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Bread and Honey

 

Proverbs 4:14 -18        1st Corinthians             John 6:22 -34

 

 

[1]         When the Japanese besieged Hong Kong sixty-plus years ago and began starving the people inside the city, a British banker was found sitting on the curb with his feet in the gutter. He was dressed like a British banker: cutaway coat, Homburg hat, pin-striped charcoal trousers, grey spats. He was the picture of upper-class privilege.  He had found an orange in the gutter.  The orange had been stepped on several times, had been exposed to the sun, and was covered with grime.  He was about to bite into it when a British soldier knocked it out of his hand, shouting, “Do you want to get sick?”   Whereupon the banker, still sitting on the curb, hung his head and blubbered like a child.

Hunger is terrible. Hunger bends people. Hunger finds people behaving in ways they otherwise never would.         Hunger forces people to be what they never thought they’d become. The British banker would have given everything he owned, even his indexed civil service pension, for one slice of bread.  But there was no bread.

Bread was the all-important commodity in the ancient east.  Bread? Not money?   Money didn’t even exist in old, old Babylon ; in lieu of currency grain was the medium of exchange.  Hundreds of years later, in Hosea’s day, Hosea lurched broken-hearted to the market in order to purchase his “hooker”-wife from the clutches of the local pimp.         Hosea paid part of the purchase-price in grain.  In our society there are few public officials more important than the minister of finance and the president of the central bank.  In the ancient world, however, the most important public official was the one responsible for bread.

 

[2]         Bread isn’t eaten the way ice-cream or chocolate is eaten.  Bread is consumed in large quantities.  It’s one of life’s necessities.  Because bread looms so large in our lives and is essential to life, we use the word “bread” metaphorically.  “I’ve got to have a second job just to put bread on the table.” Everyone knows what the expression is meant to convey.  When we pray, as we are taught to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”, we are asking for all of life’s necessities: bread, to be sure, but also water and clean air and safe cities and national security and effective schooling and adequate medical care. What, after all, would be the point of bread (literal) to sustain us if disease then carried us off? What would be the point of eating bread to forestall malnutrition if we then had to breathe lung-corroding air or live in lethal streets or succumb to military aggression? When we pray for daily bread we are praying for all of life’s necessities as symbolized by bread.  When our Lord multiplied the loaves and healed the sick and raised the dead he wasn’t doing three different things.  He was doing one thing: bringing with him that kingdom whose manifestation we long to see.

Then is bread a physical matter or a spiritual matter?  To put such a question is to pose a false dichotomy.         All of us in Schomberg have been schooled in the logic of the Hebrew bible, and therefore we know that to dichotomize life into the physical (or material) and the spiritual is to dichotomize life falsely.  Dennis Niles, a thoughtful South Asian Christian of an earlier era, used to say, “If I lack bread – that’s a physical problem; if my neighbour lacks bread – a spiritual problem.”  Since the Christian community is birthed by the Spirit of God and is concerned with spiritual matters, the Christian community is therefore concerned with material matters – which is to say, the Christian community is always concerned with bread of every kind.

 

[3] While we are speaking of bread metaphorically we should recall the way the older testament speaks of the bread of tears and the bread of affliction and the bread of idleness and the bread of adversity.  Because bread was the staple food in the ancient world, it was eaten in huge quantities. Then as now people knew that in one sense they were what they ate. What they ate became so thoroughly a part of them that they were characterized by what they had had to swallow.

When the Hebrew bible speaks of the bread of tears or the bread of sorrow, it means that someone is so thoroughly grief-saturated she’s consumed by her grief; someone has been so thoroughly saddened that she’s characterized by her sorrow and is now identified with it.

Life is relatively easy for me.  (At least it has been to date.)  For others, however, life is exceedingly difficult.         We all know people whom adversity has devastated so thoroughly and so often that we would say, were we living in the time of our Hebrew foreparents, that they have eaten the bread of adversity.  As soon as we hear the word “adversity” we think of those people who exemplify adversity and whom we now identify with it.

We know too people who have eaten the bread of wickedness.  In scripture those who eat the bread of wickedness are also said to drink the wine of violence. People who plunge themselves farther and farther into wickedness have no choice but to maintain themselves by means of violence.  They have become so very wicked and necessarily so very violent that they are now identified with it all.

 

[4] In view of the different kinds of bread that we can eat and do eat, it’s plain that we need one more kind of bread as we need nothing else: we need him who is the bread of life. We are sinners and we are sufferers. We need our Lord, and he meets us at every point of our need.

In Israel ’s 40-year trek through the wilderness there was given them a most glorious anticipation of Jesus Christ, the bread of life.  They were given manna. Manna sustained them in that era when bleakness loomed wherever they looked.  “Manna” is a Hebrew word meaning “What is it?”  They were sustained by God’s provision, the nature of which they couldn’t explain (let alone explain away), yet whose presence and significance they couldn’t deny. “What is it?” How God sustains his people is always a mystery; but that he sustains them is never in doubt.  Manna appeared to be so very ordinary, yet it was extraordinary in its origin, its nature, its effectiveness.

