Commentary by the Rev. Emily Trubey-Weller
Text: John 6:1-21
Mention the “Bread of Life discourse” and many pastors who follow the lectionary might give a loud groan. These five weeks explore Jesus’ teaching around the statement “I am the Bread of Life.” It is five weeks of often circular and repetitive language. Five weeks of heady concepts. Five weeks where many pastors feel challenged to not constantly repeat themselves in their preaching and also to make such otherworldly talk somehow relevant to their listeners.
Yet all of this starts not with some lofty teaching, but with an experience: The Feeding of the Five Thousand.
This “sign”–and the six others in John’s gospel–follows a pattern: Jesus performs miracle and follows up by teaching on it, further illuminating it.
Jesus has good pedagogy: the lessons that stick with us are the ones grounded in experience. But Christ’s act and teaching are is also more than skilled method. Some of the deepest truths can’t be merely talked about; they must be embodied.
When I was pregnant with my big baby (as he now calls himself at two and a half), I poured over books about breastfeeding. I knew it was super important. I knew that breastfeeding or chestfeeding was the single best thing you could do for your child’s physical and emotional development in their first year of life. I also knew that it was a tough and sometimes impossible task for parents. I was scared of the challenges that could arise. I wondered about what it would feel like. I was curious whether latent instincts would materialize. And I was admittedly scared about taking on such a monumental task as nourishing another living being with my own body. I wanted to learn as much as I could. So I read.
I wouldn’t say the books didn’t help. They definitely did.
But no lesson from experts, or pull quote from a blog, or even heartfelt tale from a fellow parent held a freakin’ candle to what it was like to hold my big baby in my arms for the first time they latched. Suddenly it was no longer words on a page. It was no longer theoretical. It was boobs. And fluids. And skin-to-skin. And exhaustion and pain and fevers and sweat and awe. It was messy and beautiful and real. It was something like what I read about, but also nothing like what I read about.
I relate this story not to tote the power of breastfeeding or chestfeeding. Different parents have different experiences of feeding their babies, and those who bottle feed also know plenty about fluids, exhaustion, and beauty. For me, this powerful experience of nourishing my baby for the first time–of becoming for him an embodied experience of love as he learned to trust that food would come, comfort would be given, and warmth would be shared–this taught me that certain things simply must be experienced. There are some things you only get once they have happened to you. There are some teachings you just have to do before you can know. Some of the deepest truths can’t be merely talked about; they must be embodied.
When have you had an experience like that? One that taught you something that a book just couldn’t quite get at? An experience that embodied a deep truth?
When he fed the five thousand, Jesus gave deep truth a bodily experience. With coarse barley loaves and a couple of fish… with real food passed from hand to hand… with chewing and swallowing and very few words… amid skepticism and doubt and eventually awe… Jesus embodied what it means to be the Bread of Life.
How can we create an experience for our listeners as we relate this story of embodied grace?
You might create an experience for your congregation. You might help them place themselves in the experience of being one of those five thousand by engaging the whole congregation in a form of Ignatian contemplation. You might (as your COVID-19 safety precautions allow) distribute bread (or a gluten-free baked good) for the congregation to eat during the sermon or adapt our eating meditation to use in place of the sermon this week. Let them literally chew on this lesson! Allow them to be embodied grace for others, and take the usual worship hour to give time to a local feeding ministry, offering bread to others who hunger. Perhaps you could invite the congregation to sit down on the grass and enjoy a picnic as they hear this story. Draw them into the feeding of the five thousand in a real, embodied way.
The next four weeks will give us plenty of insight about what the Bread of Life means. Take this week to dwell in what the Bread of Life feels like. Create an experience for your listeners, and embody the Gospel in a new way.