A sermon preached by Hilary Pearson on 26th April 2023
Jesus said “I am the bread of life”
What is “bread”? For those who are relatively affluent, bread is just one thing on our shopping list. It became a bit more central for many during the Covid lock-down, when making your own sourdough became fashionable. However, throughout most of human history, for most people there has been a staple food central to their diet which provides most of the energy needed to sustain life and work. For some this is rice, or a carbohydrate-rich vegetable such as potatoes, plantains or yams. A member of my previous church in East London had been a missionary in Papua New Guinea. He told us that he had to translate this saying of Jesus as “I am the breadfruit of life” because that was the staple food of the tribespeople he was living with – most did not know what bread was, or, if they did, it was an exotic foreign food.
For Jesus and his listeners, that staple was bread. What is bread? Essentially it is ground grains mixed with water and/or oil, which may or may not be fermented with yeast, and baked, steamed or fried. Bread in the Bible was made from wheat or, for the poor, barley (remember that in John’s Gospel the 5000 were fed from “five small barley loves and two small fish”). Most of the bread we eat is made from wheat flour, white or wholemeal, more rarely rye or spelt flour. Some examples of bread we will be familiar with – chapattis (wheat), tortillas (wheat or maize), Chinese steamed dumplings (rice), rye bread, pitta, sourdough, wholewheat, Hovis.
When Jesus said: “I am”, Jews would think of how God named himself to Moses “I am who I am” (Ex 3:20). This was God’s name for himself. How can we compare God to bread? Or bread to God?
Like bread, God sustains life. The original demonstration of this was the provision of manna in the wilderness. God provided the actual staple food to keep the Israelites alive.
Bread featured in the religious practices of Jesus and his fellow Jews. Leviticus 24:5-9 gives detailed instructions for making and using the special bread for the Temple, 12 loaves set out on a golden table every Sabbath and eaten later by the priests. Bread also played an important part in religious practices in the home. On the Sabbath Jews eat a special yeasted braided bread, called challah. In Passover yeast is forbidden and matzos, flat baked breads made from flour and water, are eaten. A few years ago, I was visiting Houston and staying with Jewish friends. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews fast, happened during my stay. The previous evening, I went with my friends to a special meal at the house of one of their Jewish friends. Before the meal we sat in a circle and two challah loaves, baked by our hostess, were produced. A prayer in Hebrew was said over them, and then they were passed around the circle, each person breaking off a section before passing the loaf on. We then ate our fragments together. I was deeply moved, seeing an origin of our Eucharist. In saying “I am the bread of life”, Jesus was pointing forward to the deeply symbolic act we do together each time we celebrate the Eucharist, as we will be doing shortly.
Now I want to take you deeper. Bread is made from grain. How do we get the grain? – by planting seeds and harvesting the ripe grain. Shortly after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, John tells us that Jesus, foretelling his death, said: “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a simple seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Most of you know I am a Third Order Franciscan. We have a set of Principles which are divided into 30, we read one each day so we cover the whole set each month. Day 1 is this saying of Jesus. The message of the need for death before we have fuller life has much importance to our individual Christian lives. I may well preach on this aspect in the future, but today I feel God is leading me to talk about its application to us as a church.
This is because of our first reading. Imagine being a member of the church in the very early days. Acts 2: 42-47 tells us that, immediately after the Day of Pentecost, the believers lived and ate together, sharing all that they had, worshipping daily in the Temple, and growing in number daily – happy days. They were expecting an imminent return of the Lord and God’s kingdom on Earth. Then Peter and John were threatened by the authorities – but released. Then came worse – the apostles were imprisoned but released by an angel. Next, they were put on trial by the highest Jewish religious body, saved from death by intervention of an important religious leader but still flogged. Despite this, the church grew even more, including many priests – surely, the Kingdom, the return of the Lord, must be close now. Then Stephen was stoned to death after an unfair trial. Believers were imprisoned, those who escaped fled Jerusalem and were widely scattered. It must have seemed a disaster and a severe test of faith – where was the Kingdom now? Why hadn’t Jesus returned in glory to stop this?
But those who were scattered preached the Gospel wherever they went. Today’s passage from Acts is followed by detailed stories of how Philip (probably one of Stephen’s fellow deacons rather than the apostle of that name because our reading says that all “except the apostles” were scattered) spread the Gospel to Samaria and Ethiopia. The Jerusalem church had seemed to die, but its scattered seeds grew where they landed and as a result many churches sprang up.
There are persecuted churches today. Some are under threat from autocratic regimes – China, Nicaragua, Myanmar. Others from fanatics of other religions – Hindus in India, Islamists in N Africa, extreme Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Others from war – Iraq, Central African Republic. On my recent trip to Egypt, our Coptic guide was very proud of the 21 martyrs, Egyptian Copts who were beheaded by Isis in Tunisia in 2015 because they were Christians. We should always pray for our brothers and sisters facing persecution for their faith, and that their suffering will bring a harvest.
But what about us? We are not persecuted by the state, although we might face being regarded as weird or out of touch by family and neighbours. However, we mustn’t get too complacent. We are facing a disturbance to our comfortable established life here at St Mary’s because our beloved vicar and his lay reader wife, Andrew and Sarah, are leaving us. Can we let the old die so that we can be open to the new? Can we let the old die so that there can be a greater harvest?