to be open to anything else in life.
Remember how the people of Israel complained to Moses about the prospect of starving in the wilderness. Slavery in Egypt was bad, but they wondered whether freedom was worth it if they were to die in the desert. God answered their cries with manna and later with water from the Rock of Horeb. With their most basic needs met they were now ready to continue their journey toward the promised land.
But this physical bread, though it’s essential to our lives, it isn’t sufficient for abundant life. As Jesus concluded his forty-day fast in the wilderness, he was famished, but when the tempter suggested that he could satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread he answered: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4).
If bread alone won’t satisfy our hunger, might it reveal Jesus to us? It was the first day of the week -- just a few days after Jesus’ execution on a Roman cross. Although there were rumors that he might be alive, these rumors weren’t enough for two of Jesus’ followers who were making their way to the town of Emmaus, wherever that was on the map. Their heads were down, full of sorrow, because the one whom they believed would bring hope to their lives was dead. But along the way they met up with a man, who didn’t seem to know what was happening in Jerusalem, but whose understanding of the scriptures brought peace to their hearts. Then, as they broke bread together, their eyes were opened, and they realized that the one who had explained the scriptures was Jesus. Breaking of the bread had served to open their eyes to the fullness of God’s presence in their midst.
There is another story of bread that is found in all four gospels. Remember how Jesus feeds the 5000 with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The people’s hunger is satisfied, at least for the moment. But in John 6 the people come looking for Jesus the next day. Having been fed once, they’d like to make this a regular occurrence. In exchange for bread, they’re willing to give their allegiance to Jesus and his cause.
Jesus’ response doesn’t make the folks happy. Instead of the bread they request he offers himself as the bread of life. He invites them to feed on him, because the physical bread, while it might sustain us for a moment, it can’t sustain for eternity. They are disappointed and even offended. They seem to be caught up in the literal and can’t understand that while bread is important we can’t live on bread alone. Jesus offers himself as the Word that sustains the spirit, bringing life in all its fulness. There is the physical, but also the spiritual.
When you hear these words “I am the Bread of Life,” what do you hear in them?
In the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, which is used by many Christian communities to consecrate the bread and wine for use in the Lord’s Supper, the celebrant says to the people:
Let us take this holy sacrament of the body and blood of Christ in remembrance that he died for us and feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.
Jesus says to the people who seek bread from him: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” And the liturgy of the Eucharist invites us to “Feed on him by faith with thanksgiving.”
Do you hear an invitation to go deeper into the life of God by feeding on the bread that reveals to us God’s presence and purpose for the world? This bread and this cup that are placed on the table of the Lord stand as a reminder that God is not far from us, but that God is with us and in us, empowering us and encouraging us so that we might continue the journey to the promised Land. For this journey we will need the physical bread that will sustain our bodies, but we will also need spiritual bread to sustain our spiritual bodies. This is especially true in times like these that are troubled and when we don’t always know where to turn. I appreciate these words of Arthur Van Seters:
The realities of suffering cry out for a deeper response, one that is energized and sustained by the God who came in suffering love as the Bread of life.*
In Jesus, who is the bread of life, whom we feed upon by faith, we find oneness with God, and this union with God through Christ serves to sustain us for the journey.
Because this is World Communion Sunday we are reminded that millions of other Christians have heard the same invitation, and so as we join together at the Lord’s Table and partake of the Bread of Life, we find union with God and with one another. Even as our lives are nourished by the Word of God who took flesh in the person of Jesus, and embodied God’s presence for us, we are united with one another as we gather around the Lord’s Table and share in his meal as the whole body of Christ on earth.
On my blog I shared the story of the Marburg Colloquy, which was a council called by a German Prince who hoped to unite the young Protestant community. They found a lot of areas to agree upon, but the two leading figures – Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli – couldn’t agree on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. This “disagreement” as to the meaning of the Eucharist had important consequences for the spread of the Reformation, and it reminds us that the table of unity too often becomes a place of division.
But the table isn’t ours to control, and so in the Spirit of God’s presence we gather today around the One Table of the Lord, as the one body of Christ, inclusive of differences of ethnicity, and we gather as male and female, young and old, gay and straight, rich and poor.
It’s fitting that we take the Reconciliation Offering on World Communion Sunday, because this ministry of the Disciples seeks to not only educate people about racism, but it also helps build bridges between people who look different from each other.
As we ponder the relationship between Reconciliation and the Lord’s Table, it may be fitting to remember that almost fifty years ago, the lunch counters in many parts of this nation remained segregated. If you were black, you weren’t allowed to eat at the same counter as those who were white. What was true of the lunch counter was also true of the churches. And so in the moment of desegregation the bread that was a symbol of division became the sign of reconciliation. It’s unfortunate that the lunch counters were desegregated before the churches, but the process had begun and it continues to this day.
In the story of the Feeding of the 5000, what began as a perception of scarcity, becomes the story of God’s abundance. When it comes to feeding on the bread of life, do you come to the table with a sense of scarcity or abundance? Will you take a small bite or a big hunk of the bread of life into your body and spirit?
*Arthur Van Seters in ,Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, Ronald J. Allen, et al, eds, (WJK, 2011), 350.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
World Communion Sunday
October 2, 2011