Five weeks ago we began our month long journey through the world of bread with what Presbyterian scholar Choon-Leon Seow called the “remarkably mundane” story of food for the hungry, the feeding of the 5,000.[1] In the context of that story, we considered the need for budgets and plans, the need to be sure that one has enough bread to the crowd, enough materials to build a tower, enough resources to fight go to war or fight a battle. The metaphor of bread reminds us of the need to plan ahead.

The next Sunday, as Jesus launched into the long discourse on bread which is the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, we looked at the origins of the metaphor in our faith tradition with the unleavened bread of the Passover and the gift of manna, the bread from heaven given in the desert of Sinai, and how in the faith of the Hebrew people the bread of affliction, the bread of slavery in Egypt, was transformed into the bread of justice. We heard Jesus extend this metaphor with the graphic, almost disgusting, image not merely of eating symbolic bread but of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. How, we wondered, can we work with this disturbing metaphor in our modern world?

Two weeks ago, we looked at five characteristics of bread: its universality in human culture; its simplicity; the discipline needed to make it; that it takes time to produce; and that it embodies transformation. Paying particular heed to the complaints of the Hebrews at Sinai, to Elijah’s complaints as he traveled from Samaria to Mt. Horeb, and to the complaints of the Jewish authorities who grumbled amongst themselves as Jesus was speaking, we considered what these characteristics of bread have to teach us about our own propensity for complaining.

Last Sunday, guided by the description of the house built by Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, we considered what the structure of bread can teach us about constructing “the house we build out of our lives, [in which] we live in many, many rooms.”

Today, Jesus finishes the bread discourse, and as some of his audience (the Jewish authorities, the holders of power in his society) grumbled and complained at the beginning, so at the end others in the audience (this time his own disciples, and the poor and the powerless who have followed him in search of food) grumble and complain: “They said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? * * * [So] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”[2]

When a message is disputed, as this long discourse on the metaphor of bread clearly was, by both the holders of power (the temple authorities) and those who have no power (the hungry poor), there is one word that can describe that message, and that description is, “Political.” That is the one aspect of bread that we have yet to consider, the politics of bread.

“But, wait,” someone will say, “Jesus was not political.” In answer to that, I can only refer you to the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, former bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and now professor of Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, one of the most distinguished New Testament scholars of our time. Bishop Wright, in an article published nearly thirty years ago, wrote:

Jesus’ message was . . . inescapably political. He denounced rulers, real and self-appointed. He spoke of good news for the poor. He led large groups of people off into the wilderness, a sure sign of revolutionary intent. He announced the imminent destruction of the Jerusalem temple. At the start of a festival celebrating Israel’s liberation, he organized around himself what could only have looked like a royal procession. And he deliberately and dramatically acted out a parable of the temple’s destruction, thus drawing on to himself the anger of the authorities in a way which he could never have done by healing lepers and forgiving prostitutes (though we should not miss the revolutionary note in his offer of forgiveness, whose real offence lay in its bypassing of the temple cult). The temple was, after all, the centre of Judaism in every sense. It was not like a church, even a cathedral, which housed the religious business while politics and economics went on elsewhere. For the first-century Jew, the temple was the equivalent, for twentieth-century Britain, of the Houses of Parliament, the City, the Butcher’s Guild, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, all rolled into one. And it was against this central and vital institution that Jesus spoke and acted. He died the death of the lestai, the political insurrectionists (Barabbas, and the two crucified with Jesus, were lestai). How could he not have been ‘political’?[3]

And in choosing the metaphor of bread – blessed, broken, and shared – as the central metaphor of his gospel, Jesus chose one of the most political of metaphors.

Economist Ruth Potts and historian Molly Conisbee, in their article entitled The Politics of Bread, write:

Bread represents politics and class like almost no other foodstuff. Its cost and availability has been a factor in most major revolutions and social upheavals in history. It embodies some of the worst aspects of exploitation in the food chain (it is easily adulterated – contemporary industrially produced bread is only the latest example). And the language of bread permeates our political consciousness: dole, daily bread, breadline, bread and circuses. In Egyptian Arabic, the word for bread, aish, means simply ‘life’.[4]

Jesus’ politics, however, are not the politics of the current age, nor were they the politics of his own era. Jesus’ politics are not the politics of Left or Right, Liberal or Conservative, Progressive or Reactionary; Jesus’ politics are not found on any political spectrum of any society. Jesus’ politics are, as he himself said, “not from this world . . . My kingdom is not from here.”[5] The politics of Jesus does not take a position on any political spectrum: rather, as I have recently preached, it views and judges every position on any such spectrum from the moral perspective of the Word of God. It declares that love of God and love of one’s fellow human beings are paramount, standing over and against any and every political position.

