At the end of our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus said to the crowd, “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus answered, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This is the beginning of Jesus’ long discourse on bread which takes up nearly the whole of Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John and of which we will hear parts for all of the month of August.
A few verses further on, Jesus will say again, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” And he will add, “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
The Jews, John tells us, disputed among themselves as Jesus was delivering this lengthy dissertation on bread. I think we can understand why! The very idea of consuming human flesh is off-putting, even disgusting, and would have been extremely objectionable to the Jews; no wonder they grumbled and mumbled, complained and disputed. Even as a metaphor, the statement demands a lot from Jesus’ followers!
Church-going Episcopalians (and others like us who participate weekly in Holy Communion) are perhaps overly familiar with the metaphor. It’s not that we have somehow explained it away; I don’t think we have. Rather, we have made it routine. Every week we act out Christ’s injunction with some sweet wine and a tasteless little cracker we call a “host.” A couple of decades ago, Monsignor Paul Turner, a Roman Catholic priest in Kansas City, Missouri, quipped that “it’s easier to believe that bread really becomes the Body of Christ than it is to believe that the host is really bread.” Nonetheless, we make these claims, that the host is bread and that the bread is the Body of our Lord, and in doing so we seem to have weakened the impact of this shocking metaphor.
I mean, really, it is a disturbing statement that Jesus makes. To someone who does not hear these words through 2,000 years of eucharistic practice, eating flesh and drinking blood sound a whole lot like cannibalism and vampirism.
How can we recapture the power of this metaphor? How can we make it make sense both to ourselves and to the non-church world in the 21st Century? How would we explain this to a person who has watched every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and read every word of the Twilight series, who knows all about Count Dracula and Professor Abraham Van Helsing, but has never stepped foot in a church and may not even know what the Bible is?
The lectionary this week pairs our gospel reading with the Exodus story of the manna, that “fine flaky substance” that Moses identified for the Hebrews as “the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” This is the bread to which those with whom Jesus converses in the gospel story refer. When Jews gather to celebrate the story of the Exodus at Passover, it is customary to have three pieces of matzah stacked on the table. One piece represents the hastily baked unleavened bread eaten as they left Egypt. Two are a reminder of the double portion of manna the Israelites gathered before every Sabbath while in the desert.
Among some Jews today, during the Passover ritual of the unleavened bread or matzah, each person is invited to hold a piece of matzah. The leader of the ritual says: “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” Then in silence all break their matzot in half and they listen to the sound of the bread of affliction cracking open. All then say together:
May our eyes be open to each other’s pain.
May our ears be open to each other’s cries.
May we live with greater awareness.
May we practice greater forgiveness.
And may we go forward as free people
able to respond to ourselves and to each other
with compassion, wonderment, appreciation, and love.
All of the broken matzah are put together on a single plate and the prayer continues:
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in need join us in this Festival of Liberation.
May each of us, may all of us, find our homes.
May each of us, may all of us, be free.
In this ritual of the Seder, the matzah is understood to be changed. It ceases to be the bread of affliction and is transformed into the manna, the bread of hope, courage, faith, and possibility. The bread of affliction becomes something greater than it was, something above its original being, something more than its original substance; it becomes the bread of justice.
I borrow that latter term, “bread of justice,” from the verse written by German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht entitled, The Bread of the People:
Justice is the bread of the people
Sometimes is plentiful, sometimes it is scarce
Sometimes it tastes good, sometimes it tastes bad.
When the bread is scarce, there is hunger.
When the bread is bad, there is discontent.
Throw away the bad justice
Baked without love, kneaded without knowledge!
Justice without flavour, with a grey crust
The stale justice which comes too late!
If the bread is good and plentiful
The rest of the meal can be excused.
One cannot have plenty of everything all at once.
Nourished by the bread of justice
The work can be achieved
From which plenty comes.
As daily bread is necessary
So is daily justice.
It is even necessary several times a day.
From morning till night, at work, enjoying oneself.
At work which is an enjoyment.
In hard times and in happy times
The people requires the plentiful, wholesome
Daily bread of justice.
Since the bread of justice, then, is so important
Who, friends, shall bake it?
Who bakes the other bread?
Like the other bread
The bread of justice must be baked
By the people.
Plentiful, wholesome, daily.
Brecht’s poem reminds us that like our need for daily bread – something for which Jesus taught us to pray – the work of justice is a daily, or perhaps even more frequent, task! As human beings we hunger for food but also for more; we hunger for meaning. One of the most important ways we create meaning is by engaging in the struggle for justice, the struggle to see that all people get their daily needs met, including enough food to eat. And like making bread, it takes many hands to make justice.
Perhaps this is why the lectionary combines the two stories of bread – the Exodus story of the manna identified as “the bread from heaven” and Jesus’ declaration that he is the true bread from heaven, “the bread of life” – with Paul’s famous metaphor in the Letter to the Ephesians of the church seen as the Body of Christ: “There is one body . . . we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
This body, made up of many members, must do the work of making the bread of justice. This body, nurtured by eating the true Bread, the Body of Christ, and by drinking his Blood, must do the work of making the bread of justice, must do the daily work of “striv[ing] for justice and peace among all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being.”
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. * * * Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We will hear Jesus proclaim this metaphor every Sunday’s gospel lesson this month. We hear Jesus proclaim this sacramental metaphor in every celebration of the Eucharist! How can we recapture the power of this shocking and disturbing metaphor which calls us into the service of justice? How can we make it make sense both to ourselves and to the non-church world in the 21st Century?
I wish I had the answer to these questions, but I think the answers are less important than the questions themselves. Simply knowing that there are questions, acknowledging that they are real, that they are troubling, that they are important, and that there are no easy answers is the first step in our calling to show that Christ with his call to love and justice is real, and troubling, and important to the world, that Christ is relevant in the 21st Century.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
The lessons used for the service are Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; and St. John 6:24-35. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.
 John 6:32b-35 (Return to text)
 John 6:51,54-56 (Return to text)
 Exodus 16:14-15 (Return to text)
 Exodus 16:11-22 (Return to text)
 John Willett & Ralph Manheim, eds., Bertold Brecht: Poems 1913-1956 (Methuen: London, 1979), p. 434 (Return to text)
 Ephesians 4:4,15-16 (Return to text)
 The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Easter Vigil: The Baptismal Covenant, page 293 (Return to text)
 John 6: 51,54-56 (Return to text)