After the feeding of the 5000[i] John’s Gospel tells of how Jesus and his disciples slipped away, ending up in the town of Capernaum. But the word would have got out about that miraculous meal on the mountainside and those folks would have been fascinated enough to be wanting more from him…[ii] That’s where we pick up today’s reading from John 6 where Jesus calls himself ‘bread’.
WHY BREAD? What was Jesus wanting those who were following him to understand about who and what he was – IS – by calling himself ‘BREAD?’ ‘BREAD’ is an absolute staple of the Middle East! No meal ever happens without bread in some form or another. Until there has been bread, the meal is somehow incomplete. Bread had an essential role at every meal back then – probably still does in many of those communities. Someone once pointed out how, if Jesus had been Asian, perhaps he would have called himself ‘rice’, saying that ‘I am the ‘rice’ of the world…’ The point being that Jesus was/is describing himself as the stuff most basic, most foundationally fundamental – to all life.
This then, the first thing for them – and for us – to understand from his teaching: how we are to understand that in Christ we have something primal, fundamental, something so radically essential, that without him – somehow, we, whom we actually are – our truest selves – we don’t survive!
And I love that he chose something as practical and physically ubiquitous as ‘BREAD’ to make his point – as opposed to – you know – something aesthetically beautiful but quite remote such as ‘the sky’, or ‘the stars’ or ‘the ocean’ or even perhaps some emotion as ‘love’ or ‘kindness’: I am the sunshine of life/ I am the kindness of life/ I am the love of life…’
He could have said any of those – but instead, he chose bread! Tangible! Physical! Practical! Everyday! And essential for all of life! It’s as if we’re being taught that unless our faith is grounded in that which is ACTUALLY most tangibly life-giving, it is meaningless!
This, then, is the second possible reason for why Jesus chose to use this bread metaphor to describe himself and his work! Any truly authentic expression of our Christian faith MUST have this tangible physical quality! ‘Like eating bread! One beggar sharing with another where we’ve found food![iii]
But I wonder if all this is merely a metaphor that Jesus was choosing to use or if there is actually something more going on here? I believe so. Let’s call it an emphatic metaphor, or an empowered, incarnate, in-the-flesh, metaphor! BREAD!
It’s as we bring these two elements together: (1) bread and our providing physical sustenance to those who are hungry, and (2) our faithful intentionality about doing what we are doing in Christ’s name, that we embody something truly sacred and Christ-like!
That’s what any sacrament is defined as being: ‘an outward physical sign pointing to an inner spiritual reality!’[iv] The words of Christ we remember spoken at Holy Communion as he broke the bread: ‘My body which has been broken for you…’
For those with spiritual eyes opened enough to see it – the breaking and sharing of food (bread) and doing so in Christ’s name always reflects that – it is actually always profoundly sacramental!
All of which makes what we are doing on this ‘WORLD FOOD DAY’ so very much more than just some act of kindness – some act of generous humanitarianism. It’s us participating in the very real and alive presence and work of God – in Christ – in this world! Jesus’ teaching in John 6 reveals all of this as being deeply SACRED!
…35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’[v]
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[i] That’s 5000 men – a number closer to 15000 probably, when counting women and children.
[iii] DT Niles (1908-1970) Ceylonese Pastor & Evangelist
[iv] From St Augustine, 5th Cent. Also, ‘A Catechism of Christian Doctrine’ – often called ‘The Penny Catechism’
[v] Matthew 25:35-40