Psalm 78:23-29, Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15, Ephesians 4: 1-16, John 6: 24-35
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John, Ch 6, v. 35
Bread was a key theme of last week’s Gospel, telling the story of the feeding of the five thousand from the little boy’s five loaves. Bread appears again this week, and we will hear about it once more next week.
This abundance of bread is a gift from the Lectionary, a chance to have time to ruminate, to chew the crust, as it were, over the symbolism and meaning surrounding bread in scripture, which John has so richly laid out for us in these passages.
In this week’s Gospel Jesus makes the comparison with Moses and the Israelites manna in the wilderness with a new kind of bread offered by Christ. Verse 35, which I have just quoted represents a pivotal moment - Christ explicitly declares that he is the living bread, he is the bread from heaven, he is the ultimate sustenance that will leave us never hungry or thirsty again.
The parallel with Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness is to emphasise that Christ represents a different kind of bread from heaven; Christ is very different to Moses. Unlike the manna of the wilderness, this bread, the living bread of Christ will, once consumed, lead to eternal life. Those who believe and consume the living bread of Christ will attain eternal life in Him.
But why Bread? Why did John use bread as a symbol of what Christ did for us and what He offers us? The symbolism of bread in John Chapter six has been remarked upon throughout Christian history. Augustine, for example described it as magno sacramento, “a grand symbolism”.
Well one reason is that the humble loaf really is a fundamental reference point in all our lives and has been for millennia. It is one of the oldest known forms of food made by human hands and has endured throughout recorded history as a staple of our diets. Because of this, its symbolism is as effective now in conveying John’s message as it was when he wrote the Gospel. It is a common denominator of humankind which can bridge cultures, religions, class, language, time and space.
It represents tradition, comfort, honesty ‘the honest loaf’, it appeals to the senses – taste, touch and smell. It is evocative, nostalgic, accessible, loved. I was one of those many people who embraced bread making during the lockdown. The process of making and then eating the honest loaf was grounding and reassuring, an unshakeable truth amidst all the change and uncertainty of that time. No matter what else happened, the loaf would prove overnight and be ready for the oven in the morning to feed myself and my family.
Now if I mention the Hovis ad, I’m guessing for some of you your head is now instantly filled with the sound of Dvořák's ‘New World Symphony’ (better known as the Hovis ad music) arranged for brass band. And I’m guessing you may well be seeing in your mind’s eye the little lad pushing his bike, laden with loaves, up the big cobbled hill to deliver the loaf, before he freewheels, carefree and jubilant, on his way back down. You may even hear the tag line ‘It’s as good for you today as it’s always been’. The advert was genius marketing, and instant classic (a lesser-known fact is that it was Directed by Sir Ridley Scott before he found fame with films such as Alien). The ad harnessed the powerful symbolism of bread – tradition, honesty, hard graft, sustenance, strength given to weakness, ultimate reward for the faithful, that tapped into bread’s meaning as expressed in the Bible. Did you know that in 2006 the Hovis ad was voted the favourite advertisement of all time, 33 years after it was first aired on television. Just to emphasise it’s victory, it beat Milk Tray, Ferrero Rocher and Bisto. All thanks, in no small part, to some canny marketing of the humble loaf and its symbolism.
Because of its place in the heart of our homes, a constant since childhood, running across the generations, the humble loaf has enormous power.
Part of this for us, of course, is because it is also so rich in Christian symbolism. After all, it plays a fundamental symbolic role in one of the central acts of Christian worship.
When we break bread in the Eucharist it is a process of Anamnesis, of re-remembering or un-forgetting Jesus as He taught us at the Last Supper. In the Eucharistic prayer we recall how Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, gave it to his disciples say ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’
This is a bread of life that nourishes us in a way no other bread can. When the crowd question Jesus about his whereabouts in our Gospel passage, he suggests that they are following him only because their stomachs have been filled. When he talks about bread they think he is talking about food. Later they still don’t understand him because they say “Sir, give us this bread always”, but the bread Jesus offers is eternal and forever, As the Samaritan at the well replied to Jesus when he offered her water of eternal life, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water”
The metaphor of bread offered by Jesus in this passage makes us look at faith again not as believing in a set of propositions or facts, but as an encounter with a person, who is the way the truth and the light. By speaking to us through the metaphor of bread Jesus desires that we not only think about him but that we feed on him, ingest him, that we acknowledge that we need him to live and not to starve.
So when you break bread, whether at home or in the sharing of the body of the Christ in the bread of the Eucharist, perhaps take a moment to reflect on the deep symbolism of the bread you are about to consume, and what is tells us about our relationship with Christ. With Creationtide approaching soon, with its Harvest and thanksgiving, bread will also become a symbol of God’s bounty, reminding us of God’s Creation, of God as the giver of all life, of God’s ultimate act of Creation in providing us with the living bread from heaven which will sustain us always and eternally. Bread, then, is also intrinsically tied with our responsibility to care for God’s Creation – the earth that provides the wheat that makes the bread which feeds so many peoples and cultures all over the world. Over these Sundays that follow a progression of ideas on Jesus as the bread of life, let us as take time over savouring this powerful symbol of God’s eternal sustenance and creation. As the line from the Hovis ad put it, ‘It’s as good today as it’s always been.’ Amen Rev Melanie Harrington