I haven’t had “real” bread in decades. I was diagnosed with celiac disease almost 25 years ago, and now no longer tolerate any grains at all. Active yeast is also something I cannot digest. I’ve eaten things labeled “bread” in recent years, though it is much denser and composed of things like almond, coconut, and tapioca flours with and without eggs. There are times when I would give almost anything for a slice of freshly baked bread with butter (which I also cannot eat). Over the years, I’ve learned to make do and, sometimes, even enjoy the bread-like foods I make or purchase. There is nothing like real bread, though. Nothing.
In John’s Gospel there is a lot of talk about bread because everyone knows that bread is important and nourishing food (before highly processed bread became a thing). Until recently, I’ve read Jesus’ proclamation, “I am the bread of life” as a metaphor and little more. Jesus is that which will nourish our spirits and keep us from spiritual hunger. It works. Why go for more?
This year, this moment, this metaphor isn’t sufficient. It falls flat for me. It’s possible that many months of social isolation have created a different hunger in me and Jesus as the bread of life doesn’t meet the need I have. I want more sustenance. I want something that touches the deep place of yearning within me.
And I remember the alternative translation for this passage with the implied predicate nominative: I AM is the bread of life. God is the one who will satisfy. The Divine within Jesus. The Logos, the Sophia, the Spirit. All this and more. If I manage to take this in, this Divine, I might have something that is more fulfilling than fresh baked bread.
I have had a recuring dream for years. It’s never exactly the same, though the variations are minor. It always begins the same way. I am at the entrance of a hedge maze and the sun is setting. There is a bright light at the center of the maze. My task is to get to the center before full dark settles in. The hedge will actively work against my getting there. There are dead ends as one might imagine with a maze. There are also other avenues that end with something enticing – a banquet table set with all the foods I cannot eat while awake, a beautiful sleigh bed made up with down comforter and excessive pillows, a gathering of friends I haven’t seen in years, racks of clothing made from bright colored silks tailor-made for me, and other such things. If I stop for any of the enticements/distractions I don’t make it to the center. The problem is that none of the things satisfy me for long. The yearning, the hunger always comes back stronger than before I stopped. It is also much harder to continue the journey. In this dream I always wake up before I turn the last corner and see the source of light, light that shines in and through the entire maze no matter how lightless the night becomes.
This dream reminds me that there is nothing more important than the human spirit’s search for connection with the Holy Spirit. This yearning, this hunger, might be behind Jesus’ declaration about the bread. He knew the emptiness that can grow within us. He knew that no matter what we try to fit into the gap between the human and the Holy, nothing fits except the “living bread.”
Paul hints at this truth in Ephesians as well. Why else would he tell us to be “imitators of God”? Do we want to taste the Bread of Life? It is simple and it is challenging – live by God’s commandments. We avoid lying to our neighbors. We do not let anger govern our behavior. We do not steal and share with those who have need. We speak no evil. We embrace the Holy Spirit evident in all life. We treat one another with kindness, mercy and forgiveness. We live in love. Simple, right? And yet, it is so hard for us to do. However, there is not better Bread for our spirits than living in holy ways.
Jesus is the Bread of Life. I AM is the Bread of Life, the Living Bread. Once we commit to taking this bread in, then we become the Bread of Life for others who need to know they, too, are God’s beloved. This Bread is always good and nourishing and there is always enough for everyone.
RCL – Year B – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 8, 2021