Sermons That Work

The Bread of Life, Proper 16 (B) – 2012

August 26, 2012


Is there anything quite as wonderful as the smell of freshly baked bread? The ingredients are so simple – yeast, flour, eggs, butter, water, salt – but the smell when it comes out of the oven is heavenly. And what could be better than eating fresh hot bread? Slice open a loaf that is still hot from the oven, spread on some real honest-to-goodness butter, try to let the butter melt for as long as you can resist, and then take a bite. Divine! Heavenly! Out of this world!

And yet it is so simple, so earthly, really, the extraordinary taste of fresh bread that provides the ordinary staple in the diet of so many people. Eating bread can be, at the same time, a profoundly earthly and profoundly heavenly experience. Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale in their book, “La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience,” see something of this paradox in the importance of bread for southern Italians, the folks that made up about ninety percent of the Italians who emigrated to America. They say, “For most southern Italians their sturdy bread was the mainstay. When cutting a new loaf, one would make the sign of the cross on its level side and kiss the knife before cutting into it. One would never set the bread on its rounded side: bread was respected. A good man was said to be as good as ‘a piece of bread.’”

Not “good as gold,” as we say in this country. But as good as bread!

We see something of this bread-like virtue in our word “companion,” which literally means someone with whom bread is shared: com, meaning “with,” and pani, meaning “bread.” A com-panion is someone with whom we break bread. And when we break bread with someone, we are in communion with them. Thomas Foster in his book, “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” says this about breaking bread: “Here’s the thing to remember about communion of all kinds: in the real world, breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace, since if you’re breaking bread you’re not breaking heads.” Foster continues, “We’re quite particular about those with whom we break bread. We may not, for instance, accept a dinner invitation from someone we don’t care for. The act of taking food into our bodies is so personal that we really only want to do it with people we’re very comfortable with. … Generally, eating with another is a way of saying, ‘I’m with you, I like you, we form a community together.’ And that is a form of communion.”

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus says he is the bread of heaven. He says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

In this passage, Jesus contrasts his life-giving bread with the Old Testament story of manna in the wilderness. In that story, the Israelites had been freed from their bondage in Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land. But before they entered the Promised Land, they had to wander for many years in the desert. During this time they were sustained by God’s gift of manna, a flakey, bread-like substance that God provided for them daily. But as Jesus points out, while manna was food for the journey, it wasn’t the same thing as the bread of life, because even though they ate it, they died. What Jesus is saying is that through him, in him, God is providing a different type of food, for a different type of journey. In Christ, God is providing the bread of life. This is food for our journey out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. Jesus is food for our journey into the true promised land of eternal life with God.

It’s an extraordinary promise. Jesus is not only our companion on the way, the one with whom we break bread, but he is also the bread itself, the bread that came down from heaven to give us eternal life. No doubt Jesus is our companion. He is our brother, our teacher, our friend. But in our gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus is saying that he is all this and more. He is the one who has come to give us life and give it abundantly. In him was life and the life was the light of all people. He is the bread of life.

When we gather together for the Holy Eucharist, we catch a glimpse of the heavenly life that Jesus promises us. The Eucharist is that sacrament whereby we get a foretaste of that heavenly banquet when all things will be put to rights, when all hurts will be mended, when all tears will be wiped away, when all divisions will be repaired, when God will be all in all. This is why we call it Holy Communion. It is a holy union with God and with all of creation in relationship to God. And one of the things that distinguishes this breaking of bread from so many other meals is that everyone is welcome. The high and mighty and the lowly and humble; friends and enemies; relatives and strangers. All of God’s children are welcome at God’s table. All are companions, all are people we break bread with, because Christ himself is the bread that has been broken and the blood that has been poured out for the life and salvation of the whole world.

In one of our communion prayers we say, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.” We share the bread of life so that we may be strengthened and renewed to go forth into the word with a message of life and love. In small and large ways, sharing in the bread of life, sharing in Christ’s love, transforms us and our world.

Stephanie Paulsell in her book, “Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice,” tells a story about the transformative power of Holy Communion. Diana Ventura was in seminary where she was learning to be an ordained minister. She was an exceptionally good student: smart, compassionate and funny. But before she began her year of supervised ministry in a parish setting, she became very anxious. Ventura had been born with cerebral palsy, which caused her to jerk a bit when she walked and to drag one leg, and she was terribly afraid that she would spill the cup on the floor or, even worse, on someone she was serving. But the time came for her to serve and she gave it a try and things went well. No spills. She made it through her duty. Then, Paulsell writes:

“One spring Sunday, Diana served again as cupbearer and walked from person to person kneeling at the rail at the front of her church, offering them a drink. ‘The blood of Christ,’ she said to each one, ‘the cup of salvation.’ And as she raised the cup to each person’s lips, taking the utmost care not to fall, she saw her own reflection in the shiny silver chalice. Over and over again, she saw the reflection of her body in the cup. This is my broken body, she thought, serving this church. This is my body teaching people what we do with brokenness in the church. Here in this cup is new life, and here is my body, expressing the truth of what this new life means!”

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. … This is the bread that came down from heaven … the one who eats this bread will live forever.” In the bread of life, our souls are blessed and nourished. In the bread of life, nothing is lost, not even our brokenness. In the bread of life, we are raised to eternal life. The bread of life is the bread from heaven.

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