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Bread and Wine

 

 John 6:52-59      Deuteronomy 8:1-10

 

[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 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 had begun to putrefy. 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 forces people to be what they never thought they’d become. The British banker would have given everything he owned for just 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.  Whereas 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 the most important public official was the one responsible for bread.

 

[2]         Bread is 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 at Tyndale 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.

We all know people whom adversity has devastated so thoroughly 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.  They have become so very wicked that they are deemed to exemplify wickedness

[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; 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.”

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 also sustains, by God’s grace, our life in Christ as our Lord Jesus gives himself to us afresh.

Wine

[6]         Not only was bread eaten at Israelite meals; wine was drunk at every meal as well. Where wine is concerned our Israelite foreparents differed from our society in two ways. On the one hand, they abhorred drunkenness, finding it disgusting, whereas we seem to find it amusing. On the other hand, Israelite people customarily drank wine at every meal.   The rare exception was the highly unusual ascetic like John the Baptist. People like John who didn’t touch wine also refrained from touching much else, including soap and shampoo. They also avoided women. They lived on the fringe of society. Their witness had its place, to be sure, but it was never the witness that God had appointed his people to bear characteristically.  John, it must be remembered, lived in the wilderness, dressed in animal skins, stank like a garbage can, and drank no wine.  Jesus did none of this.

Again and again the Older Testament speaks of wine as God’s gift that gladdens the heart of men and women.         Wine doesn’t appear to be essential to life.  Bread is essential to life, but not wine.  Yet wine is essential to life, said our Hebrew foreparents, just because joy is essential to life. Life in the kingdom of God is never to be bleak or drab or dull.  Life must never become utilitarian only.  In addition to the utilitarian there has to be a light heart and a glad countenance, a happy time and a festive mood.

Jesus, we know partied frequently.  He partied so often that his enemies accused him of overdoing it.  They said he ate too much and he drank too much.  Whereupon he wheeled on his detractors, “John came neither eating nor drinking and you said he was demon-possessed, crazy if not wicked. I’ve come eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton and drunkard.  You don’t care about God’s Kingdom.  You care only about spearing those who challenge your self-righteousness and your lovelessness.  That’s deplorable. But in any case I and the people who love me are going to a party.  And we’re going to have a good time.  You’re welcome to come to the party too.  Maybe you’d rather stay home and pout.  We can’t help that. But in any case you aren’t going to spoil our party.”

Wine is God’s gift that gladdens the human heart.  When our Lord insists, wine cup in hand, that he is the true vine, the wine of life, he means that he is that gift of the Father who profoundly makes the human heart to sing.         Whenever we drink wine, therefore – at the Lord’s Supper, at a meal, on any occasion – we are announcing once again that Jesus Christ is the one who profoundly delights and satisfies, doing for us what no one else can and imparting to us what no one can ever take away.

  Since our Lord most profoundly gladdens us through the blessing of his shed blood, the apostles, together with the church after them, have associated wine with blood. In fact the church hasn’t hesitated to speak of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. This isn’t surprising, since Jesus himself said that he abides in us and we in him only as we drink his blood. (John 6:54)

What did he mean? What did he mean, in view of the fact that Jewish people abhor drinking blood as they abhor little else? The Torah forbids them to drink blood, and they take such precautions with kosher meat as to ensure that they don’t eat or drink blood.  At the last supper, when Jesus took the cup and declared to the disciples, “This is God’s covenant with you renewed in my blood,” the one thing that his disciples never thought they were doing was literally drinking his blood. The thought of it would have sickened them.

It so happens that among the Israelite people to “shed blood” meant to murder. Murder was reprehensible. It so happens that among the Israelite people to “drink blood” meant to murder and to profit from the foul deed.  While it’s dreadful to murder, it’s worse to murder and then profit from the murder.

When Jesus tells us that we are going to drink his blood, he means that our sin is going to do him in.         Humankind’s sin, collapsing on him, will crush him to death.  And humankind’s sin, crushing him to death, he will gladly bear and bear away for our sakes, thereby giving us life.  We kill, and we profit from it.  We shed blood and we drink blood.  In the paradoxical mystery of God’s grace, the treachery of the human heart, culminating in murder, the murder of the Son of God; this becomes the means of our forgiveness and freedom.  Let me say it again. In the paradoxical mystery of God’s grace, human treachery (the cross) becomes the means whereby human treachery is pardoned and purged.  Plainly we do drink our Lord’s blood.

Then let us come to Christ’s table now, for as he invites us to drink wine with him, the fruit of the vine, he invites us to drink again that blood which we have already drunk in any case.  And he invites us to eat bread with him, and therein know afresh that he, and he alone, is now and ever will be the bread of life.

 

                                                                                         Victor Shepherd

April 2007