A reflection on John 6:51-58 by Alison Sampson, 16 August 2009
I want to start by telling you a story. A friend of mine has a cousin. This cousin lives in one of the former Soviet states. In that country, in that culture, bread is no less than sacred. It is so precious that it cannot touch the floor. It cannot be thrown away, or buried, or burned. It is a holy thing.
Bread is the staple food. It is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so everyone buys a lot of it. But the bread is fresh for only one day. Any leftovers are inedible the next day – but they cannot be discarded. Presumably the people who live there have many ways of using up stale bread. But this family doesn’t. They don’t know what to do with it. First they stacked bread on top of the kitchen cupboards. Flat loaves were piled high to the ceiling! But when that got too much, the father took a carload of stale bread, went for a drive in the middle of the night, and dumped it over a cliff!
The story makes me laugh. All I could suggest were recipes for bread soup, bread pudding, and apple charlotte!
I wanted to tell this story, because as I was preparing for this week, I read the readings and groaned. I flicked through various old sermons on our website and others, and worked out how I am supposed to preach on this text from John. I should be telling you about the fleshiness of the metaphors, how they were disgusting to the first hearers and are revolting even now. I should be saying that, although most modern Christians immediately leap from this passage to the polite symbol of communion, we need to understand that the path to communion leads through the cross and Christ’s bloody self-sacrifice for us. I should probably contextualise his claims by explaining about animal sacrifice. And there are many other things I should say, but I won’t.
I won’t because I can’t get past the bread. Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” This is the fourth week in a row that we have been talking about bread, whether it’s stories of Jesus feeding thousands of people, or the direct claims that Jesus makes about himself. He took five loaves, broke them, gave thanks, and fed the people. There were twelve baskets over, and some for the birds as well. I am the bread of life, he said. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry. I am the bread that came down from heaven. I am the living bread. Bread, bread, bread, bread, bread!
And I have been wondering what this means to twenty first century people in an age of abundance. Bread’s just not a big deal for us. You wander down the milk bar and get a loaf of pre-sliced, thanks – or an organic sourdough rye, of course! So why is Jesus carrying on about it?
I think that in order to get closer to the imagery, we need to go back and look at Jesus’ context. What did bread mean to Jesus’ first audience? What was bread to a first century Palestinian peasant?
Quite simply, bread was the difference between life and death. Bread meant life. No bread, death. Like the former Soviet state I just mentioned, people who were around when Jesus was alive ate almost nothing else. They ate bread with yogurt or cheese for breakfast; bread with vegetables for lunch; and bread with vegetables and fish for dinner. On very special occasions, they might have small pieces of lamb. But without bread, a first century Palestinian would have starved.
Despite being the bulk of their diet, bread wasn’t easily come by. No fluffy pre-sliced for them! Bread was made from wheat and barley grains, ground coarsely by hand between two stones, and baked into rough pita loaves the same day. It sounds simple enough, but it’s tremendously hard work. The daily grind for a family of six took about three hours. So women would get up about four o’clock every morning, and grind the flour before anyone else got out of bed. When I was a small child, my parents and I travelled to Nepal. My father says he will never forget the sounds of the grinding stones which started as early as three each morning. Even now, there are people who have to grind their grain by hand, people who live in remote villages in Nepal and the Sudan.
Because the work was so hard, and took so long, women could never get ahead. So the grinding had to be done every single day.
When crops failed, a family had almost nothing else to eat. Famine was an ever-present fear. Families were faced with terrible choices: should they plant the last of their seeds of grain, going hungry now in the hope of bread next year; or should they use them to feed their families, giving up all hope for the year to come? I wonder how people living in these situations might feel if someone said to them, if you come to me you will never be hungry? To his first audience, Jesus’ words would have had a power we will never know.
That’s the context. But we are all invited to his table, whether we’re a hungry first century Palestinian or a well-fed twenty-first century Aussie. So his words must continue to hold meaning for us. What, to a people who are generally thoughtless about food, might Jesus’ words invite us to?
One problem is that we cannot imagine the central role bread has in life. For people of abundance, there is no main food. Get rid of bread, and we still have rice, pasta, tortillas made from wheat or corn, sweet potato, regular potatoes, millet, and barley. We can’t imagine being so reliant on one of these that without it, we die.
For that matter, we cannot imagine, actually, what it is to be hungry. I’m not sure any of us has ever been truly hungry, worried sick about where the next meal might come from. But in being invited to Jesus’ table, we must think about our brothers and sisters, who are hungry.
