Feeding the 5,000
Jesus said to the disciples, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The so-called “Bread of Life” discourse is a lengthy set piece speech in which the Gospel writer John has Jesus consider the spiritual meaning of the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand. We intuitively read and hear Gospel stories about what Jesus said differently from those about what he did. We look for non-superficial meanings of parables (they are not really about mustard seeds or wicked tenants), but accept the events of Jesus’ life as being more factual. But if we take the Feeding of the Five Thousand figuratively, we might ask, “Were the people out on the mountain just physically hungry, or were they spiritually hungry for what Jesus had to tell them? Which did they need – bread for the body, or bread for the soul? Was it suppertime or a Eucharistic moment?”
Bread as a symbol
Last week, Jan reflected on the possible meanings of the phrase “Eternal Life” so today I would like to focus on the other part of the equation – the Bread of Life. Bread is a powerful symbol for our physical life’s needs – a metaphor for all food. Even in concentration camps, in prisons, or in times of famine, people are fed bread when there is nothing else. Nicolas Madura keeps his hold on Venezuela today in part by subsidizing the price of bread. ‘Bread’ is even used as a slang expression for money – a metaphor for what you earn to buy actual bread.
One way of thinking about the Bread of Life is that Jesus contrasted the temporary satisfaction of the body that comes from eating ordinary bread at mealtimes with the ongoing satisfaction of the soul that faith can offer. Indeed, in part of the discourse that we read last week, Jesus referred to an event in the Exodus story – “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, but this is the bread come down from heaven.” The manna saved the Israelites from starvation at the time, but they got hungry again, and in the end, they died just like everyone else.
“Take; thank; break; share”
In the feeding miracle, Jesus took the bread, he gave thanks, he broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples to share with the crowd. “Take; thank; break; share” parallels our weekly Eucharistic prayers that recall the events of the Last Supper. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life.” In the Gospel narrative, the Feeding of the Five Thousand precedes the Last Supper, which occurs at the end of Jesus’ life. Writing long after both events, the Gospel writer John already knew about the Last Supper when he put these words into Jesus’ mouth.
The Jewish leadership was incensed at these words because they – just as we are prone to do – took the words about eating flesh and drinking blood literally rather than metaphorically. They were aghast at the suggestion. They did not “get it”. Seeing how often Scripture gets taken literally, it is hardly surprising that early in the Christian era, many non-Christians thought that Communion was a kind of cannibalistic ritual for Christians. Even today, our Eucharistic prayers are a barrier to newcomers to accept our Eucharistic liturgies unless they already know and understand the Last Supper story
A Hard Teaching
Later in our Gospel reading, the disciples say, “This teaching is difficult.” I think most of us can say “Amen to that!” Some disciples found what Jesus was trying to explain so hard that they abandoned him completely. In college lingo, they dropped the course. Jesus asked whether Twelve wanted to so as well. Peter replied, “Lord, where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. You are God’s holy one.”
Meaning of the Eucharist
Today’s Gospel invites us to think about what the Eucharist means for each of us. There is no one right way to think about the ‘Bread of Life” that we consume at Communion. At one extreme is the Roman Church’s theology of transubstantiation, in which the prayer of consecration miraculously changes ordinary bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of Jesus. The other extreme is that the bread and wine are merely symbols – or memorials – that re-enact Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. Perhaps because Anglicans always tend to compromise, the commonest Anglican theology is that of the Real Presence of Christ – that in an unspecified way, Christ truly meets us at the communion table. This is why the old Prayer Book gives thanks, in the Prayer after Communion, that “thou dost graciously feed us in these holy mysteries with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.” The prayer continues, “and that we are living members of his mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom.” Much as I like our modern Eucharistic Prayers, they do not quite capture for me this sense of the Eucharistic mystery, which as ordinary human beings, we can never quite understand.
What kind of bread should be used at Communion? The earliest extant liturgy spoke only of “the many grains that we have gathered into this one bread” which we will say today in the “Breaking of the Bread”. When Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, the Lord’s Supper (as he called it), nothing was said about what kind of bread to use. It was a Eucharistic pot-luck in which everyone brought and shared. In contrast, the old Anglican Prayer Book demanded “the best and purest wheat bread, either leavened or unleavened” – thus only the best is good enough for Communion. Our communion wafers have lost a lot in translation! Martin Luther argued that the Body of Christ should be experienced in the Eucharist by being “pressed with his teeth” – he wanted the Eucharist to be physical, not just symbolic.
What we do with left-over Communion bread reflects how we understand the Eucharist. In its early days, the Anglican Church allowed the curate of the parish to take the leftover Communion bread home to use in his own household – thus seeming to make the bread of Communion ordinary, and very much of this world. For those who consider Communion as nothing more than a memorial – or re-enactment – of the Last Supper, the bread is nothing special, and it doesn’t matter whether we take the leftovers home or discard them. But if we believe that Christ is truly present with us (or believe in transubstantiation), then the left-over bread has a special significance of holiness. That is why, when we use ordinary bread for Communion at St. George’s, we treat the consecrated bread with reverence, even the crumbs. We make sure that all of it is eaten at or after the service, not just thrown away. In this context, I notice that in all four Gospel stories of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the bread left over was clearly understood as special. It was gathered up in baskets so that it would not be wasted. Besides, to throw it away violates what Michelle and I think of as the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not waste food.”
It occurred to me this week that today’s two readings are linked by their sense of the opposite. Solomon carried out the wishes of his father. He built a Temple, a solid physical structure made of dressed stone. [This was the First Temple, not the one destroyed by the Romans, whose “wailing wall” remains today.] Conversely, John presents Jesus in a very other-worldly way, in which he promotes building an unearthly (or spiritual) temple in heaven or in our hearts. Physical and spiritual are alternative and complementary ways of honouring God. Just like the various interpretations of the communion bread, they are different yet both are completely acceptable. My belief is that the Scriptures admonish us to honour God and love our neighbours, without prescribing exactly how each of us should approach these tasks.