Bread of Life

Have you ever tried baking your own bread? If not, I highly recommend it. Yes, it’s messy. And there’s often a lot of kneading involved. Your hands may get tired. You will certainly get flour everywhere. And it takes a lot of time, maybe all afternoon, if you do it right.

But there’s quite a return for the investment of effort and time. Making bread is a soulful, peaceful, and somehow deeply meaningful activity, meaningful on a level that’s a bit hard to explain. There’s something ancient about it, as the very act of stirring and kneading connects you to ancestors you’ll never know and artistic traditions that have largely gone by the wayside as production demands faster, more efficient, and more uniform processes. Made by hand—which takes time and touch and the attention of mind and heart—has been traded for “made by machine.”

And when you eat a piece homemade bread—or a roll, like the delicious ones Barb made for our retreat yesterday–you get the added benefit of the spirit, the love, the energy that the person put into the effort of making it. All the while they were mixing and kneading, they were hoping you would enjoy what they made. There was thoughtfulness and care in it—for you. There was an intention in their heart to do something kind, to bring enjoyment, maybe to share a talent they enjoyed or a recipe they’d found. That’s a lot of blessing we might miss if simply look at a piece of bread as a piece of bread. There’s a lot more there—a lot more blessing—when we look closer and see more clearly all that’s gone into that simple gift.

Bread is something so ordinary, so common, that it may just fade into the background of our days as a kind of necessary staple that we enjoy probably on a daily basis. But bread has also been a staple in the diet of millions and millions of people all around the world, across time. In fact bread is mentioned more than 400 times in the bible, often as an indication of God’s care and provision, God’s good blessing for all.

In our Old Testament reading today, at an important point in their history—just before they enter the Promised Land–Moses is reminding the Israelites not only how good God had been to them but how much they needed God’s guidance and direction. Don’t forget how arrogant you were, Moses tells them, or how quickly you disobeyed God’s commands when you thought no one was looking.

Moses says,

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

He reminds them of the miracle bread, manna, that sticky substance that rained down seemingly from heaven and was fresh every day with the morning dew. God provided the bread each day so the children of Israel wouldn’t go hungry and gave them specific instructions for how to gather and prepare it. They were to use the fresh manna each day and not try to save it or it would spoil. But mysteriously on Friday they were to gather twice as much—to get them through the Sabbath—and that manna didn’t spoil, and they always had what they needed. The word manna, in ancient Hebrew, literally means, “What is it?” And it is described in Exodus 16 as “like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.”

Think of what the simple act of gathering and preparing this miracle bread—done in partnership with God each day—taught all those who were living through this wilderness time. As Moses mentioned, it taught them humility, because they saw clearly that they truly relied on God for their daily needs. The manna didn’t come because of their own initiative or cleverness or resourcefulness. The manna appeared each day because God loved them, God was providing for them, and God’s promises always prove true.

The fact that the manna appeared each day like clockwork must have cemented their trust in a God who, while much too great to grasp with the human mind, was nonetheless predictable and reliable. And the fact that God cared to preserve the sabbath—so they wouldn’t need to gather manna on their day of rest and worship—demonstrated how important honoring the sabbath was. And if it was important to God, it should be important to them.

But the gift of the morning manna in the Sinai desert was not simply about the practical matter of giving people the fuel they needed to accomplish their tasks for the day. It was ultimately about divine love, divine provision, a God who is present in the tiniest of details, meeting the most enormous of needs. The manna was feeding a hunger much bigger than an empty stomach. It established a trusting bond between human child and Divine Parent, a link that promised to fulfill all needs for all time–physical, emotional, and spiritual.

And that’s the idea Jesus is trying to get across to those listening in today’s New Testament reading. To set the stage for this story, let me give you a bit of context. Just prior to the scene we heard today, Jesus had fed 5,000 with only five small barley loaves and two fish. Knowing the enormity of this task, Jesus had the people sit down, and he blessed and broke the bread, and they began to share it among the people. In the end, there was enough for everyone and they had twelve basketfuls left over. What a miracle!

And then right after that, as it was getting dark, the disciples got in a boat to travel across the lake to Capernaum. Jesus hadn’t yet joined them. As they were in the middle of the lake, a storm blew in and the waves were huge, causing the little boat to pitch and sway. It must have been rough going. And suddenly, here comes Jesus, walking across the water, right up to the boat. They were frightened, but he said, “It is I; don’t be afraid,” and they let him into the boat. As soon as they did that—immediately is the word in scripture here–they found themselves at the shore on the other side. Another miracle!

So as our story for today unfolds, two back-to-back miracles have just happened, and now the people have caught up with Jesus on the other side of the lake. They are curious about how he got there and they begin asking him questions. But he stops them and says, “You didn’t follow me for the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” In other words, he says, this wasn’t about filling your stomachs—it was about how nourished your souls felt. They felt peace, they felt full, they felt cared for in Jesus’ presence—that’s what made them follow him. It wasn’t the signs and wonders Jesus performed, but what they each inwardly experienced, how their hearts warmed when he was near, the hope and light they felt when he was close. They wanted more of that—the deep, spiritual knowing that all was well, the God is present, that things were going to be alright, that at long last someone saw and cared about their need, and had the love and wisdom and power to meet it.

We are still looking for the same thing today.

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” When the people asked for that bread, he told them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In every tiny act, each gesture, perhaps even each thought and each feeling, Spirit and matter dance together in each of us. It’s up to us how we choose to see. If we focus solely on the material—just grabbing our bread and devouring it quickly because we’re hungry, not really tasting it or feeling grateful for it or thinking about the hands and heart that made it or perhaps extending the blessing by sharing it with others—we miss the real and lasting blessing the bread offers us, the life within the bread. True nourishment—the gift of spirit—is the deeper meaning of all the blessings we receive, large and small. They all give us the opportunity to recognize God’s love and presence, to see “that of God” in one another, to really take in the goodness God shares with us each and every day. That goes way beyond bread, to every breath, every smile, every loving thought we give and receive. When we recognize the spirit in it, we see—in full and living color—the love and goodness of God.

In closing, I offer a poem from a lovely and spiritual cookbook (which Julia reminded me yesterday that I had) called, The Tassajara Recipe Book, by Edward Espe Brown:


To realize true nature, we
study the body and mind of Reality.
Will you have this body and mind?
these grains and beans?
will you settle for this body and mind?
these vegetables and fruits?
The body and mind of Reality
are not different than this
body and mind right now,
but to know it fully,
we must examine and investigate,
actualize it through and through.

What we really want
waits within
the ordinary.

This is what Jesus said to those who caught up with him on the other side of the lake that day. What you really want is right here, beyond the bread, he told them. Love, thoughtfulness, generosity, care. Transcendent life, perfect peace, purity, and wholeness; unbounded grace freely given; truth and light that leaves no one out, ever. That’s the bread we all crave. And thank goodness, that’s the bread God always, lovingly provides.


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