By Dr. Amy C. Schifrin
Grace to you and peace from the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who brings us the bread of heaven. Amen.
Biscuits, brioche, and baguettes; challah, ciabatta, and crumpets; Dinklebrot and dosa; focaccia and fougasse; hushpuppy and hardtack; mantou and matzoh; pan dulce and pita; leavened or unleavened, sweet or spicy, hard as nails or fresh and fragrant, right out of the oven or in the grocer’s isle; from the Middle East to the Netherlands, Japan to México, Sweden to South East Asia—you will find it in one form or another: bread, the staff of life. In some lands it’s used for festivals and special occasions, as a taste of opulence, in others, it is the mainstay of every meal, and a true sign of hospitality and welcome. In virtually every land and culture on earth, we find some kind of bread. Water, flour, salt, and sometimes yeast, and there is bread to satisfy and to sustain. Nobody knows how many millennia ago flatbread was developed, but there is evidence of raised bread/yeast bread that goes back 5,000 years to ancient Egypt, where the first ovens have been found.
Walk into a home where bread has been baking and you will be drawn to the oven like a beggar at the back door. There were bread lines in this land during the Great Depression and there are bread lines now in Aleppo, Syria, as the government is trying to control the rebels by withholding bread. First the regime took control of water and gas, and as the rebellion has continued, they have fought over supplies of wheat. Bread is the staple of every meal in Syria and every man, woman and child, regardless of political affiliation, is hungry for it.
Control of the bread supply has long been used to manage people. Ancient Rome, one of the most brutal of governments known to mankind, one that wielded its power with threat of torture, used the supply of bread to keep people from questioning the brutality of the ruling Caesars. Bread and circuses was its method. Keep the people’s bellies full and their minds entertained, and you can do anything you want. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” it was a direct reminder that beyond any earthly regime, it was God who sustains us all.
I am the bread of life, he says, he who comes to me shall not hunger, he who believes in me shall never thirst. They all knew what bread was. They all knew what it was to want it. And unless they were of the ruling class, they knew what it meant to go without it. I am the bread of life, he says, and this one gets their attention. They see a man, but he says, bread, and life, and heaven. They see the carpenter’s son, but he speaks of his Father who will draw them up into eternity. They see a man who sounds like one of the prophets, but he will do more than tell them what is coming: he is the one who is coming. I am the bread of life, he says. Eat my flesh and you will live forever.
And just like their ancestors who ate manna in the desert, they grumble and murmur, a sign of their disbelief, of a fundamental lack of trust. Jesus reminds them that all who ate the manna still died, but that what he has to give is stronger than death. He’s calling them to himself, where the bread has no end, where the bread is eternal. And he’s letting them know he’s doing it all on his Father’s behalf. “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” The Father draws us to himself through the Son, and so Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus is having this conversation with the children of Israel in the midst of the Passover, a time of remembrance of the flight from Egypt and the unleavened bread, a remembrance of the end of slavery and the birth pangs of freedom, of bitter starvation and of quails and manna. They know what bread means. They know what hunger means. They know what death means. But they do not know what Jesus means. How could they, for no one has seen the Father, except the One who is from God. He alone has seen the Father. He alone has come down from heaven, and so he speaks in the language of promise, of promise to be fulfilled, when his body is broken into our hands, when his flesh is placed in our mouths as the bread of heaven.
He speaks in the language of eternity, and the world was not ready to hear him, so he speaks in a way that no other man had spoken: he speaks his life into ours, and his promise, his word is not diminished as it is consumed, for through his life God gives the power to raise the dead. He gives himself as bread. He puts his life in ours as bread, and when he does so, he brings heaven to us. He brings the feast to us so that we would live now with the sole purpose of bringing this bread of heaven to all the world, for the very life of the world:
To the affluent and haughty who are so satisfied with their lavish surroundings that they’ve lost their need to be filled.
To the brutal and the bitter, that the sweetness of his love would burn through the iron gates that lock their hearts.
To the hungry poor who scratch the land to cultivate enough food for the day, that they will trust in his eternal love even in the face of today’s hardships and distress.
To the beggars, who teach us all our true identity before God.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
About 15 years ago I spent some time in Los Amates, a small village in the mountains of Chalatenango, in the northeastern region of El Salvador. The peasants and farmers here had been devastated during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. There were only two water spigots for the village and there was no electricity. There was one horse and the men still fished with small nets just like first disciples of Jesus. Ninety percent of the time the diet was beans, rice, and tortillas—or tortillas, beans, and rice.
Each family had a shack with two rooms and crude canopy under which there was a rough-hewn wooden table and chairs and hammocks for sleeping. One of those rooms was the kitchen. It had a domed ceiling, a wood burning stove with a griddle across the top, a doorway and a tiny window. Pots of beans would be simmering, and when the women weren’t scrubbing their clothes on the rocky banks of the Sumpul River, the river that had once flowed with the blood of the massacred, they would be in those hot stifling kitchens making tortillas.
The village also had an oven. Just one, and it sat on the outside of the home of one of the leaders of the community. It was too expensive to bake bread very often, so the oven was only used for holidays and special occasions, and for the Sundays when a priest could come to say Mass, giving the bread of heaven for the life of the world.
One night, not long after I’d come home from that exquisite trip, where among those who had almost nothing of material value, I’d received the goodness of life, I had a dream. I was back in Los Amates in that dream, and a whole number of women from the village were in a kitchen, but this time the whole kitchen was the domed inside of an oven and they were baking loaf upon loaf of fresh, beautiful bread. Dozens of loaves lined the ceiling of the oven, and it would come down into their hands, and they would reach up to receive the bread and then turn to give it away to all the hungry, saying “Pan del Cielo, Pan del Cielo,” which means the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of Heaven. He means for us to eat of him, for all people in the world to taste his goodness, to be filled with his mercy, to believe that the Father has sent him among us, so that, filled with the bread of heaven, his promise to raise us up will be our destiny. For then, at the end of every bread line, we will, indeed, see the Father’s face. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Schifrin is associate professor of liturgy and homiletics and president of North American Lutheran Seminary in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.