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A Note Concerning Bread

 

John 6:25-34        Numbers 11:1-9         Revelation 10:6-10

“They don’t have bread?” said Marie Antoinette contemptuously; “Then let them eat cake.” The people crying out for bread were the poorest, the hungriest, the most wretched of revolutionary France . They wanted an end to a wicked system of privilege that kept a few aristocrats fat and everyone else hungry. Cake? There weren’t even crumbs. To suggest that the people who lacked the plainest brown bread eat cream puffs was cruel. Marie Antoinette paid dearly for her cruelty. One day the people she disdained caught up with her. They disembowelled her. Her pronouncement spelled death.

Christ Jesus our Lord also made a pronouncement concerning bread. His pronouncement spelled life, and still spells life. He took a piece of bread and said, “This is my body, my very self, given for you. And my self, my life, given over to death for you, will bring you life.” Earlier in his public ministry, anticipating his last supper with his disciples, he had insisted that he is the bread of life. What did he mean by this? How is he the bread of life?

 

I: — In the first place, for the Israelite person bread suggested intimate acquaintance. In everyday conversation Israelite people spoke of eating the bread of sorrow or the bread of toil or the bread of laughter and so on. To eat the bread of something – anything — was to become so intimately acquainted with that thing as to internalize it; to internalize it so very profoundly that it altered them forever, characterized them ever after. To eat the bread of pain meant that someone had been in such pain, was so intimately acquainted with pain, that her experience of pain had altered her. She’d never be the same again.

We must be sure to note the difference between intimate personal acquaintance and textbook information. A textbook on neurology will inform us as to how an injury to our body sends a message via neural pathways to our brain. But of course a person can read the most informative books on pain without ever having been in pain herself. To eat the bread of pain, on the other hand, is to have intimate, personal acquaintance with pain, experience of pain – and all this in such a way as to leave us altered ever after. To eat the bread of joy means that joy hasn’t merely alighted on us; joy has penetrated us, now permeates us, and will always characterize us.

When our Lord insists that we eat the bread he is, he is pressing upon us the most intimate, personal acquaintance with him, and all of this with the result that we are characterized by him and marked as his disciple.

All of us people at different levels of intimacy. Some people we merely nod to; others we chat with; others still we engage. If we have one or two intimate friends, people before whom we need hide nothing; people before whom we could confide anything regardless of our shame or guilt; people who we know would never despise us or mock us or dismiss us – if we have one or two friends before whom our lives can lie open without dissimulation or disguise, we are fortunate.

At the same time, however intimate we are with our best friend, we are aware that there are recesses in us, depths in us that not even our best friend can reach; not even the most loving spouse can reach.

Then who can? Black slaves in the Deep South of yesteryear knew. They knew that God alone can. There are recesses in all of us that only the Spirit, God himself in his most intimate penetration, can reach. For this reason black slaves in the Deep South used to sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; nobody knows – but Jesus.” They were right.

When Jesus directs us to eat bread, and in directing us to eat bread insists he is bread, the bread of life, he’s offering himself to us as the only one who, as the Spirit Incarnate, can reach us, meet us, heal us in the innermost recesses of our heart where no else has access however much she may love us. Our Lord – and our Lord alone – is the bread of life.

 

II: — Eating bread means something more. None of us eats bread the way we eat chocolate éclairs or angel food cake or French pastries. Desserts we nibble daintily. Bread we chew robustly. We bite off a hunk of bread, half-chew it and swallow it at a gulp.

Joshua and Caleb are leaders of the Israelite people on their way out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The Israelite people are surrounded by Canaanites. The Canaanites are enemies. They are enemies of God, denying the Holy One of Israel, disdaining his claim upon his creatures, sneering at the Way he appoints his people to walk. The Canaanites intend to eliminate every last Israelite. They are fearsome, and the Israelites, understandably, are fearful.

“Don’t be alarmed,” shout Joshua and Caleb; “Under God our enemies are bread for us. We can swallow them at a gulp. They aren’t going to devour us.”

The name “Jesus” is merely a Gentile way of spelling the Hebrew name “Joshua.” Jesus our Lord is always and everywhere aware that he’s been named after Joshua, 1200 years back, Joshua, whose name – Yehoshua – means “God saves.” Our Lord’s intimacy with you and me guarantees us deliverance from our enemies. Our enemies are bread for us. They aren’t going to devour us.

Who or what are our enemies? What would wound us most tellingly or shatter us most dreadfully? What occurrence do we fear might just break down our confidence and trust in God? To sit in an armchair and try to list our “enemies,” whatever it is that would eclipse God, is highly artificial. Of course we can draw up a list: the death of a child, the disgrace of a Christian leader, utter financial reversal. It’s so very artificial just because we never know how telling a suspected enemy is until we are out of the armchair and in the hands of the enemy.

Several years ago, before the dismantling of the USSR , Major Eva den Hartog spoke in Toronto . Eva den Hartog, Dutch, is a clergywoman with The Salvation Army. At that time she worked on behalf of The Salvation Army in refugee camps. She said that the human degradation of the refugee camps in Thailand and Cambodia was indescribable. Some refugees attempted to maintain minimal human decency; others decided the word “decency” had no meaning. “Now,” said Eva den Hartog to her audience, “Could you go on believing that God never ceases loving just because he is love; could you go on commending him in a situation like that?” One thing’s obvious: Eva den Hartog herself can, and obviously can just because she does; she does extol the truth and mercy and faithfulness of God – from her heart, with conviction – in situations that are plainly the enemy of all she cherishes. In fact those hostile situations have become bread for her: she, her faith, are not going to be devoured by them.