Twelve hundred years after the wilderness episode some descendants of wilderness-survivors said to Jesus, “Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness. Moses fed his people.  What can you do for us?” Jesus replied, “It wasn’t Moses who fed your foreparents; it was my Father.  He gives true bread from heaven, and I, Jesus of Nazareth, am that bread. I am the bread of life, just because I am living bread. Whoever comes to me will never hunger; whoever comes to me will never perish.”

Manna was an anticipation of Jesus Christ.  To say the same thing differently, Jesus Christ was the hidden truth of the manna in the wilderness.  It was he who sustained the people even though they knew it not.  “Now, however”, says our Lord, “you people are to know that I am God’s provision. To be sure, I appear so very ordinary as to be readily overlooked.  Yet my origin, nature and effectiveness are rooted in the mystery of God. I am living bread, the bread of life; whoever comes to me from this moment neither hungers nor perishes.”

 

[5]         Today is communion Sunday. In the service of Holy Communion we eat ordinary bread, everyday bread, bread plain and simple, and yet we are fed him who is the bread of life.  The bread that sustains our bodies (and therein our minds, since the human mind is never found apart from the body) also sustains, by God’s grace, our life in him as our Lord Jesus Christ gives himself to us afresh.

Let’s make no mistake. It is by God’s grace, and only by his grace, that we are sustained in our life with him, advanced in it, and ultimately perfected in it, for of ourselves we are fallen creatures who are found eating the bread of wickedness again and again. Like all who eat the bread of wickedness we unfailingly drink the wine of violence, since there’s no wickedness that isn’t intrinsically linked with violence. The wonder of it all is that the human wickedness which conspires against our Lord, and the human violence which torments him and finally slays him; this, our sin, becomes, by God’s grace, the occasion of our restoration. Our sin becomes the occasion of our salvation. For at the cross the crucified one absorbs our violent wickedness and renders it that sacrifice for us apart from which we can only die the death that wickedness merits.

Everyday bread that we eat to sustain life is made the vehicle of the bread of life as Our Lord continues to feed us who crave the bread of wickedness. As he continues to fee us we find the bread of heaven quickening a new appetite in us, an appetite for living bread.  For this bread profoundly satisfies even as it never satiates.

 

Honey

[6]         Honey is a sweetener. Then is honey only a confection like candy?   No. While honey is a sweetener to be sure, scripture speaks everywhere of honey as a foodstuff. The book of Ecclesiasticus lists “the chief necessities of human life.”   They are water, fire, iron, salt, flour, milk, the juice of the grape, clothing, honey. (Ecclus. 39:26)         In the older testament honey is mentioned matter-of-factly with other items that everyone recognizes to be foodstuffs: wheat, barley, beans, lentils, cheese. (2 Sam. 17:29)  At the same time honey is that staple, a foodstuff, whose sweetness renders it especially attractive.

We modern food-procurers cultivate honey by building beehives and placing the beehives in orchards and clover-fields.  In this way we can maximize honey production and collect the honey conveniently. In Israel of old, however, there were no carefully constructed beehives: honey was simply gathered wherever it could be found.

And where was it found? It was found in the hollow of rocks, rocks that were unremarkably ordinary. It was found in trees, trees that were stately and beautiful.  John the Baptist found it in the wilderness of Judaea , the wilderness being just that: wilderness. Samson found honey in the carcass of a dead lion – which is to say, in the midst of rottenness.

Honey, our Hebrew foreparents said, is one of life’s necessities, and honey can be found anywhere. It can be found amidst life’s ordinariness, life’s beauty, life’s wilderness, and even life’s rottenness.  In other words, honey can be found wherever life lands us.  No one is so foolish as to think that life’s assorted settings produce honey; they certainly don’t produce it.  But the assorted settings of life are precisely where honey, God’s provision, can always be found.

 

The psalmist tells us repeatedly that the Torah is sweeter than honey. Torah is the truth of God and the will of God and the way of God as well as the path that God appoints us to walk, even our companion on the path.  Jesus Christ is Torah Incarnate.  He is the truth and will and way of God made flesh. In his company we find ourselves on the path through life that he has pioneered for us, even as he remains our companion on the path.   He is Torah incarnate. We have found him to be the necessity of life, even as we have found him to be so wondrously attractive as to leave us saying of him, “sweeter than honey.”

 

Today at our communion service let us eat bread, drink wine, savour honey (at the coffee hour, a part of congregational life), knowing that honey can be found anywhere in life.  For everywhere in life, in every crevice and corner, nook and cranny, in whatever beauty or bleakness, our Lord is to be found.  He is even to be found at a service of Holy Communion in a village church in Schomberg to be sure, but also on every occasion, on any day, anywhere.

 

                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd   

January 2007