What is the Bread of Life?


Scripture: John 6: 52-69 Nigel Bunce

Here is one possible answer to the question ‘What is the Bread of Life?’  The Eucharist.    Jesus told the disciples, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” This “Bread of Life” discourse is a lengthy set-piece speech. In it, the Gospel writer John has Jesus explain the spiritual meaning of the miraculous Feeding of the 5000.

Thus, “Were the people out on the mountain just physically hungry, or were they spiritually hungry for what Jesus had to tell them? Did they need bread for the body, or bread for the soul? Was it suppertime or a Eucharistic moment?”

What is the Bread of Life? What is bread?

Two weeks ago, Jan reflected on the meaning of the phrase “Eternal Life”. Today, I will focus on the other part of the equation.  So, What is the Bread of Life? Bread is a powerful symbol for our physical life’s needs. It’s a metaphor for all food.

Even in refugee camps, in prisons, or in famine, we give bread to people when there is nothing else. Nicolas Madura subsidizes the price of bread to keep his hold on Venezuela. ‘Bread’ is even slang for money. It’s what you earn to buy actual bread.

Jesus said that eating ordinary bread at mealtimes gives temporary satisfaction. But, the Bread of Life nourishes the soul ongoingly. Earlier, Jesus quoted the Exodus story. The manna in the desert saved the Israelites’ ancestors from starvation, but they got hungry again. In the end, they died like anyone else.

Eucharist and the Bread of Life

In the feeding miracle, Jesus took the bread, he gave thanks and broke the bread. Then, his disciples shared it with the crowd. “Take; thank; break; share”. That’s what we do at Holy Communion.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life.” The Jewish leaders were aghast at the suggestion. They took the words about eating flesh and drinking blood literally rather than symbolically. Just as we tend to do.

For the same reason, early in the Christian era, many outsiders thought that Communion was a cannibalistic ritual. Even today, the symbolism of the Eucharist is hard for newcomers to accept. Later in our Gospel reading, the disciples say, “This teaching is difficult.” I can say “Amen to that!”

Some disciples found it so hard to understand that they abandoned him completely. In high school or college lingo, they dropped the course. So Jesus asked whether the Twelve also wanted to leave. Peter replied, “Lord, where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

What does the Bread of Life mean in the context of Communion?

However, today’s Gospel invites us to revisit the meaning of the ‘Bread of Life’ that we consume at Communion. There is no one right way to think about it. At one extreme, the Roman Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation proposes that ordinary bread miraculously changes into the actual Body of Christ.

The other is to view the bread and wine as merely symbols to remember Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. Typically, most Anglicans compromise. We accept that we meet Christ us at the communion table. But, we can’t say exactly how.

In the old Prayer Book, the Prayer after Communion gives thanks 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.” Much as I like modern Eucharistic Prayers, they don’t quite give me this sense of the Eucharistic mystery. Which, as ordinary human beings, we can never quite understand.

What kind of bread should we use at Communion?

The earliest extant liturgy spoke only of “the many grains that we have gathered into this one bread”. When Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth about the Lord’s Supper (as he called it), he said nothing about what kind of bread to use.

It was a Eucharistic pot-luck. They shared whatever people brought. In contrast, the old 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”. For him, the Eucharist was physical, as well as symbolic. But, our understanding of the Eucharist determines how we treat left-over Communion bread.

Early on, the Anglican Church allowed the curate of the parish to take the leftover Communion bread home for his own use. That seems to make Communion bread very ordinary. Nothing special. That is, to see Communion as just a memorial of the Last Supper.

Once blessed, the Communion bread has special holiness

But, for those who believe that we meet Christ at Communion (or believe in transubstantiation), the left-over bread has special holiness. Therefore, when we use ordinary bread for Communion at St. George’s, we treat even the crumbs of consecrated bread with reverence.

We make sure that it’s all eaten at or after the service. We don’t just throw it away. Similarly, all four Gospel authors noted that the bread left over from the Feeding of the Five Thousand was special. The disciples gathered it up in baskets. They didn’t waste it.

Actually, I had a dilemma regarding today’s Communion service. Last Christmas Eve, I planned an outdoor service with pre-consecrated wafers. But, then the Bishop said no to any in-person services. So, Jan and I put the wafers away in a Ziplok bag.

What to do with them if they were too stale to eat? I couldn’t just throw them in the garbage. But I couldn’t feed them to the congregation. The answer was to bury them, reverently, in the ground. A kind of “dust-to-dust”.

Similarly, we don’t throw water that we have blessed for a baptism down the drain. Where it would mix with water from the toilets. Instead, we water the church garden with it.

In summary, what do we mean when we talk about the Bread of Life?

To answer the question, ‘What is the bread of Life?’ we have to realize the the Gospel writer John was talking about spiritual food.  It’s easy to say that means faith, or belief in Jesus.  But it’s significant (to me at least) that John framed his whole discussion around the feeding miracle.  Whether or not that was an extended parable.  However, the references to “eating my flesh” surely link the feeding miracle to the Eucharist, which was standard Christian practice by the time John wrote his Gospel.

So, one possible answer to the question ‘What is the Bread of Life?’ is “The Eucharist”.  Sharing the eucharist in community (and I stress the words ‘in community’), helps us to sustain our faith.  The so-called “Eucharistic fast” during the pandemic has been incredibly damaging.  It’s more than that people have got out of the habit of church.  We have lost our spiritual nourishment.  I recall my mentor, Steve Witcher, saying that when he was studying and also working long hours to support his family, the midweek Eucharist was an important ‘top-up’ for him between Sundays.

Today, John presented Jesus in a very other-worldly way. The other extreme is Mark’s very physical depiction of Jesus. Different yet both acceptable. Just like the various interpretations of the communion bread. Likewise, we can honour God by physical acts (works) or spiritually (study or prayer).

The Scriptures instruct us to honour God and love our neighbours. But they don’t prescribe how to approach these tasks.