John 6:35, 41-51
When I was serving my very first church my responsibilities exceeded that of part-time pastor. I was also the grounds keeper, building maintenance, and I was my own administrative assistant. I wore many hats in that small church. But the extra duty that I enjoyed most was the once-a-month task of baking the communion bread.
I enjoyed that task for a couple of reasons. First, the smell. One Saturday evening a month my parsonage was filled with the aroma of fresh baked bread. And if I close my eyes, I think I can still recall the fragrance. It was a great way to get into the mood, to get into the spirit if you will, for worship the next morning.
And it’s this idea of preparation for worship leads me to the other reason I liked baking the communion bread: community. You see, I was single at that time. I was a full-time student, served the church part time, and worked an additional summer job. I was also a parent and was beginning a relationship with someone special, who would of course later become my wife. It’s sufficing to say that I had a lot on my plate, so finding the time to make food for something like, say, a potluck was difficult. So, when I showed up to a potluck dinner with a plastic container of potato salad I bought at the super market, I was excused from having to bring food to any of the church functions.
That is, until I came across the passage we have before us today and hatched the idea of baking the communion bread as a way of contributing to the life of the church. In today’s text, Jesus offers us an image of bread as a way to better understand not only who he was but also as an avenue for us to discover ways in which we might contribute to the life of the church. But on an even deeper level, Jesus offers himself as the Bread of Life as a way for us to connect with God in a very down-to-earth way. And it’s this “earthy” understanding of God, this incarnate living manifestation of divinity, that makes God very real to us today.
Now, those who followed Jesus, his disciples and the crowds, must have wondered about this “earthiness.” How could they reconcile their notion of the set-apart nature of holiness with the idea that God was among them? They must have wondered about this Jesus whose parents they knew so well. They must have wondered how a person who was so much like them in so many ways could even begin to think of tying himself to heaven. And no doubt, they must have wondered how he could have made such extraordinary claims about something so ordinary: I mean, claiming to be the bread which would satisfy their hunger and quench their thirst for all of time?
But, we have come to understand that this is how God always seems to work. Oh, there are plenty of extraordinary things which happen in the presence of Jesus, but in the end, God uses fairly ordinary means to reach us. We experience this over and over again in many of Jesus’ teachings. Consider, for instance, his parables where he speaks of things like seeds and weeds and crops and vineyards and lost coins and travelers and families: all so very familiar to the people who first listened to what he had to say. And today, of course, he brings to mind the nearly universal image and experience of bread. God employs ordinary means to help us understand, embrace, and rejoice in God’s love for and intent for us all: including Jesus himself, whose childhood, no doubt mirrored that of his neighbors.
And, like I said before, we best understand and respond to ordinary things. And by God’s wondrous gift, it’s within the ordinary things, the common elements of life; bread, juice, water. It’s within these things that the Sacred somehow enters and heals and forgives and loves in some very extraordinary ways.[I]
This is important! It’s important because it’s these common elements, the most basic elements of life, that “shape our community”. As a church, as a community committed to peace and justice, to a wide welcome to all, we are invited today, to view this passage as less about our practice of religion; our traditions and rites, than as an invitation to a faithful life, a compassionate life, a real-life, earthy, understanding of what it means to be a congregation of God’s people.
Do you see what I’m driving at here?
Religious practice, and by religious practice I mean the sacraments, the traditions and rites of the Church, and worship in all its forms; these things are important! These practices are the backbone of our shared faith. But religious practice isn’t an end in and of itself. Our worship points us toward something far greater. And that “something” is the experience of God in our lives, both our individual lives and the life of our community. That “something” is a calling and a challenge to turn our gaze outward and to realize that all people and all of nature are interconnected. An interconnectedness on the most basic level; food and drink. When Jesus said, I am the Bread of Life, eat this bread and you’ll never go hungry or ever be thirsty again he was using a power image to remind us that hunger and thirst can be eternally overcome. The physical hunger of our neighbor can be overcome. The spiritual thirst we all struggle with can be overcome. That, my friends, is the beginning of faith. Faith is about action. Faith is becoming aware of God’s presence and building upon that experience by doing and being and becoming the Church to all our neighbors.
Now, being the church comes in a variety of forms. It can come through prayer or devotional reading, through communal worship or individual piety. Being the church can be as simple as performing an act of lovingkindness or as complex as a foreign mission trip. The commonality between all of these things is that we do them to contribute to something larger than ourselves.
And that’s why baking the bread became such an important part of my ritual in that little church I served back in Illinois. It connected me to the congregation, to my faith community, in a way that went far deeper than merely turning on the oven. Remember, I was discouraged from sharing my portion of the basic elements, but through the bread, I too was able to contribute to a larger whole.
Now, in the many years since, I’ve come to understand that sharing is what finally shapes a community of faith and it opens in all to us many, many new possibilities for our faith and opens to all of us many, many opportunities to live out that faith through service.
One final thought this morning. Jean Baptist Lacordaire famously shared his perspective on humanity. He said, “We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, and the flowers of one garden.”[ii] As we continue to evolve and progress as a congregation, what if we were to let Lacordiare’s words resonate in the back of our minds? What if we were to think of those who attend other churches, practice other religions, or no religion at all, as fellow leaves all hanging around on the same branch? What if we were to imagine the world through the eyes of the refugee, the immigrant, the displaced family or the little child separated from their parent and realize that the sea is vast because it is comprised of many, many drops; drops from many nations, races, and creeds? And finally, what if we were to put ourselves on an equal plane with nature? What if we, humanity, are but one of many flowers in the garden of creation? What if our interconnectedness with nature, and our affirmation of life for all of humanity, is finally the meaning behind the Bread of Life. One loaf that is comprised of many grains and one cup that is to be shared. I have to wonder, “What if?”
May you go forth from this place today, with a renewed sense purpose, a restored faith, as we continue on this journey together, constantly reshaping and reimagining what it means to be a community of faith. That’s my wish. That’s my prayer for all of us. Amen & Amen.
[i] Janet Hunt. On Breaking Bread and the Bread of Life. Dancing with the Word. (www. words.dancingwiththeword.com) 2012