Eleventh Weekend After Pentecost (C/RCL): “The Bread of Life”
John 6:35, 41-51; 1 Kings 19:4-8
August 8-9, 2015
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
The 6 year old saw the food pantry volunteer put a box of Count Chocula cereal into the grocery bag and bubbled over, “That’s my favorite!” The 8 year old sibling quickly chimed in, “But we’re grateful for everything you give us.”
I heard that story from one of our Holy Trinity family members who serves on the board of the food pantry. She and I had gotten together to brainstorm ways the Ministerium churches can more effectively support the pantry, which provides one week’s worth of groceries per month to individuals and families who are, as they say, “food insecure.” She told me about people profusely apologizing for running out of food stamps “early” in the month, and how another client explained how the father’s broken leg prevented him from working, dried up his pay check and left the family without money to put food on the table.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for daily bread. It comes in many forms, including but not limited to Count Chocula cereal, mac ‘n cheese, spaghetti and sauce, canned tuna, and on the gourmet and more nutritious end of the spectrum, homegrown produce like grape tomatoes and fresh cucumbers in our pop-up farm market.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:48) In the Western world bread is sometimes called the staff of life, meaning a nutritional pillar, like rice is in the Orient. The poet Omar Khayyam even described Paradise as “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou.”1 Despite the traditional, pivotal role of bread in our culture, gluten-free diets seem to be increasingly popular, even with those who aren’t allergic to gluten. But they’ll never capture my vote.
One of the best parts of dinner at an Italian restaurant is the beginning when the basket of bread is brought out, still warm. If the restaurant just provides a little dish of olive oil with a smattering of herbs for dipping, I’m “that person” in the group who flags down the waiter for butter. When Pastor Mark, Kristiane and I visit Rockport, MA, our itinerary always includes a stop at the bakery in town there that serves hot Swedish coffee bread, kissed with cardamom and dripping in butter. And what’s a visit to a Jewish deli without ordering pastrami on Jewish rye, with the seeds, please??
Last weekend one of the assigned readings was from Psalm 78 and included the lovely verse: “Mortals ate the bread of angels.” (Psalm 78:25) The bread of angels referred to manna God provided in the desert during the 40 year wilderness journey between the Exodus from Egypt and glad arrival in the Promised Land. Pretty special, but manna wasn’t the only food served up in the Old Testament. Another loaf shows up in today’s first lesson from First Kings.
The prophet Elijah is physically and emotionally beat. He’s in the grips of a clinical depression. All he asks the Lord is to let him die and be over with it. This is despite the fact he’s coming off a great victory: a high-stakes contest with the pagan priests of Baal that he won. (If you’re interested in the whole backstory, look up 1 Kings 18.) Elijah was exhilarated, then he was exhausted, then he was terrified. The priests of Baal did the bidding of less-than-ethical, less-than-stable Queen Jezebel, and she was not happy when Elijah bested them and then killed them. She let him know his life was forfeit. He fled in despair.
We pick up the story when he’s been on the lam for 24 hours, parks himself beneath a tree, prays to die and closes his eyes, hoping never to wake up. Maybe you’ve been there.
Thing is, Elijah isn’t so much “relaxing after work completed” as “acting out of hope depleted.” God’s never apt to honor that kind of request. God’s message is, “You’re not done yet! For heaven’s sake, stop whining and get up!” God sent that message through an angel. The word angel means messenger. The same word is used for the person who delivered Jezebel’s message to Elijah that he was dead meat. Here’s the difference: the Lord’s messengers never deliver despair!
Hope then comes in the form of the heavenly angel’s touch, the invitation to “Get up and eat,” and the airlifted, take-out delivery of warm, fragrant bread and a jar of refreshing water in the middle of no-man’s land. Simple, but profoundly life-giving, life-saving, physically and emotionally. Elijah musters the energy to eat and drink, then lies down for a nap of refreshment rather than the unending sleep of death. The angel nudges him a second time, urging:
“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” (1 Kings 19:7)
This is what the Lord says to us, too:
“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Panis Angelicus is familiar to many of you; it’s a Eucharistic hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas. Our choir has sung it; it’s so beautiful it’s spiritually haunting. It refers, of course, to the “bread of angels” we receive in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
There’s a paradox in today’s Gospel, and in this gift of God, Jesus’ Body & Blood. Jesus says:
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:40)
We have received our Lord how many times in the Lord’s Supper?? I’ve been communing for 51 years, let’s say on the average of once a week (though currently I receive the Sacrament at 4 separate services each week!). Once a week for 51 years equals 2,652 times. Guess what? I’m still hungry and thirsty! Being in Communion with my Lord makes me hungrier and thirstier to stay in communion with Him – and with you, the brothers and sisters with whom I receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation each week. Remember: Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” as well as explaining, “…the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:52)
Maybe you’ve noticed the fragrant bread on the windowsills this weekend. How does a person smell that bread and not hunger for it?? May your soul likewise be hungry for the Bread of Life! It’s this world’s best source of forgiveness, courage, comfort and joy; it’s the best antidote of all for depression and despair. It’s the Panis Angelicus, the bread of angels shared with you and me; for we are called to be earth angels, tangibly touching others with God’s love and channeling God’s compassionate care to those who lack the blessings we’ve received in such abundance.
You remember the story of Hansel & Gretel and the house made of gingerbread . Well, on the French Mediterranean coast, in a town called Monteil, there is a chapel in which stands an altar that looks like it’s made of bread. Henri Matisse designed and decorated that Chapel of the Rosary for Dominican friends after one of them nursed him back to health during WW II. As part of the “Holy Fabric” of that worship space he chose brown, porous stone as the material of which the altar is made, symbolizing the Bread of Life laid upon it.2 It’s as if you can walk up, tear off a chunk, and sit down to munch.
What a lovely reminder that Christ is the altar, as well as being the Lamb of God once sacrificed upon the altar of the cross, as well as the Host of this Holy Supper, as well as the Meal itself.
Dine and rejoice!
“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Then, at the end of worship, well-fed, pass through the Servant’s Entrance to reenter the waiting world, as earth angels with a healing touch and a ready invitation for others to “Get up and eat” also! Amen
1A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
2E.A. Carmean, Jr., “From a Master of Color, the Light of Faith,” The Wall Street Journal, Sat./Sun. August 18-19, 2012, C13.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham