There is an old story told by Anthony De Mello:
“Once upon a time God decided to visit the earth so God sent an angel to survey the situation prior to God’s visit.
The angel returned with her report: ‘Most of them lack food’, she said, ‘and most of them lack love’.
God said, ‘Then I shall become incarnate in the form of food for the hungry, and belonging for the unloved.’
In the first-century world of the historical Jesus bread was, for rich and poor alike, central to the diet. It was made every day. It was eaten at every meal. It was simply the most important food product for the entire biblical period. It was so important it was included in the religious rituals of almost all the Mediterranean religions.
Jewish meals begin with the blessing over bread and then the sharing of bread together. The blessing would have been widely known to Jesus and his followers in the first century:
‘Blessed is the Holy One of Israel, Sovereign of all that is who brings forth the bread from the ground.’
The blessing both draws attention to the privilege of having food to eat and the gives thanks for the delivery system, namely God and ‘the ground’. Yet, as with much Jewish humour, the pray-er knows that bread doesn’t get handed out by God on a street corner and also doesn’t grow in the ground but ironically the pray-er says the words anyway to draw attention to the mix of hard work and miracle that goes into ‘bringing forth bread’.
As an aside, this Jewish way of interpretation, namely looking for the ambiguities and contradictions in a prayer or text in order to begin a discussion [in this case about where bread comes from] is what the rabbis called Midrash. It is very different from the Christian habit of seeking ‘the right’ meaning of a prayer or text, as if there is only one right meaning, and as if finding the right one ultimately matters. Midrash treats the Bible like a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.[i]
For the people of the ancient world, bread making was indeed a mix of hard work and miracle. Farmers first ploughed the earth by animal-drawn implements that are hard to use; then they sowed the seed by hand. Thereafter, they anxiously waited and prayed for rain, without which there would be no crops come spring. Even if the grain did grow and ripen, there was still the hard task of reaping it and sorting it so that inedible matter is removed.
The grain was then extracted from the husk by threshing. Then it was winnowed—that is, tossed into the air with a pitchfork so that the lightweight coverings of the kernels, called chaff, were blown away, leaving only the heavier kernels themselves that could be ground into flour. The flour then was sifted, again to separate out any foreign matter, then mixed with liquid and kneaded into dough. Only then could the baking occur.
In the arid world of much of the Middle East the amount of yeast existing in the air was quite significant. If the dough mix was left too long it would naturally ferment. The common practice in Jesus’ day was to separate a portion of the risen dough and mix it with the next day’s flour and water, causing the leavening action to begin much faster.
So the hard work was the ploughing, sowing, reaping, threshing, winnowing, grinding, sifting, kneading, and baking. And the ‘miracles’ were the growth of the grain in the earth, the weather, and the leavening. If, following the De Mello story, God is incarnated in bread then incarnation is something that happens both through us and through factors beyond our control.
The blessing of bread therefore included thanksgiving – both to the God and the work of human hands; a thanksgiving imbued with the silent caution to not take the provision of bread for granted.
The rabbis also saw in this blessing a dream of a future where everyone had enough bread – a dream that will only be possible by a mix of human hard work and divine miracle.
This then is the background of one of the earliest, and therefore arguably most reliable, statements made by Jesus. At the blessing of the bread, he referred to the loaf as ‘my body’. In that passage of scripture, 1 Corinthians 11, he indicates that he will be killed as a subversive threat to the Empire of Rome. But his ‘body’, the loaf of bread, will live on because his followers in sharing bread share in his way of hospitality - they share in his life and mission.
Paul, the writer of 1 Corinthians, goes on in chapter 12 to expand the body metaphor. Corporately, now after his death, the followers of Jesus together make up his body. So, it’s like we are all pieces of bread, crumbs, that when put together become the ongoing life of Jesus.
This imagery of bread, Jesus’ life, and the communal life of his followers, provided a rich metaphorical context for later writers and editors of the Christian Scriptures. One writer, commonly called ‘John’, has Jesus say, “I am the bread of life”. Which is a way of saying, the message and mission of Jesus is so important John couldn’t imagine anyone living without it.
The writer Luke, after whom this church is named, took a parable – most likely one told by the historical Jesus – about a banquet[ii] (with echoes of the rabbis’ hope that everyone would have bread), where the people of the street and alleys, the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind, would be welcomed. In an honour/shame culture, this then would be a banquet of the dishonourable, the nuisances and nobodies, not a banquet of the honourable elites.
The banquet parable indicates what we know of the early Jesus movement gatherings in the 1st and 2nd centuries – gatherings where people [about 20 in total] met for a meal, for fellowship, for the sharing of hope, for the strengthening of their spirits for the week ahead. Many of those attending were on the margins of society, rather than in the mainstream. Bread was the staple food [sometimes the only food] at these gathering, and bread became the unifying symbol of fellowship and hospitality.
Bread also was the metaphor for the Jesus movement’s mission of hospitality. They were to become bread for their neighbours. They were to be loaves, like Jesus was a loaf, to be shared with others, so all could be fed. And, as in the De Mello story, being ‘bread of life’ means literally welcoming and feeding people; but it has (like the word hospitality) a wider meaning of creating a safe space to belong within and to experience being loved. This is what it means to be ‘bread of life’.
Sometimes I wonder what church could be like if we started again. I wonder about being known primarily not as a place that puts on religious services, but simply as a place that offers bread. You would come here to get bread – and we would sell it or give it away for as little return as possible.
But the offered bread would just be the start of our hospitality. There would be soup and coffee and green space and toys to play with. We would offer safe spaces where you could talk or listen to others; or groups to belong to, or people to build friendships with. From this hospitality space we would create other spaces for those who want to sing, who want to care for children, who want to learn about God, who want to change our wider society for the better. We would offer these things because we would want to rather than feel obligated to.
And from the bread, the hospitality, the caring spaces, and the avenues to make music, celebrate children, and explore faith, would come the desire to give thanks – which is at the heart of what worship means.
Blessed is the Holy One of Israel, Sovereign of all that is who brings forth the bread from the ground.’
[i] I am grateful for this wording to Rachel Held Evans, in an interview published by Rewire.news
[ii] Luke 14:16-24.