Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
“I am the bread of life.” “I am the living bread.” Familiar words for sure. So familiar that we don’t often stop to ask ourselves “What did he mean by that?” This morning’s sermon will focus on a possible meaning – not the only one by any means – – perhaps just one more way, among many, to think about what Jesus meant.
I have a friend who used to be a professional baker. Every night she would enter her bakery kitchen to begin the bread making process.
A huge Hobart mixer stood on the floor at one end of the kitchen. The bowl of the mixer was big enough to bathe in.
The flour went in the bowl by the pound rather than by the cup. When a recipe called for eggs, they went in by the dozen rather than one or two at a time. The Hobart did the heavy work of kneading the mixture into a thick, sturdy dough. The dough was then transferred into a large 5 gallon bucket with a loose fitting lid to raise in the refrigerator overnight.
I happened to stop in early one morning as the dough was coming out of the fridge. After a slow rise overnight, the dough had puffed up and over the top of the bucket and was wearing the bucket lid like a hat. There was a hint of plump white arms reaching out and over the rim of the bucket – – all very reminiscent of the Pillsbury Doughboy. As my friend and I talked about the way she worked with the dough to get it to rise properly, I couldn’t help noticing that she was describing a relationship that required attentiveness on her part. Bread dough has a life of its own. There were days when the rising dough would kind of pull her along and she would just hope that she could keep up with it. On other days she would have to shepherd the dough along to get it to rise properly. The bread was a living organism. Watching my friend bake bread was watching a living relationship in action.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. I am the living bread that came down from heaven…whoever eats this bread will live forever…and the bread I will give for the world is my flesh.” As he talked about offering his flesh and blood, some people heard his words literally and were deeply disturbed and angry about what they thought they heard. Jewish practice forbids the consumption of meat with the blood still in it. Those who heard Jesus’ words with a literal mind put early followers of Jesus on the defensive against what some were certain was a pagan religious practice. But we have the ability take a step back a little from the literal image of Jesus offering his flesh and blood, and what we discover is that Jesus was offering was a way of entering into relationship – – a very deep and intimate relationship with himself – indeed a relationship so intimate that it might be compared to consuming him and allowing him to fill us the way a good loaf of homemade bread fills us – – allowing him to enter us through our hearts, to nourish our minds and enliven our souls. Through the metaphor of bread, Jesus taught about the kind of relationship he wanted with and for his friends and followers.
I think his invitation to partake of him as Living Bread frightened some of the people who heard him. Sometimes it frightens me!! I do not know where my life will go when I allow myself to enter into this relationship – if I allow the Living Christ to course through my veins, and shape my thinking and my doing and my being. Who would I become? Who would you become? What might we become together as the body of Christ? In my former parish in NJ, there were a lot of children in the congregation. Our Methodist custom is to invite everyone to the communion table, regardless of age or level of understanding or connection with the church. And so the children and adults would come together for the sacrament. We usually had a whole loaf of bread that I would break in half. I would offer the bread to each person to take however much or little they wanted. We received communion by intinction – each person would dip their piece of bread in the common communion cup and then consume it.
The adults were always very polite and careful and correct. Most would break off a tiny piece so they would not drop any crumbs on the carpet. They would barely touch the bread to the juice in the chalice so they could get it to their mouths without dripping any on their clothing or on the floor. Month after month one woman explained to me that she only took the tiniest crumb from the crust because that was all she deserved. But the children….the children would dig their small hands deep into the flesh of the loaf – – thoroughly embarrassing their parents by the large pieces they took. They would plunge the whole piece into the chalice and relish the dripping bread as they put it into their mouths. More than once I came away from the sacrament with grape juice stains on my robe…….But the children had intuitively grasped the meaning of Jesus’ intent……and they wanted as much as they could get. When the service was over, they would often crowd around the communion steward as she cleared away the bread and the cup and they would jostle each other for more. The children themselves have become an eloquent metaphor for what Jesus was offering when he offered himself as Living Bread – – a rich, generous extravagant offering of his life to be lived in each of us.
Back to my baker friend. There were times when I walked into the bakery just as the bread was coming out of the oven. When the bread was cool enough to handle, out would come a tub of butter and some good cheese. We would break off slabs of warm bread and we would eat and share a few moments of our life journey together. We would laugh – – sometimes we would cry – – we would offer each other strength and encouragement and support for whatever we needed to accomplish that day. The sharing of bread, the sharing in our love for one another, the sharing of our respective journeys, always sent me back into my day refreshed, renewed and joyful. My friend no longer bakes professionally and those yeasty, buttery moments are a thing of the past. But the memory of those early morning feasts still sustains me. In the mystery of shared bread, we had become bread for one another.
The mystery of shared bread. Jesus offered himself as bread for our lives so that we might become bread for one another. But part of the mystery is we do not feed on the bread of Christ for ourselves alone. We receive the gift of bread in community so that we might be nurtured and sustained and strengthened for the purpose of becoming bread for others. This is what “church” is about – – it is about coming together to find strength and nourishment for ourselves so that we can become strength and nourishment for others. This is not a romantic notion. Sometimes it can be really messy – just as literally breaking bread can be messy. It has to do with accepting and caring for and supporting each other – listening with sensitive care – mourning with each other – – loving without condition – being Christ-the-bread for one another. In a small church in the center of a small community, we actually know quite a lot about how this works. It isn’t glamorous. Sometimes it takes a lot of patience and forbearance. It isn’t even always pleasant – but being bread for each other – – sharing life with each other is what we are called to do. It’s that simple – – – and it is that mysterious.
In her little book entitled “Becoming Bread” Gunilla Norris has written these words: We are united through sharing…our lives are made new…meaningful. “Take. Eat. This is my body,” said Jesus when he broke bread at the last supper. Then he gave his life for us. Behind all communion is the knowledge that we must give our lives to each other, for each other. And when we do, we can mourn, we can trust, we can forgive, we can treasure, we can even face our deaths. In sharing, the meaning of our lives is given back to God. The One who gives. The One who receives. The One who is.2
As we share in the sacrament of communion today, may the symbols of the bread and the cup confront us with the mystery of the invitation to intimate relationship with the Living Christ….and may the symbols challenge us to become living bread for one another. Amen.
1 From the title of the book Becoming Bread by Gunilla Norris Bell Tower New York 1993
2 Norris Becoming Bread p. 67