One day she flew in a small plane from one Asian country to another. When the plane landed communist soldiers grabbed the pilot and co-pilot and beat them horribly. Eva sat in the plane, knowing in a few minutes it would be her turn. She prayed, “Lord, if they want to kill me, let them kill me. But don’t let them torture me or rape me.” Then the soldiers pulled her out of the plane. They saw the “S” insignia on both sides of the collar of her uniform blouse. One fellow snorted, “Hmph! S – S: soviet soldier.” They let her go. In the presence of Jesus Christ her enemies were bread for her. She wasn’t going to be devoured by them.

What if the very thing she feared most had happened? What if she had been tortured or raped? Horrible as it would have been, even there her Lord wouldn’t have abandoned her. She’d have gone to her death knowing that her trust hadn’t been misplaced.

The truth is, Jesus Christ, the bread of life, renders all our enemies bread for us. We aren’t going to be devoured by them. Major illness? Mental illness? Terminal illness? Of course we shrink from it. Ultimately, however, it can’t expel us from our Father’s house or stifle his love for us. Cataclysmic reversal, anywhere in life? Crushing, numbing letdown? Jarring to be sure, yet it will never expose as imaginary the grip God has on us, or the grip we have on him.

Joshua and Caleb saw the people of God, their people, quaking before Canaanite enemies. “Enemies?” said the two men; “They are bread for us.   We aren’t going to be devoured by them.”

“What can separate you and me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?” asks Paul. Nothing can. Anything that threatens to or wants to is but bread for us.

 

III: — Eating bread means something more. In biblical times bread was the chief item at every meal. And every meal – not just special meals, but everyday meals – sealed a covenant or promise. Sharing bread with someone at a meal was re-affirming the covenant. Promises were always sealed by a meal, by bread.

On one occasion Jonathan was disgusted at the behaviour of his father, King Saul. His father was bent on murdering David, Jonathan’s best friend. Jonathan left the table, refusing to eat, because he wanted to announce unambiguously that he wasn’t party to his father’s evil intent and wasn’t obliged to his father in any way. When you and I receive bread from the hand of Christ and from the hand of each other, however, we are announcing that we are obliged, and gladly obliged, both to him and to each other. By eating bread with him and with each other we are signing our name to the promises all of us have made to one other.

When we eat bread together we are announcing that we cherish one another and have pledged ourselves to one another. We mean it. To pledge ourselves to one another doesn’t mean we thereafter must agree with one another. There has to be room for disagreement within our fellowship. Still, we have promised that we aren’t going to slay or slander one another.

Paul and Barnabas disagreed over whether they should take Mark along with them on their second missionary journey. Mark had been on the first missionary journey and had “chickened out”, as we like to say. He had let them down. “Give him a second chance” Barnabas urged; “He’s only nineteen. He’s young. “If he’s that young then he’s too young” replied Paul; “We can’t risk jeopardising the mission. We can’t risk having him let us down again.” Luke tells us in the book of Acts that Paul and Barnabas “disagreed sharply.” They didn’t become foes; they didn’t flail each other; they didn’t harbour a grudge for the rest of their lives. But they did disagree. Paul moved off into his second missionary foray without Mark. Barnabas took Mark under his wing (and this time Mark didn’t let anyone down.) Years later — this is a point we mustn’t overlook – Paul spoke of Mark in the warmest terms.

I’m convinced that early-day Christianity was much less monochrome than we commonly think. To be sure, all Christians, regardless of background or outlook, acknowledged Jesus Christ to be the Son of God Incarnate, the bearer and bestower of the Holy Spirit, the Messiah of Israel, and the world’s only Saviour and Lord – faith in whom is the Father’s insistent invitation. All Christians acknowledged this.   But their common affirmation of Jesus didn’t render them monochrome in all respects.

As a matter of fact there were three major clusters of Christians in the earliest days. There were Palestinian Jewish Christians like Stephen. There were Hellenistic Jewish Christians like Paul. There were Hellenistic Gentile Christians like Titus. What they had in common was Christ, and he kept them together. For there were many things they didn’t have in common. For instance the Palestinian Jewish Christians went to the temple in Jerusalem , even after the resurrection of Jesus, to sacrifice a lamb. They felt they were obliged to keep all aspects of Torah. Hellenistic Gentile Christians, on the other hand, saw no point to animal sacrifice. They killed lambs only to eat them.

The three Christian groups (Palestinian Jewish, Hellenistic Jewish, Hellenistic Gentile) were united in their common life in their common Lord. For this reason they pledged themselves to each other as well. Where they disagreed after that would be a disagreement, for sure, but not such as to undo their covenant with fellow-Christians. When the Palestinian Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were threatened with famine who gave most sacrificially to help them? – the Hellenistic Gentile Christians in Corinth . The Christians in Corinth were furthest fro the outlook of Christians in Jerusalem . Still, in pledging themselves to Jesus Christ they had pledged themselves to each other as well.

“Let them eat cake” Marie Antoinette sneered disdainfully. “Let us eat bread” Jesus invites graciously. We do eat bread.

We receive him who is the bread of life. We live with him so very intimately that he reaches us where no one else can and therein characterizes us as we are marked his.

In eating bread, the everyday foodstuff we bite off and gulp, we are confirmed in God’s truth concerning our enemies: they are bread for us. They aren’t going to devour us, for nothing can separate us from our Lord.

And in eating bread with our Lord and with each other we have signed and sealed our pledge, our promise, our covenant with him and with his people.

Let us break bread together now.

 

                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd
March 2005