After all, over a quarter of the food grown in Australia ends up in landfill. Some of the wastage happens in transport, as food spoils over long distances. Some of it happens in shops, as consumers refuse to purchase iffy-looking products. Some things are thrown out because they are incorrectly labelled, or past their use-by date, or slightly damaged. One egg breaks, and the other eleven are heaved into the dumpster. Food is wasted in restaurants. And food is wasted in homes.
We all do it. We buy a bunch of radishes, and forget to eat them. We cook a meal, and throw out the leftovers – whether on the night, or three weeks later. We leave lettuce to slime in the bottom of the crisper, and odd bits of cheese to grow hairy with mould. How many times I have thrown out old bread ends, I cannot tell you. I whizz them into breadcrumbs; I freeze chunks to throw in soup; I use the heels in apple charlotte; but the rest, I toss into the worm farm.
Yet I live in a world where one in twelve people worldwide is malnourished. People are starving, while I chuck food out. At the same time, around 760 million tons of grain is fed to animals to make meat, instead of being provided to the people who can’t afford to eat meat and could make a meal out of the grain. And even more grain is being turned into biofuel, so we can drive around while others starve.
I believe Jesus has something to say about this. Just a few weeks ago, we heard the story of the loaves and fishes. Jesus took five loaves and two fishes, gave thanks, broke them, and fed the hungry crowd. What happened to the leftovers? Jesus told his disciples to gather up the pieces. Presumably they would have been used to feed other hungry people. God blesses us with much more than we need. But instead of throwing away the excess, however, we are to take what we don’t need and do something with it.
So Jesus the Bread of Life invites us to a practical response. We are not to waste food; we are to collect up the excess and share it.
There are many ways we could do this. Most obviously, we could be thoughtful about how we buy, store and serve food. We could buy only what we need; we could store it carefully, so that we use it before weevils or mould get to it; we could serve out only what would be eaten; and we could make sure we eat any leftovers rather than leave them to rot in the fridge.
We could eat less grain-fed meat, slowly moving towards a more vegetable-based, and thus more sustainable, diet.
We could think about biofuels – is it right for us to drive while others starve? Perhaps we might investigate hard questions such as how much we use our cars, and even whether we need them at all.
We could support agencies that re-use food that is otherwise destined for landfills, such as Second Bite or FareShare. They collect food and turn it into meals for people in need.
We could support development agencies that provide small mills to remote villagers, freeing up precious time for women to do other things. In the south of the Sudan, women either grind by hand or walk an average of 18 miles each day to the nearest mill. The typical south Sudanese woman works 17 hours a day to run the household: fetching water, grinding grain, finding fuel, and cooking. Just imagine what returning three hours to them, previously used for grinding grain, might mean.
And I am sure you can think of other practical responses.
But just as importantly, we are invited to learn old ways of viewing the world, a world which God has made and named as Good. How can we, so choked with stuff that we are almost contemptuous of the material, learn to value the creation? Learn to value food? Learn to value bread? Because if we can change how we view it, then our lives must change in response.
One way is to listen to stories about the holiness of food, from the Bible and elsewhere. Only this week, I read in The Guardian that the waste of even one grain of rice is taboo to Uighers. They understand how precious it is, and their culture has shaped a response. To the Syrians, bread has a ‘mystic, sacred significance’. One Syrian writes: “I would never step on a piece of bread fallen on the road, but would pick it up, press it to my lips for reverence, and place it in a wall or on some other place where it would not be trodden upon.”. We are invited to hear from these and other cultures how precious food is.
We are also invited to look at Jesus. When he took bread, he gave thanks before sharing it out. So many of us now rush to our meals. We eat standing up, or separately, or in front of the television. But Jesus tells us to pause, give thanks, and bless the food before we eat.
So perhaps we are invited to the simple act of saying grace! In this small discipline, this moment of gratitude, we might learn something. We might learn to notice and be thankful for what is in front of us. We might learn to acknowledge God’s presence at this moment, in this meal, in this food. And in so doing, we might even begin to sense the sacred presence, and change our lives in joyful response.
Listening, watching, noticing, giving thanks. When we take the time to do these things, we will begin to see the whole world, right down to the slice of bread on our plate, with new eyes. We will begin to realise that every day we are blessed by God’s presence, Immanuel – even at the breakfast table.
Because bread is precious not only as a symbol. Like the whole of creation, it is also sacred in and of itself. And if we can only sense this holiness, we will understand how terrible it is to waste it. And if we no longer waste it, but gather up the excess and share it out, so that our brothers and sisters no longer have to go to bed hungry, then our words and our deeds and our attitudes will show the world that we have fully ingested the Bread of Life, the one who calls us to the table, the Christ.