The Reverend Dan Warnke
A couple of months ago I was in Washington D.C. for a book launch, and whilst there I took the opportunity to look around a number of the Smithsonian galleries and museums lining Constitution Avenue, a two mile stretch between Capitol Hill and the Lincoln Memorial.
So as I wondered along, down a side road, in the shadow of the US Capitol building, I came across the Museum of the Bible – an interactive experience across seven floors – exploring the impact of Scripture on global culture: from education and literature to art and architecture. And in the museum, which only opened last year, there are many artifacts and exhibits including a bible owned by Elvis Presley in an exhibition called ‘Amazing Grace’ that charts the abolition of the slave trade against Christian conviction. It was quite an experience, and as with all if you got peckish, there was provision in the form of the Milk and Honey cafe, or the Manna restaurant (presumably milk and honey is of greater expedience than manna!).
One of the most interesting floors was the “Narrative of the Bible” – a sort of movie-set re-creation of how a village in 1C Nazareth might have appeared in Jesus’ day, including a family dinner table filled with bread, beans, and a mikvah (used for ritual cleansing). As you wind through the scene, costumed actors invite you to join them in their homes, with talk about Jesus abounding.
One of the sets actually showed how bread was made. To the people of Jesus’ day this was a staple, everyone’s diet involved bread, it was the stuff of life. This simple flat-type of bread, was the main thing that kept people going. To live was to eat bread.
Today, we all kinds to choose from: there’s artisan, 50/50, poppy seed, tiger, sourdough, rye, brioche, focaccia, ciabatta, flat, wholemeal, pita, multigrain (shall I go on?) ... Corn, soda, chapatti, baguette bagel … I’m sure I’ve missed one you know. And what we hear in our gospel reading today is that Jesus compares himself to this simple bread:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
- John 6.51
This passage is sometimes referred to as The Bread of Life Discourse, and follows the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 (with only five loaves and two fish) that we heard a couple of weeks ago, and through this discourse Jesus offers a contrast between different sorts of breads: between manna in the desert (a temporary food supply), and the kind of bread that is living.
Now with all this talk of bread I wonder if it makes you hungry. And with hunger, or at least a peckish feeling comes a sort of single-mindedness. When you’re hungry you tend to focus on satisfying that need.
I mean; have you ever been to the supermarket on an empty stomach? You end up just buying anything, particularly snacks! It probably won’t surprise you that a study conducted a few years ago concluded the same, that shoppers who were hungry bought a higher ratio of high-calorie foods in the hours leading up to dinnertime, compared to those shopping earlier in the day, or after a meal. One nutritionist summed it up well:
“Don’t go shopping without a list when you’re hungry, because you’re just going to buy all sorts of junk food.”
– Amy Yaroch, Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition
And so it makes me wonder: if I say I follow Jesus, what is my junk food? What do I do that on the face of it seems to satisfy but ultimately leaves me hungry (like fast-food)? It’s like retail therapy; sure it works well … until it doesn’t. Or a good gossip, until they find out, or [insert your own craving].
Jesus likens himself to bread, because bread sustains. Provision of manna was a sign of being freed from a certain kind of slavery, from the slavery of hunger. And this living bread, this one from heaven, this Jesus says he will meet us in our hunger.
And to believe this, to believe that this Jesus comes from heaven, to believe that his life is offered to us, that he will meet us in our hunger is a leap. This kind of believing, this receiving is tentative, it’s delicate. It’s like saying “yes” to a first date, or an invitation to dinner with people you’ve only just met. You say “yes” not quite knowing what it will be like, but you say “yes” in the hope of drawing near to another, “yes” to finding friendship, to companionship.
Through the Eucharist God gives food, and this food is about everything we’ll need. The prayer “Give us this day our daily bread…” is one that we say together, and is similar to saying: “May we receive everyday what you give us today”… or to put it another way: “Give us each day the presence and friendship of a companion at the table.” Through the receiving and eating of bread, in some way, we begin to recognise that what we need, what we really need, is the presence of Jesus in our day-to-day lives. In the ups and the downs. This is not junk food, but life giving nutrition.
And in Jesus, this bread is limitless: this is the bread of life, this is the bread that comes from heaven, and this is the bread that is broken for you and for me. This is the bread that we receive at this step of the sanctuary and the one that is freely given.
When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” he continues by saying: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” To ‘not die’ means to find eternal life, not at some point in the future, but right now. To step forward and have the bread pressed to your palm is to say: “I am hungry for something more. I am hungry to belong with others”. And as we do this we can look around and think: who is missing, who else should join us? The whole spectrum and rainbow of creation is welcome and there is always room to incorporate a few more – especially the hungry.
Everyone is called to their place at the table, regardless of gender, race, class, orientation, physical or mental health. Whatever may be known or unknown in our family or backgrounds, the church needs everyone to be there. Not for some holy register, and not so that anyone can be impressed, and certainly not because God is dependent on us, but because when we gather like this, and when all are welcomed, we find that in the gift of sharing bread, we find ourselves in unity. That is what ‘communion’ means; it’s sharing in the generous economy of God by taking our place at his table.
And so this leaves me wondering two things:
What am I really hungry for?
And what have I been eating?