bread of life
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” John 6:56
If you had to name a food that you strongly associate with the place you grew up, what would it be? A Philadelphia cheesesteak? Iowa corn? Pork roll…or Taylor ham…or whatever it’s called?!? As a southerner, I have many examples, but one of the foods I love most are hush puppies. I hope you have had the pure joy of eating hush puppies – all the better if you were able to eat them with some good fried seafood and maybe some cole slaw. Hush puppies are so simple – just fried balls of cornmeal and a couple of other ingredients. But they are delicious, especially when you eat them with some honey butter.
I remember an evening when I lived in the Bay Area of California. I headed to San Mateo for dinner with some friends, and Jeremiah, one of our hosts, had prepared a wonderful menu that included (you guessed it) homemade hush puppies. He had worked so hard to find the right recipe and to perfect the technique of frying them – which, for the record, I have never been brave enough to do myself. I remember biting into those hush puppies and thinking, “Oh my goodness. This tastes like home.” I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. It was amazing.
That’s the power of certain kinds of meals. Wherever we might be when we gather around a table and eat certain foods in the company of loved ones, we experience more than a good meal. And it’s about more than wonderful hospitality, although that’s important. It’s also about identity. Food prepared in love, offered in love, and shared in love shapes the story of who we are. It nourishes not just our bodies, but our very souls.
That’s the kind of meal of which Jesus speaks in today’s gospel. I know you’re wondering if he’s ever going to be finished with this bread of life language, and the answer for today is “not yet.” Last week we heard how many of his listeners scoffed at the thought of Jesus being the bread that had come down from heaven. He was someone they knew. They knew his parents. He couldn’t be all that special, could he?
This week the pushback is getting worse – although we can hardly blame people for their skepticism. To those of us listening to Jesus’ words after centuries of Christianity, we can’t help but hear the language of Holy Communion in what Jesus is saying. But remember that at the time Jesus is speaking, Holy Communion doesn’t yet exist as a practice. However, Jesus eating with all kinds of peopleisa common practice – with sinners, outcasts, the sick, the struggling, foreigners, outsiders – generally the people no one else invited to dinner parties. Just before he launched into this big, long speech about bread, he’s fed thousands of people on a mountainside. Jesus loves sharing food with people, so it’s no wonder that the early church made eating together a central part of gathering for worship.
But long before all of the ritual developed around Holy Communion, we hear Jesus saying words that would of course have baffled anyone who heard them: “Thebread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Without knowing the layers of meaning that would emerge over time around these words, the crowd has every right to be confused.
Even with all the baffling talk of eating flesh and drinking blood, it’s important to hear that Jesus talks about it in terms of relationship. He uses the language of abiding: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” That word – abiding – shows up a lot in the gospel of John. It means that we remain in the presence of Jesus always – no matter what. It means that Jesus comes to us and stays with us through all of the joys and perils of this life. The times that make us laugh and the times that make us cry and the times when we are too exhausted to do either.
That’s what we experience when we receive Holy Communion. We may not feel it like some sort of magic spell week after week, but this meal is about Jesus abiding with us. It’s not just gathering around a table with loved ones, although that’s important. And it’s not just about hospitality, although that’s important too. It’s also about identity. Jesus gives us his very self, and this food prepared in love, offered in love, and shared in love shapes the story of who we are.
I’m convinced that the relationship between food and identity is one reason that the imagery of feasting appears so often in scripture. We hear it today in the first reading as Wisdom is personified as a hostess preparing a meal for her guests. The animals have been slaughtered as food. The wine has been poured. The table is set. And while the invitation may not be the most flattering you’ve ever heard (it is, after all, addressed to “those without sense”), it seems appropriate given that Wisdom is summoning people to enjoy this meal she has prepared: “You that are simple, turn in here!…Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
What an invitation. Here’s how God counters the foolishness of this world – the divisions, the pettiness, the backbiting. By inviting us to pull up a chair to Wisdom’s table and enjoy a meal together. Here we can lay aside immaturity and receive what only Holy Wisdom can give – new life, new beginnings, the way of insight.
The extraordinary writer and scholar Elizabeth Alexander has described her late husband’s experience of fleeing Eritrea, a small, war-torn country in Africa.[i] He arrived in the United States in 1981 as a refugee, forced from his homeland to avoid being slaughtered. When the death squads were getting too close, when too many of his classmates had disappeared, his mother sent him away as a 16-year-old. He walked to Sudan and then to Italy and then to Germany and eventually made his way to the United States, where he settled in New Haven and became a citizen.
A few other family members followed later. Elizabeth writes this about her husband’s sister:
One of my sisters-in-law, also a refugee, began a new life from scratch in the United States before her husband and remaining child at home could join her. She left everything material behind in Ethiopia — home, car, furnishings, jewelry. A few things eventually made their way back to her. She’d get a call to meet a plane at Kennedy Airport and a package of something precious would come: spices, fabric, a packet of documents.
The best was when her small coffee table came, with compartments for coffee cups, and a small rug made of artificial grass. She did the sacred Eritrean coffee ceremony and for a moment was no longer a refugee but rather a woman performing the rituals she had performed all her life.
“I am home now,” she said, as she poured us cup after cup of coffee…
We may not all be refugees in a literal sense, but we know what it is to feel disconnected from the places we’ve known as home. We know how much it matters when we can gather and share food in a way that reminds us of our history and our identity – where we came from, who we are, whose we are.
