Bread is the substance of possibility.
In the stories of the Bible, stories of who we are and who we have been, bread is the thing that makes a difference, the thing that transforms, at moments of oblivion or exhaustion or confusion or despair.
Early in the book of Genesis, bread means hospitality. Abram and Sarai welcome three guests who arrive in the heat of the day to join them in their home at their table, to eat the bread that Sarai prepares. How are they to know that these three mysterious guests might just be the three persons of the Trinity? How are they to know that God will call Abram from there to a land he does not know, lead him out under a sky full of stars and promise more descendants than he can count? Would it all have happened, without that bread at their table in the heat of the day?
Bread means freedom to the People Israel as they wander in the wilderness, a people becoming a people, a people afraid of all they’ve left behind and afraid of all that lies ahead of them, afraid of everything they do not know. These are stiff-necked people, scripture tells us. And maybe they are. I think they’re terrified, which is never a condition for people to be at their best. And at the moment when they are most fearful, crying out for what they think they used to know, God gives them what they need. God rains down manna from heaven. “So mortals ate the bread of angels,” the psalm tells us. “God provided food enough.”
Bread means perseverance to a prophet on the run in the person of Elijah. Convinced that his life is over, he finds a place to rest. He sleeps and wakes at the hand of an angel who encourages him to eat the bread prepared for him. And again, it happens, he sleeps and wakes and eats more bread. So instead of dying, the angel nourishes Elijah for the journey that lies ahead of him. With bread. And more bread.
Bread means community to the 5000 people, besides women and children, who dare to follow Jesus to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, and on up a mountain (just for good measure). There, as they sit on the great deal of grass in that place, five loaves become much more than five loaves for those who have followed Jesus. Five loaves, transformed, means that those 5000 people besides women and children don’t have to fracture themselves off and go find their own food at the end of the day. Instead, those 5000 and more eat together, as a body. The transformation of what will be their food becomes their own transformation, as well. Everybody eats and is satisfied. Everybody has enough.
Today marks the fourth Sunday of five in what Bible scholars refer to as the Bread of Life Discourse from the Gospel of John. What that means, in non-Bible-scholar language, is that for these five weeks (stay tuned, there’s one more left next week), Jesus says to his followers: “I am the bread of life.” He says it over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. I will confess that some preachers…this one among them…have (ahem) hungered, on occasion, after something else to talk about, something else to preach about, something new to say in the midst of this sustained message. There’s quite a lot of bread to be had, here.
I’m grateful to serve a church - the Episcopal Church broadly, and St. Augustine’s in particular – which values our minds, which trusts that God feeds our intellect and imagination. I love deep theological discourse, I love wondering together about who God is and who we are and what we are called to do and to be in this place and time. And I love the fact that we gather every week as a people in a wide-ranging, very big theological tent of understanding about what it is we’re doing here at the Eucharist.
There are people at St. Augustine’s who hear the words about Jesus’ body and blood in today’s Gospel and in the words of the Communion Prayer and believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ blessed and broken and given from this table. And there are people here who are a little weirded out, honestly, by the language of the Gospel and the words of the prayer, but who think the Eucharist is a lovely ritual of remembrance. There are people here who don’t know what to think, but who have entrusted themselves to this community of faith. And there are very small people here who have received the sacrament for as long as they have known, whose theology would be both simple and profound if they were to share it with us (“Hey! I know this place,” Anderson Broxson said to me when he was four years old…”This is where we have the feast!”).
And I love the fact that we gather here every Sunday to do one of the least abstract, most basic things that we know how to do. We eat. We reach forward with empty hands, receive the bread, and eat it. And I have to believe in that moment that the fact of what we are doing matters a great deal more than how we might interpret that act. I have to believe, in that moment, that the words of Augustine’s sermon on the Eucharist resonate through the years: we become what we see, we receive who we are. The bread of life. The substance of possibility.
Many of you know that I have Celiac Disease, which means I can’t eat anything that contains wheat. So I have to say, it’s kind of a funny thing to be preaching about this whole Bread of Life Discourse, as someone who can’t eat bread in its most common form.
I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 2004. At the time, I didn’t know anything about gluten-free wafers. So first I tried breaking off tinier and tinier pieces of the host for communion. But it didn’t work. I still got sick. So, finally, I stopped receiving for a while. I told myself that it was okay, that I was there within my community, that participating in the sacrament was itself a sacrament. I would receive the wine, was even told that receiving in one kind was the same as receiving both. I’ve been an Episcopalian my whole life. And for the first time that I could remember in my life, I couldn’t put forward my own hands and receive that bread, that substance of possibility. I couldn’t receive the Body as a member of the Body, becoming the Body.
I track the theology of it all, in the abstract. I understand the arguments of accidents. And what I can tell you is that I remember the day my priest found gluten-free hosts for me to receive. I can tell you that it was not an abstract experience. It was visceral, and whole. And holy. And I remember.
Throughout our story as a people, bread is the substance of possibility. It’s the thing that transforms from oblivion and exhaustion and confusion and despair, into hospitality and freedom, into the thing that nurtures a new community. And I have to wonder, in all this talk about bread, if we can take Augustine’s words in their most visceral and elemental way. I have to wonder if, as we eat from what might have been five loaves to begin with, we, like they, become so much more. I have to wonder if we become the bread of life for a world that starves for it, if perhaps we become the substance of possibility.