By James M. Stanton
There is a Hungarian saying, “Bread is older than man.” To the ancients, bread was something of a mystery — even a miracle. While virtually every culture knew and consumed simple grain cakes, it seems the Egyptians were the first to use a leavened starter. The bread was light and airy. And the bakers were revered as wonder-workers. No one understood the basic action of yeast until Louis Pasteur explained it in the 1850s. And so bread seemed a special gift of God. That saying, however, is especially apt when it comes to what Jesus says in the Gospel: “I am the bread of life.”
This “bread of life,” this Jesus, is indeed older than man — older than the world itself. It is there in John’s opening verses: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” And the Church affirms this truth in the Nicene Creed, week after week.
This statement, “I am the bread of life,” is Christological: it tells us who Jesus is. Like his other “I am” statements, it points us to his unity with God: “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Light,” “I am the Way, the Truth,” “I am Resurrection and I am Life.” Or simply, “Before Abraham was, I am.”
But this one is peculiar. It refers less to a title than to a work – less to what Jesus is in his deity, and more to what he is to us, for us, here and now. It tells us something very precious.
As I was praying this passage in preparation for today, my mind was drawn to that other memorable phrase in John’s first letter: “God is love.”
The word used there is agape. Agape, as you may well know, was not a highly valued concept in the Greek-speaking world. As you may also well know, there were other words used in Greek to speak of love.
Eros, that love that sweeps you off your feet, into which you rightly may be said to “fall,” that was the love of the philosophers and poets. It took you out of yourself in ecstasy, lifted you to dizzying heights, made you feel — feel both joy and pain. Though it be visceral, it need not be entirely sensual or sexual. It was so highly prized among the ancients because it made one feel alive — whether, in normal life, pursuing or possessing another, or striving after the higher goods: beauty and wisdom and the good itself.
Philia was next in importance. It was the love of friends and citizens and soldiers. It was the love of honor, loyalty, and trust, so important for the building of community.
Agape love was, in comparison with these, far more mundane and, therefore, far less thought about or written about. It was the love characterized by care for others, thus its older translation as charity. It was the act of self-giving, of self-sacrifice. It was a binding love – such as would bind a person to members of one’s family, or a servant to his master.
Plato had taught that the gods were never the subject of love — the lovers — because eros and philia implied desire or need, and all their needs were satisfied. They could only be the objects of love for those in need — the ones to whom the needy would turn. That is why humans sought the gods and sought to win their favor. But Plato never spoke of agape in relation to the divine. How could he? The great Plato could not have conceived of any meaning attaching to the word agape in relation to the gods. What could possibly motivate them to “care” or to “sacrifice”?
While we today take for granted the notion that God is love — agape — I think we must reckon with what a shock this word must have been to those who first heard it proclaimed! And how sad that we have so domesticated the word that the shock is lost on us and our people. It comes to mean little more than that God is kind, that he accepts us, that he looks beneficently on all our silliness, selfishness, and even sin.
But what has agape to do with bread?
Think about bread: it is the staff, the stuff of life. It is a basic human need. And Jesus knows this, for immediately he speaks of the experience of that need: hunger. “He who comes to me shall not hunger – he who believes in me shall never thirst.”
It is to meet that need – that everyday, very basic, very human need — that he has come, he tells us. He has come not to do his own will but the will of the God who sent him. He has come to sustain us — to meet the gnawing hunger in our souls, to strengthen us for the journey of life, to nurture us for eternal communion with God.
His giving of himself as the Bread of Life is a sign of agape, the agape that belongs to God and that is the nature of God. In his teaching and his touch, in his enduring suffering and death, and in his faithful obedience he shows us who God is — and who we are to Him.
Bread to the ancients may have been a miracle. But surely the greater miracle is the one that Jesus pointed to in his ministry: that at the heart of reality, the power that made and rules the world, is the God who gives — whose love is sacrificial — and who does this not because of his need, but because of ours.
In Jesus, the Bread of Life, we are not merely sustained but transformed. What a gift it is to know this God.
And what a gift it is to be called to serve him and to feed his people with his word. This bread, said St. Ambrose, is “the food of the saints” (On the Patriarchs, 9.38).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said of his life as it neared its end, “I discovered, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world.”
What would it mean to take God’s sufferings – God’s sacrifice – more seriously than our own? What would it mean for us to so meditate on the agape of God with clear sight and deep humility that we give ourselves to others for his sake? How would the Church be transformed if we taught and lived agape as the principal and most glorious meaning of love?
As we walk this Holy Week, let our prayer be that found in the Didache and set to verse by Bland Tucker (in the year we became a Diocese, 1895):
Watch o’er Thy Church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still,
Perfect it in Thy love, unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in the broken bread made one,
So from all lands Thy Church be gathered
Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.
The Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton is the retired Bishop of Dallas.