This morning God extends to us a holy invitation to be fed in the way that only God can give, to abide in the presence of the One who never lets us go. Come, eat of this bread and drink of this wine. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]See, for example, this piece, from which I quote: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/21/opinion/sunday/how-to-make-a-life-from-scratch.html
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven…” John 6:51
That’s right. He’s still at it. Jesus is still talking about bread. We’re on Week 3 of this metaphor, only by now it’s starting to stir up a little trouble.
The people who have known Jesus the longest are understandably confused by his declarations about bread and eternal life. Remember that they’ve watched him grow up. They know all the ordinary things about him. How old he was when he started walking. That time he went missing in the temple. The acne he had as a teenager. The jokes he likes to tell. His favorite snack.
So for Jesus to make these sweeping claims that he has come down from heaven, that he can offer eternal life – it all seems like a bit much to take from Joseph and Mary’s boy. He’s telling them something extraordinary, but they want him to remain ordinary.
But Jesus is both. That’s the power of being at once the bread that came down from heaven and the guy who grew up down the street. He has come so that the deepest, truest kind of life will not be a distant abstraction for the people he encounters. That life has flesh and blood. What he brings is as ordinary and as essential as bread.
We see it in that story of Elijah the prophet. Most of the time we know Elijah as a defender of God’s ways and a person who challenged God’s people to follow those ways. Elijah has just come from a violent battle with some false prophets – and he’s gotten word that their sponsor Queen Jezebel wants him dead. When we meet him this morning, he is exhausted, wrung out, unable to move forward. He sits down under that tree in the wilderness, and he begs God to let him die. We don’t know what specifically has led to his depths of despair, but we can hear it in his plea: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.” Then he does what often feels like the only thing we can do when we don’t know how to move forward. He lies down and goes to sleep.
God sends an angel to Elijah. Not just any angel, but a persistent one, encouraging Elijah to get up, bringing him food to eat and water to drink. That angel does not take no for an answer. When Elijah doesn’t respond the first time, the angel shows up again. This time Elijah listens, and with renewed strength he is able to take the next steps.
We all have our sitting-under-the-broom-tree moments, times when we feel stuck in our own hopelessness. These times are lonely and awful. One of the things that Jesus shows us – that he literally embodies for us – is that God comes to us in ordinary ways in our most desperate, difficult moments. Not as a fairy godmother to wave a magic wand and whip us up a ball gown. Not to guarantee that life will be perfect and without pain. But to be present. To be present with us in those dark and desperate times. To nourish us when we are at our most hungry and scared, not just with physical food, but through the small kindnesses of others. That’s what it means to be the bread of life that comes down from heaven. His love is not a distant abstraction. It is here, sometimes in such ordinary ways that we take it for granted.
It’s precisely because we have received nourishment in those under-the-broom-tree moments that we are able at other times to be the angel whispering to someone else, “Get up and eat.” We share the bread of life – which sometimes means providing actual bread and sometimes means sitting down beside someone under that tree and sometimes means coming back again and, like that angel, saying, “No, I meant it. It’s time to eat.”
I’ve seen it in my own childhood when people showed up with food for families who were in mourning. And while broccoli casserole or pound cake can’t make grief disappear, they sure do taste like love when you need it most. I’ve seen it in those who regularly feed people who are homeless and have to figure out how to pull together a dinner from the donations that are left in the refrigerator at the end of the week. I’ve heard the stories about when this sanctuary was being finished by church members, and certain folks who couldn’t do the hard labor would show up with lunch for the workers. Ordinary, small acts of generosity become the bread of life because of the flesh-and-blood Savior who gives us the power to do them.
I think a lot about the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. Over the years, as I’ve studied that movement, it’s often easy for me to idolize the extraordinary sacrifices of those who put their lives on the line to stand up against vast and powerful injustice. The people who faced fire hoses and police dogs, nights in jail and cracked skulls – they are deserving of a special place in history. But in honoring what they did, it’s easy to overlook the countless small, ordinary contributions of other people whose pictures do not appear in history books.
One of my favorite writers, Jacqueline Woodson, has written a memoir called Brown Girl Dreaming, in which she captures her childhood in a series of poems. She grew up in the 60’s and 70’s moving between Brooklyn and South Carolina, where her grandparents lived. As an African-American child, she couldn’t help but be aware of the growing civil rights movement. In one particular poem she observes how their South Carolina neighbor Miss Bell participates in the movement – not by marching herself, but by feeding the people in the movement and by praying for them. Make no mistake. As you’ll hear, the ordinary act of feeding people is risky for Miss Bell. But she does it anyway, grounded in her faith that things can be different.
As you listen, ask yourself: In what ordinary ways can I support what’s right in this world? Having been fed with the bread of life, to whom can I give some bread? What does the bread I can offer look like?
They look like regular people
visiting our neighbor Miss Bell,
foil-covered dishes held out in front of them
as they arrive
some in pairs,
some just little kids
holding their mothers’ hands.
If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just
an evening gathering. Maybe church people
heading into Miss Bell’s house to talk
about God. But when Miss Bell pulls her blinds
closed, the people fill their dinner plates with food,
their glasses with sweet tea and gather
to talk about marching.
And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady
who said I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you
on that line!
Miss Bell knows that marching isn’t the only thing
she can do,
knows that people fighting need full bellies to think
and safe places to gather.
She knows the white lady isn’t the only one
who’s watching, listening, waiting,
to end this fight. So she keeps the marchers’
glasses filled, adds more corn bread
and potato salad to their plates,
stands in the kitchen ready to slice
lemon pound cake into generous pieces.
And in the morning, just before she pulls
her uniform from the closet, she prays,
God, please give me and those people marching
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