Similarly, Jesus offered no economic program other than “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”[6] Just as his politics stand over against every form of human political organization, the economics of Jesus’ gospel apply in every economic model. Whether it be the agrarian economy of First Century Palestine, the conqueror-plunderer economy of the Roman Empire which overran Palestine, the mercantile-guild economy which replaced it, or the global free-market capitalism of the modern era, the question Jesus asks is always the same: “Where are we to [find] bread for these people to eat?”[7]

Theologian Ronald Rolheiser tells a parable to which others have given the title The Town by the Bend in the River:

Once upon a time there was a town that was built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river. One body was dead so they buried it. One was alive, but quite ill, so they put that person into the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, who they then placed with a family who cared for it and who took it to school.

From that day on, every day a number of bodies came floating down the river, and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them – taking the sick to hospitals, placing the children with families, and burying those who were dead.

This went on for years; each day brought its quota of bodies, and the townsfolk not only came to expect a number of bodies each day but also worked at developing more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some of the townsfolk became quite generous in tending to these bodies and a few extraordinary ones even gave up their jobs so that they could tend to this concern full-time. And the town itself felt a certain healthy pride in its generosity.

However, during all these years and despite all that generosity and effort, nobody thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from their sight what was above them, and find out why, daily, those bodies came floating down the river.[8]

The politics of Jesus, the economics of Jesus, Jesus’ simple question, “Where are we to [find] bread for these people to eat?” demands that we step off of our political spectrum, that we get out of our economic models, that we go up the bend and find out why the bodies are floating down the river, why these people have no bread to eat. And then – here is where we find what Shakespeare’s Hamlet might have called “the rub” – and then he demands that we do something about it.

We are tempted to join the Jewish authorities and ask, “How can he say such things?”[9] We are tempted to join those early disciples and say, “This is a difficult teaching.”[10] Jesus knows that. Jesus makes no false promises; he does not promise prosperity or success:

As Jesus describes the Christian mission, he doesn’t offer an attractive recruiting poster – “Be all you can be.” In the short run, at least, Jesus is not an optimist about the Christian mission. It’s a rugged minority movement, and when it confronts the massive majority culture, whether that’s Roman or American, there’s going to be lots of friction. In recruiting foot soldiers for God’s Kingdom, Jesus warns us to be prepared for the worst. The Christian mission, the battle of God’s Kingdom is going to be a long, slogging, divisive campaign. Jesus does not raise false hopes. His recruitment campaign is not about self-fulfillment; it’s about self-sacrifice.[11]

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus asks the Twelve if they, like the other disciples described in the reading, want to leave him. This is also the question which we are asked; it is the question of Jesus’ politics, the politics of bread. Do we want to leave Jesus and take some position on the political spectrum of the day? Do we want to leave Jesus and adopt some economic model of human design? Or do we want to stay with Jesus, to follow him out of whatever the current politics and economics may be, go with him upstream, around the bend, to discover a new way?

It’s going to be, as I said, a long, slogging, and divisive campaign. We’re going to have to put on all that armor that Paul writes about in the Letter to the Ephesians. We aren’t guaranteed prosperity or success in this endeavor in this world on any of our political spectra in any of our economic models. They aren’t working. Somehow, we all know that, in whatever place we may be politically or economically, we know that something is broken; something is wrong. Bodies keep floating by. People keep starving for bread.

In C.S. Lewis’ first Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, which is an allegory of Christ and salvation, Christ is represented by the lion Aslan. When they arrive in Narnia, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, the children around whom the story revolves, meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who describe Aslan them:

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”[12]

If we’re going to follow the politics of Jesus, the politics of bread, we’re going to need all that armor. “He isn’t safe. But he’s good.” There’s really no other choice, is there? We have to go upstream around the bend, if we are going to figure out why all these bodies are floating by, if we are going to learn where to find bread for all these people, we have no other choice. As Peter answers on behalf of the rest of the Twelve and on our behalf, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”[13] Amen.


The illustration is The Breadline by sculptor Georg Segal, located in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. The photograph is taken from


This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

The lessons used for the service are Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; and St. John 6:56-69. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, 1 and 2 Kings (Abingdon: Nashville, 1999), page 191

[2] John 6:60,66

[3] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the ‘State’, Themelios 16.1 (1990): 11-17 (pp. 12-13), accessible online

[4] Ruth Potts and Molly Conisbee, The Politics of Bread, Resilience, January 6, 2014, accessible online

[5] John 18:36

[6] Luke 18:22

[7] John 6:5

[8] From Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing (1999), quoted by E.S. Kraay, The Town by the Bend in the River, The Vitruvian Man, April 15, 2015, accessible online

[9] John 6:41

[10] John 6:60

[11] Christian Reformed pastor Leonard J. Vander Zee, quoted in Russell Muilenburg, Jesus Came to Disrupt, sermon preached Sunday, December 9, 2012, at Hope Church, Spencer, Iowa, accessible online (an internal link to Pastor Vander Zee’s original sermon no longer works)

[12] CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe (Penguin, 1950)

[13] John 6:68-69