Harrowing Of Hell
August 12, 2012

The Bread of Life

Preacher: The Rev Kate Wesch

I Kings 19:4-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, John 6:35, 41-51

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As the parent of a toddler, I crave sleep.  Just to be clear, my daughter is almost two and she’s a great sleeper.  We’re lucky and we know it.  But, as a busy, working mother, I crave down time.  I’m nostalgic for slow Saturday mornings with no obligations or responsibilities other than letting the dog out.  But now, well as you know, life is very different.

In my downtime, before Avery was born, I used to bake all of our bread.  I loved the slow mornings spent kneading the dough, letting it rising, reading, and thinking as the smell of fresh bread filled the kitchen.  These days, I don’t bake bread and I actually don’t even eat bread.

So, this time around, encountering the familiar gospel text from John in which Jesus states, “I am the bread of life,” just didn’t resonate in quite the same way it did in the past.

How do you hear this gospel message?  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. “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).

Forget how you feel about bread.  I fully realize some of us are gluten-free or dairy free or prefer to stick with organic, whole wheat bread, or simply don’t care, but that doesn’t matter.  However you like or don’t like your bread is fine.

It’s about the ordinary because it is the ordinary we understand best.  This is where we encounter God face to face, not on a mountain top or in a burning bush, but more likely while staring out the window waiting for the coffee to percolate, or on our hands and knees pulling weeds in the garden, or sitting up at night rocking a child, or at the bedside of a loved one who is sick.  These everyday moments are where God resides and where God speaks to us.

This portion of John’s gospel is called the Bread of Life discourse and in it, the main themes of the gospel are interwoven, namely the identity of Jesus.  So, who is Jesus?

We heard Jesus described as “the living bread that came down from heaven,” and the preceding verses claim him to be “sent by the Father” (6:32).  Our focus this week, following last Sunday’s celebration of the Transfiguration, is the eternity promised to those who eat this living bread.

These words and images conjure up snippets of favorite camp songs, like “I am the Bread of Life” or the hymn we opened with today: All who hunger gather gladly; holy manna is our bread….All who hunger, never strangers, seeker, be a welcome guest. All who hunger, sing together, Jesus Christ is living bread. Taste and see the grace eternal.  Taste and see that God is good.

We naturally make the theological leap along with the writer of this gospel by linking these images and concepts to the Eucharistic meal.  But, for the Johannine community reading this two thousand years ago, it was confusing.  Not to dwell on historic conjecture, but the intense focus on this idea in the Bread of Life discourse may be indicative of an emerging Eucharistic ritual in this early Christian community, which was contested or controversial.

Today, at least in our tradition, we accept the theological construct of consuming the body and blood of Jesus present in the bread and wine of communion.  While not all of us may believe or understand the Eucharist, it is at least an integral part of our coming together and worshipping as a community.

Throughout history, Holy Eucharist, and the other sacraments, have been referred to as the “sacred mysteries.”  The Greek word mysterion is used 27 times in the New Testament.   It’s meaning is not so much the same as our modern word mystery, but rather something that is mystical.  A biblical mystery is something outside the “unassisted natural experience”, which can be made known only through divine revelation.

I have known parents who resisted allowing their children to receive communion, preferring to wait until that magical time or age when they will be able to “understand” what it all means.  What I wouldn’t give to “understand” what it all means!   Do we withhold food or drink from children until they understand nutrition?  Of course not!  In the same way, participation in the sacred mystery of consuming Christ’s body and blood is a deeply meaningful, yet profoundly simple act.

In it, we see God in the ordinary, the everyday bread, and the plain table wine of our lives.  It’s nothing special and at the same time, through our corporate prayer and special intention, God mystically transforms the common into the extraordinary.

In her sermon last week, Charissa quoted Annie Dillard in saying that we ought to wear crash helmets to church and lash ourselves to the pews in order to be adequately prepared for the overwhelming power of God should she or he awake.  You never know when a young child might be struck by the presence of God as they join their parents at the communion rail.  Or, you, yourself might be utterly transfigured by the abundance of God’s love poured out and experienced in the sacred exchange of Christ’s body and blood.

Just as a child’s understanding of God and the Eucharist grows and matures along with them, so it does with each of us throughout a lifetime.  There are days when I’m grumpy, tired, and overwhelmed and I just want Avery to go to sleep.  I get lazy and try to skip bedtime prayers, but even at her young age, she doesn’t let me get away with it.  She gently insists, “prayers, mommy.”  “Need the cross book.”

And so, sometimes reluctantly, I pull out the Book of Common Prayer we keep at her bedside, and together we pray the Compline Service, bedtime prayers.  Jesus tells us that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, sent by God.  All of us who eat this bread, as we do each Sunday.  We will live forever.

Because, the bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world for children, adults, and the elderly – for all of us, this bread is Jesus himself, his flesh. His person, his love, his acceptance, his transfigured glory present inside each one of us.