Good grief there are a lot of Sundays devoted to John’s gospel and bread. Most every pastor I know has declared, at one time or another, that they have run out of anything new to say about bread. Being retired, I have not had to preach on the full run of bread lessons for several years, until this year. Somehow I got myself scheduled for almost every Sunday. Well, that’s what happens when you don’t pay attention.
Bread, of course, is not about a loaf of sliced white or wheat, but about that which gives us the nutrition we need to sustain daily life from whatever source. What keeps coming back to me as I think about that and study these lessons is the difference between taking life and giving life.
We take the life of other living creatures, plant and animal, to provide the nutrition we need. They do not willingly give it. Like every other animal, we have to take it from them, and we have to do it every day for as long as our life in this world endures. It satisfies us for a fairly short time. Each creature has only one life we can take, and when it is consumed we have to take it from another living creature. It can give us great pleasure, but only for a moment. That moment passes quickly, and the memory of even the best meal ever cannot bear even the slightest measure of nutrition. Nevertheless, consuming the flesh of other living creatures is what the normal meaning of our daily bread is all about. We have to be careful, good stewards of the supply of the life we will take, because it can run out. Between nature’s unpredictability and our own selfish carelessness, we can diminish or exhaust the supply.
That’s one reason why it is so important to say grace, to give thanks for the blessing to our well being that was the life that we have taken by force. It’s not silly or sentimental to thank not just God, but the cow, pig, chicken, fish, carrot or cabbage that rests on our plates. I’m not so sure about zucchini, but that’s my problem. The need to give thanks was a more obvious truth when we were a more rural population living at close quarters with farmers and ranchers who raised, harvested and slaughtered their food and ours. It’s not so easy for urban populations where the life that has been taken lies washed and wrapped in super market coolers. I think about that when we are with friends a few miles out of town, and I look at the particular cow that will become steaks in just two more months. It is not an anonymous cow, one among hundreds in a factory feedlot, but a particular cow that we have seen grow from a calf. How can one not thank the cow for the life that will be taken so that others may have life?
Consider then the bread that comes down from heaven that Jesus so outrageously claimed to be his own flesh and blood which we must eat and drink as the nutrition we need for our eternal life. There is a very high yuck factor to that image, and it drove some of his followers away. It still does. Yet, this is bread that comes not from life taken by force, but life freely given. Yes, the authorities did what they could to take his life by force, but in the resurrection it was made clear that this is a life that cannot be taken by force; it can only be freely given. Not only is it freely given, it can never be diminished, it gives eternally in abundance without limitation. It’s supply can never be exhausted because it is the very source of life itself.
We eat this bread in the form of ordinary bread and ordinary wine, understood in different ways by different Christian traditions, to carry the very presence of God in Christ Jesus. Without getting into a debate about the right understanding, which, of course, is the Anglican understanding, how can we do any other than to pour out our thanksgiving for this bread of eternal life that has been given to us for our spiritual nutrition? Calling it the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, is not just another churchy sounding word to be mumbled out of rote memory, but something to offer with our whole being: body, mind and soul. I fear that, like the Corinthians of Paul’s first letter, we too often let our Holy Communion become an occasional habit to which we give little thought as we head up to the altar or pass the plate down the pew.