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One of my pastors preached a sermon from John 6 Sunday on Jesus’s well-known statement “I am the bread of life.” He reminded us at one point of what the author Michael Pollan wrote in his book Cooked on how the discovery of yeast—back in Egypt millennia ago—was one of those happy accidents of history. But once humanity was able to isolate yeast and use it to leaven flour mixed with water and salt, well and as they say “Voila!” bread was born and became a staple across the world.
“Give us this day our daily bread” Jesus taught us to pray. “The kingdom of heaven is like a woman hiding yeast in dough” the Master parable teacher said on another occasion. As my pastor also noted, we refer to common meals together to this day as a time to “break bread” together and we say that whether the meal in question will feature any actual bread or not. But probably it will. And when we so gather, it is often with people we refer to as our “companions,” that word itself etymologically from Latin and Old French of com panis or compaigno and meaning the one we come together with over bread.
It’s the staff of life and having access to enough of it can be the difference between life and death. A form of heavenly bread sustained Israel in the wilderness for forty years. When Elijah was at Brook Cherith in 1 Kings 17, bread was among the key items the ravens gave him. Upon subsequently arriving in Zarephath, Elijah asked a widow to provide him with a small loaf of bread and as a type of divine reward for her kindness, God saw to it through Elijah that the woman’s flour and oil went on and on so she could keep making bread for her and her son. And of course as a kind of biblical crescendo to all this and more, bread became the symbol of no less than the broken body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
Oddly enough these days lots of people see bread as their foe. The gluten intolerant among us—and there are many more such people than there used to be—cannot touch the stuff. Bread and particularly any kind of white bread or bagel is carbohydrate city and so has to be avoided by people with diabetes. Probably bread by itself is not why we have more Type 2 diabetes than used to be true—refined sugars probably have done that for us—but the fact is that for many people today the traditional staff of life is the stuff of illness.
Some while back I watched a documentary series on the history of food and in one episode an artisan bread maker in the Pacific Northwest claimed that the reason for so much gluten intolerance is not just bread in general but the epidemic of mass produced really bad bread with all its enriched and bleached and otherwise abused flour products. It reminded me of the time a father of a friend took an entire loaf of ultra-white Wonder Bread and was able to ball up the entire loaf into mass somewhere between the size of an orange and a grapefruit. Something there is about this so-called bread that is no wonder at all and probably not “bread” in any classic sense either. In any event, the artisan baker in the documentary had proven that if most gluten intolerant people eat the genuine article—such as the bread he makes from milling his own flour, etc.–they enjoy it and tolerate it just fine. Maybe bread is not our enemy but bread made and handled badly.
Spiritually we have done some odd things with bread too, and here I mean the bread of the Holy Supper. Mostly what we do is withhold it from one another for all kinds of reasons. A pastor friend of mine years ago attended a conference that included a focus on the renewal of the earth. Near the end of the seminar each participant was invited to take home a small bag of soil as a reminder to pray for God’s creation and its health. Another pastor then shared with my friend, “Ironic, isn’t it? All of us Christian pastors at this conference can share in the dirt but we would not be able to find a way to all come together from our various traditions to share the bread of our Lord’s sacred meal.”
My own tradition has been nervous about what we do with this sacred bread too. When during World War I CRC pastors started to become military chaplains for the first time, the number one worry expressed in official denominational writings was that the CRC practice of “close communion” would not be able to be observed by chaplains who would have to preside over celebrations of the Lord’s Supper that might include . . . well, Methodists and Baptists for all we know! (I have never fully understood how the word “close” is used in that old phrase “close communion.” Does it mean we hold it closely? Or is it more akin to “closed communion,” and if so, that would sound like a theological oxymoron if ever there were one.)
Anyone who knows me knows that I honor and revere the sacraments far too much to be cavalier about them or just open them up willy nilly to anyone and everyone without discretion or discernment. Still, in some ways some of the overly tight control we have tried to exercise over the Lord’s Supper has perhaps given us a kind of spiritual gluten intolerance because of the less than gracious ways we have handled bread.
It’s hard to believe that the Jesus who invited all to come to him as the living bread of Life would turn away people with the frequency with which churches often do this. There have been too many people in history like author Sara Miles who accepted an open invitation to a Lord’s Supper at a church one day and ended up receiving Jesus for the first time in so doing. It might not always happen this way and it’s not therefore some reason to fling the Body of Christ around casually as though it were some magic trick for evangelism and conversion.
But if it happened more often than not that some people really and truly received Life Eternal through the bread of life given by Jesus at his holy table somewhere, well you’d have to say that based on the New Testament, that would sound just about right.