January 21, 2007

Caravan: Bread
John 6:25-35

Bread has gotten a great deal of bad press lately. “Eat less of it,” Dr. Adkins advised in his now famous low-carb diet. Others go even further. According to a major scientific study recently published by Snopes.com, bread is downright dangerous! Here are just a few of the facts that grew out of this study:
More than 98 percent of convicted felons are bread users.
More than 90 percent of violent crimes are committed within 24 hours of eating bread.
In the 18th century, when virtually all bread was baked in the home, the average life expectancy was less that 50 years; infant mortality rates were unacceptably high; many women died in childbirth; and diseases such as typhoid, yellow fever, and influenza ravaged whole nations.
Fully half of all children who grow up in bread-consuming households score below average on standardized tests.
Bread has been proven to be addictive. Subjects deprived of bread and given only water to eat begged for bread after as little as two days.
Bread is often a “gateway” food item, leading the user to “harder” items such as butter, jelly, peanut butter, and even cold cuts.
Most American bread eaters are utterly unable to distinguish between significant scientific fact and meaningless statistical babbling.
Bread, some people tell us, is not only unhealthy, but scary.

I’m rather fond of bread myself. My father used to say that an attractive tie could transform even the plainest of suits. I suspect that good bread functions in much the same way. Whether Chipati in Kenya, Injera in Ethiopia, Nan in India, Pita in Palestine, Dinkelbrot in Germany, oatcakes in Scotland, a tortilla in Mexico, or a loaf of bread here in the U.S., even the sorriest of meals can be at least partially salvaged by warm, homemade bread.

Bread, eaten by people all over the world for the last 12,000 or so years, is the common thread woven throughout John 6—all 71 verses. The event that triggers everything that transpires here is the feeding of the multitude. Jesus, as you know, had broken a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish into enough pieces to satisfy the appetites of several thousand people. The resulting excitement continues to fill the air the next day when members of the crowd gather around him once again. Glancing into their hearts, Jesus quickly notices that these people are driven by the same preoccupation with the physical side of life that affected the woman of Samaria whom he had earlier encountered at the well. She thought solely of wet, running water. This crowd is now fixated on floury, baked bread. “Stop working so hard for food that perishes,” Jesus abruptly advises them. “Eat instead the food that I can give you, food that lasts forever.” But they don’t get it. They can’t get past matza, Challah and bagels. Even their traditional stories—sacred to Jews over the centuries—reinforce their obsession with the physical world. “Moses gave us manna—real, tangible manna—when we were hungry in the wilderness,” they say. “What will you give us?” “What food do you have to offer?” they ask. And in answering their question, Jesus uses the symbol of bread to once again help his listeners—and us—to think more intently about their spiritual rather than their physical lives.

Jesus, first of all, offers to give these food-seeking people what he refers to as “the true bread.” In describing the bread in this way, Jesus clearly acknowledges that there are multiple varieties of bread from which people may choose. This is certainly true, isn’t it, of physical bread? The shelves of our supermarkets are lined with one type of bread after another—white, wheat, whole wheat, rye, oat, pumpernickel and sourdough, to name just a few. There are rolls, biscuits, croissants and baguettes. Round loaves, square loaves, rectangular loaves and even ovular loaves. Bread-eaters, past and present, have options, and not all bread is the same.

So it is, Jesus suggests, with spiritual bread. We are confronted every day with all sorts of bread that promise to feed our souls—to nourish our inner lives—and they are not all the same. Borders and Barnes and Noble have shelves and shelves of books categorized under the heading “spirituality.” Amazon.com lists 208,190 books under the heading “spiritual.” Here are just a few:
Tripura Rahasya: The Secret of the Supreme Goddess.
Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding, and Implants.
Art of Spiritual Healing: Chabra and Energy Bodywork.
Sacred Union: The Journey Home: The Path of Self Ascension.
There are a lot of different types of bread out there. Hindu bread. Muslim bread. New Age bread. Self-help bread. Transcendental meditation bread. Discover your true-spirit bread. Mormon bread. Health and wealth bread. Even bread, like the materials distributed by the San Francisco-based Church of Satan, that promote demonic worship. There is a lot of bread out there, Jesus reminds us, and not all bread is the same. Among all of the varieties of spiritual bread on the market, Jesus offers people what he calls the “true bread.”

This true bread of which Jesus speaks comes, as he further describes it, from heaven. Have you ever paid attention to where the bread you eat comes from? Some of the bread we buy comes off of conveyor belts miles and even several states away. Some bread is mixed in distant factories, left unbaked, and packaged in cardboard tubes that must be pounded upon the counter top in your kitchen before being placed in the oven. Why, some bread even comes frozen and must be thawed, left to rise, and then baked before it can be eaten. In truth we have no clue who prepared it or baked it. Such bread is just there, sitting on the shelves or in the frozen sections of our super markets.

But then there is bread kneaded and baked in either a local bakery or in our own kitchens. One of the advantages of growing up in Emmaus, PA was living within a few miles of the Emmaus Bakery. They have bread to die for! I won’t even bother to describe for you their mouth-watering doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, bear claws or Moravian buns. I’m sorry, but Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t quite cut it. Where the bread comes from matters a great deal. Just compare a hamburger bun at McDonald’s with a pretzel roll at Isaacs or a dinner roll at the California Café in Carlisle!

The same thing can be said of spiritual bread, Jesus announces. Some bread is the product of human wishful thinking. Other bread is no doubt produced in the materialistic imaginations of ingenious daydreamers who misread sacred text for personal fame or profit. Still other bread is baked in the longing hearts of people from all over the world who, though often wise and sincere, speak in the name of human gods rather than the one true God. Not the bread of which Jesus speaks. He offers true bread, bread given by our Father in heaven. Human minds did not concoct it. Human hearts did not will it. Human hands did not bake it. The bread of which Jesus speaks is a gift from God himself—the true bread sent from heaven.

And finally, the true bread that Jesus offers is thoroughly nourishing—it is healthy to eat. A simple glance at the nutrition labels on the bread that we often eat clearly indicates that not every type of bread is of equal value or benefit. White bread, for example, offers far less fiber than whole grain bread, and conveyor-belt bread typically brings with it a vast array of chemicals and preservatives often lacking in fresh baked bread. The nutrition label on most packaged biscuits reveals an excessive amount of fat, and many varieties of rolls and breads contain far more sodium than they need. Not all physical bread, I think we all realize, is of equal nutritional value.

So, too, with spiritual bread. Some breads are helpful and may very well satisfy certain spiritual longings of the human heart. The various faiths and religious movements of the world, for example, are not all bad—that is why they are often attractive. I’ve learned a great deal, quite frankly, from some of my Jewish and Muslim friends, and the bread they offer unquestionably satisfies certain spiritual needs—the needs for community, ethical standards, an awareness of the holy or mysterious, and a sense of historical purpose, to name just a few. Other spiritual bread, however, is stale, moldy and even harmful if eaten. Some is long on fat and short on substance. Some is only half-baked, even though it is packaged in an attractive wrapper. And still other bread is poisonous and can imprison the spirit and destroy the soul. The shelves of our spiritual grocery stores are filled with varying types of bread, and many of them lack certain nutrients or are downright dangerous.

Jesus, instead, offers the true bread from God that includes all of the spiritual nutrients that our souls will ever need. This bread offers not only guidelines, but grace. Not only instruction, but transformation. And most importantly, the true bread offers not only prophets and teachers, but a savior. Jesus offers bread that will so thoroughly satisfy our spiritual hunger that we will never need to look elsewhere for food again.

Jesus, in short, wants people like the woman at the well and the crowd here in Galilee—people like you and me—to realize that the spiritual side of life is more important than the physical. But he does not stop there. Recognizing that we are profoundly spiritual beings in need of spiritual food is, in Jesus’ mind, only the beginning. We need proper nourishment. We need to learn to eat the right foods. When Jesus announces that he is the bread of life—the true bread from heaven—he is making certain that we realize that the only spiritual food that will fully satisfy the longings of the human heart is the food that he himself gives. Any form of spirituality that does not center on Jesus Christ—the Jesus as he is vividly portrayed in the Bible and worshiped in faithful communities—is lacking one nutrient or another.

“Give us the bread always,” the people in the crowd enthusiastically respond, no doubt looking around for a local market or bakery truck. But their tune quickly changes once Jesus announces, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (v. 51).” Apparently, there is a caveat in all of this—a potential downside to this true bread. Though the bread that Jesus offers is completely nourishing and deeply satisfying, it doesn’t always taste good and is at times difficult to digest.

We notice this, don’t we, not so much in what Jesus says about the bread, but in the way the crowd reacts to him when they hear his elaboration—“the bread is my flesh.”
Those in the crowd are put off by the statement, in part because some of them recognize Jesus to be the son of Joseph and Mary. He is, in their minds, a simple, ordinary man. Others, however, remain caught in their preoccupation with the physical side of life, and find it impossible to grasp the true intent of his message. “This teaching is difficult,” they conclude. “This is hard to understand and even harder to accept.” And they walk away. They leave the table. Many of Jesus’ disciples, John informs us, “turned back and no longer went about with him.” The bread of Jesus was hard to swallow. It was full of grain and fiber, and the people preferred cinnamon bread with lots of icing on it.

Various forms of spiritual bread are quick to make and easy to swallow. They taste good—light and sweet. They sometimes make us feel better, help us forget the nagging concerns of life, and even deaden our interest in real, hearty whole grain bread. They may, in short, offer what we want to hear and require little from us. How many people do you know who prefer pre-packaged, store bought, conveyor belt, white bread over chewy, fresh baked, whole grain bread? It tastes sweet, costs less, and is easier to digest. People who live on spiritual bread of this variety typically look for quick fixes and jump from one experience to another, never quite settling down for a real, nourishing meal. Jesus offers us bread that is truly nourishing—it will satisfy the deepest longings of our souls for all of eternity. But it doesn’t always taste sweet. It isn’t always easy to swallow. You can’t simply buy it at a convenient store and eat it on the run. It takes everything we are and have to digest it.

Bread, as I’ve said, has gotten a great deal of bad press in recent years. And it is true that there are a lot of products going around these days masquerading as bread, products that we would do well to avoid. But truth be told, there are few foods that I know of that are better than a loaf of warm, whole grain bread. So it is with our spiritual lives as well. There is a great deal of spiritual food available on the market these days, and we’d be better off staying away from a good deal of it. But don’t let that keep you from eating the bread that will satisfy you forever. We are spiritual beings in need of spiritual food. Jesus is the bread of life. Fresh. Nourishing. Satisfying. Forever.