A sermon preached by Graham Low on 20 March 2022.
Give us this day our daily bread. Just seven words covering so much. The first word “Give” reminds us that Jesus’ instruction about prayer here and elsewhere is expressed in active verbs: “give”, “ask”, “seek”, “find”. These all suggest that we are to take an active initiative in prayer and to present our needs. Indeed, Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer is all requests. Nevertheless, we need to bear in mind that God may know much better than we ourselves about our real needs. The act of giving begins at our beginning: we have been given life every day from our conception. We are all here because of what we have been given: we may think of love, food, warmth, protection, homes, families, friends, teaching, freedom. The gospels call us to give these things to others. But in the last few weeks the people of Ukraine have suddenly found themselves without many of the gifts they previously enjoyed in their normal life.
To remember the gifts we have been given and to be thankful for them is an important part of our observance of Lent. And equally Lent is a time when we make ourselves newly aware and responsive to those who lack basic gifts for their wellbeing, or even gifts to sustain their lives at all.
Another key word here is us. Give us our daily bread. The Lord’s Prayer is for us as individuals to say, but this is a prayer for the community, from us, as members of that community. Here and in all our prayer we can easily tend to narrow its character by praying for our particular needs rather than those of the whole community. We are called to have in mind all who suffer from lack of food or bread in any sense for the coming day. The horizon of our concern is to embrace the whole of humanity and indeed for the whole of creation. And where we can, we are called to follow that prayer with appropriate action.
The word daily comes from the Greek adjective epiousios: the meaning of this word has challenged scholars down the centuries, It is otherwise unknown in the Bible, or in Greek literature. Its meaning is important as it may help to define the kind of bread we are speaking of. Jerome translated the word into Latin as quotidianum meaning ordinary – in Luke. But when he translated it Matthew it became superstantialem, meaning spiritual. The word from which we have the word bread can be understood to refer more broadly to food in general. Both meanings together are important for Christian understanding.
It is interesting to contrast the early translations of the petition with those of today. Nicholas King, who has spoken to us here several times, translates this line as Each day give us our bread for the coming day. The emphasis here is for the next 24 hours. Eugene Peterson in The Message Translation is more radical: Keep us alive with three square meals. No mention of bread here, and time is not specified. And then, in another contemporary translation called Word on the Street by Rob Lacey, we read Please bring us what we need to keep us going each day. Again, there is no mention of bread, but instead this translation broadens into asking in prayer for whatever it may be that we need to keep us going, to sustain us, day by day.
Speaking of bread as a human food I remember that long ago I was involved in developing diets to help diabetics. We found that we could add certain types of fibre to bread so that sugar levels fell nicely, but the bread was not nice to eat. But one of the team was convinced that a palatable bread would be found one day, and indeed better bread has been made. The same person went on to predict that careful additions of nutrients, modified flour milling, and baking, could make bread become the complete food for long-term life: one day technology would make the bread for life he said. My mind turned to the expression: one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deut 8.3).
So we can see that the word bread has meanings which can be physical, metaphorical, or spiritual. In John 6.35 Jesus says I am the bread of life, triggered by the miracle of the five thousand. At the last supper Jesus took and blessed bread saying this is my body. Thus bread became the central eucharistic sign of his presence and activity among us.
This is my body refers both to the bread of the sacrament of Christ’s body and also to us, the congregation, who are Christ’s mystical body. This was emphasised by Paul who said ”because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10.17).
Thus, bread’s linkage of meanings stretches from a basic and essential foodstuff, through human needs and productivity, to the presence of Christ in the world, and the church as a community breaking bread together. We might note here that the expression give us this day our daily bread has a particular meaning for many people, including those in many religious communities, for whom daily reception of bread in the eucharist is of fundamental importance.
Today’s reading from Isaiah may help us to sense something of the supernatural aspects of bread which I have just mentioned. Isaiah is offering an invitation to the abundant life. Come and share God’s food and drink. Isaiah’s call to his hearers is about reminding them that God has not forgotten his covenant. God is asking people to return to him, to keep their side of the covenant, for its fulfilment. He asks people to avoid what does not satisfy. That call from Isaiah is just as much for us as it was for his hearers.
And now, in Lent, as we recognise God’s faithfulness in giving us both physical and spiritual bread day by day, we are called to make a two-fold response: firstly one of thanksgiving, and secondly one of repentance for our neglect or misuse or waste of these gifts. One without the other is incomplete. Amen.