BREAD OF HEAVEN  (Year B: Proper 16)

23 August 2015

The language is startling, disturbing, abhorrent even. It is not surprising that some of those who first heard it found it utterly distasteful and unpalatable and could not stomach it. ‘This teaching is difficult’, they said, ‘who can accept it?’. Many of them ‘turned back and no longer went about with him’. This talk about the necessity – the VITAL necessity – of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is too physical, too raw, for our taste. The word used in the Greek, translated into English as ‘eating’, is decidedly unrefined. It is the word for munching, chomping, for eating noisily. To speak in that Jewish context of drinking blood was both highly offensive and blasphemous. In the Old Covenant blood was forbidden for human consumption: it was reserved solely for GOD.                        

Jesus speaks of his flesh as ‘BREAD’. ‘I am the bread of life …the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’. He offers himself to us as food – food whereby we may live. ‘He who eats me will live because of me…whoever eats this bread will live for ever’.           

He had earlier said of himself that HIS ‘food was to do the will of him who sent him and to finish his work’. In other words, it was his commitment to doing what the Father wanted which was his staple fare, his daily bread. It was that which nourished and sustained and fed him, giving him his energy, his strength, giving him his substance, his very being. Every fibre and every particle of him, the coursing of his blood, the beating of his pulse, was alive and responsive to the Father who had ‘sent’ him. What the Father wanted of him would only be apprehended gradually and tentatively by him. Like the rest of us, Jesus had to find his way through life step by slow step; there was no blueprint available to him, no manual of instructions which he could consult. Like the rest of us all he had was faith – trust that the Father was with him and that he would provide all that was needful for the accomplishing of his work. Jesus’ commitment to what the Father wanted was in effect to take on an unknown and unguaranteed future, with no clear notion of what it might require of him. Only gradually, only obliquely, would the details of the Father’s will be disclosed to him. It was precisely that vulnerability, that unconditional commitment to an unknown future, which was his ‘food’.                                                

So only gradually did the realisation come into focus that he who was nourished and given his identity by his obedience to the Father, was himself to be nourishment; ‘food’ for others – that he was to be ‘the bread of life’, the bread from heaven, bread for the world, that we may eat and ‘live for ever’.                                                       

Bread in its various forms is the fundamental foodstuff of humankind. Every Sabbath freshly baked loaves made of the finest wheat flour were placed in the Temple in Jerusalem – a visible reminder to the people of GOD’s covenanted care for them during the Wilderness years and since. The Bread of the Presence. In ancient Greece ‘bread-eater’ was another word for ‘human being’. We earn our bread; beg for bread; act as the breadwinner. It is the staff of life. It is prosaic, unpretentious and plain. Bread is humble and it is generous. Bread is for breaking and sharing. Those who break bread together and share it are companions – bonded by their sharing in the one ‘panis’ – the one bread.                                       

So Christ offers himself to us as bread. The Eucharist is one of the places where we meet him and partake of him and his loving obedience to the Father, so that we abide in him and he in us. There are other places and other ways in which he offers himself to us for our sustenance. We feed on him at the table of his Word, for ‘man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’. As Simon Peter ecstatically exclaims – there is nowhere else to go, for the words of Jesus, ‘the Holy One of God, are the words of eternal life’, words which feed and nourish those who ‘have ears to hear’, words which ‘are spirit and life’.                                                

Likewise we feed on him, are sustained and nourished by him, in our life together, in our relationships, in our responsibilities, our commitments and our care for one another and particularly for his suffering members. He who sees his neighbour - and sees with ‘the eyes of the heart’ - sees GOD.     

In whatever way we eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, it is always the case that it is not done once and for all. We have to go on doing it. The Eucharist of itself creates hunger and thirst. ‘As the deer longs for running streams, so longs my soul for you O GOD’. The Eucharist is the nourishment which feeds desire and longing – the longing for the Kingdom of GOD and his righteousness. When speaking of the Kingdom Jesus said that ‘many will come from east and west to sit at the table of the Kingdom with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’. In his parables of the Kingdom he frequently uses the imagery of feasting and celebration – a Great Supper, a Wedding Banquet, a family party with ‘music and dancing’ to celebrate the return of one who was lost and has been found. That, says Jesus, is what the Kingdom is – celebration, conviviality, companionship, communion, bread and wine, flesh and blood.

Eric Simmons CR