Commentary by the Rev. Victoria Larson
I ran out of flour in March 2020.
As you might remember, we were in the middle of a burgeoning global pandemic at the time, and I watched the empty spot where the flour usually lived at my local supermarket with the same anxiety with which I tracked rising local case numbers. I’ve been baking sourdough since 2015, and the recipes for those loaves nestle beside those for other baked goods on a shelf in my kitchen. I turn to that shelf at least a couple of times a month to bake cakes for birthdays, cookies for the neighbors who share eggs from their chickens, or muffins to use up a pair of browning bananas. Baking is my stress relief. You know when you don’t want to lose access to your personal form of stress relief? In the middle of a burgeoning global pandemic.
I needed flour, and the only place I could find it was with online retailers who sold it in bulk. And that is how I ended up with a fifty pound bag of flour delivered to my door in late April 2020.
Nothing sharpens one’s appreciation for something like not having it. I came to appreciate the complexity of flour anew. Who was it who first looked at stalks of grass in a field and thought, “I bet there’s something in that I could eat?” Who ground the first kernels between the first stones—an effort that produced a substance that was still inedible—and thought to add water? Who was patient enough and curious enough to capture the wild yeast in the air in that mixture, and found that it created flavor and rise? Who first applied heat, and therefore first got to smell that amazing smell of baking bread?
Bread is a kind of miracle: it represents a culmination of human ingenuity and divine providence, implicitly evoking the God who brings forth bread from the earth and fruit from the vine. Jesus seems to not only know this, but to delight in it.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle is transforming water into wine, and his resurrection appearances pointedly involve eating. This is a God who created food not only as a necessity, but as a medium for Good News and a source of joy.
We tend to forget how marvelous it is; bread is such common stuff, and familiarity breeds contempt. (“Is this not the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’”) But Jesus chooses to use that common stuff as a vehicle for revelation.
This Sunday, you might consider following suit. Attending to the stories that are literally baked into bread can form us in readiness to encounter the Bread of Life. Some possible directions to play with:
- The chemical/biological processes that make flour, water, salt, and yeast into bread are absolutely fascinating. One of my personal favorites involves yeast. While most of us are most familiar with baker’s yeast that’s sold at the grocery store, there are thousands of strains of wild yeast floating in the air, hanging out on the surface of produce, and generally sneaking around your kitchen right now. (This is what sourdough starters are: little at-home petri dishes for capturing them!) They lend unique and complex flavor to a loaf, and they are hyper-local. If you were to take a San Francisco sourdough starter to New York, within a few days the culture of the sourdough would have changed; you’d find the NY strains of yeast dominating. In what ways does this biological enculturation reflect how God chooses to come to us in ways we understand? How do different cultures understand God? How does this diversity—biological and religious—enrich our Christian understanding of who God is? (Pro tip: This would be a great Sunday to sing the hymn “Rice of Life” from the hymnal All Creation Sings!)
- The anthropological story behind bread involves the human domestication of plants, the befriending of wheat, and the rise of grain economies. These realities have been leveraged by the church from its earliest days to help us pray. A hymn from the Didache still echoes in our congregations: “As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread, so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you.” This approach would also allow your preaching to dig into human stewardship of creation, especially in the practice of agriculture.
- The philosophical story behind bread involves humanity’s evolving self-understanding and is reflected in the word companion, which literally means “one who breaks bread with another.” Bread is both a symbol and a maker of human relationships. A preacher might tap into those relationships by interviewing bakers in the congregation about where they learned their recipes, and engaging their listeners in questions of how wisdom—about both recipes and faith—are passed along and passed down.
Bread reveals God’s greatness, our smallness, and the myriad miracles in between. It is indeed marvelous stuff. And as much homiletic mileage as we can get out of bread, we can’t preach on that alone. So let’s not lose track: Jesus isn’t talking about just any loaf of bread in this passage. He is talking about his very body.
Which makes eating the Bread of Life is another matter entirely. When we bring Jesus into ourselves, Jesus transforms us by bringing us into himself: into his life, his death, and his way of being in the world. As Sara Miles put it in her marvelous book, Take This Bread:
Eating Jesus…led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all, but actual food — indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.
Training ourselves as a community of faith to recognize the wonder in a regular piece of bread might prepare us, in some small way, for the unspeakable wonder of what it means to be brought into the Body of Jesus. Eating Jesus is not a catechetical experience; it is an embodied one. This Jesus, who brings us into his Body as we bring him into ours, defies explanation. And so we have stories, symbols, signs, and sacraments.
He is the grain that fell to earth and died in order to bring forth much fruit. He is the source of life, through whom all things were made, in whom all things have their being. He is God’s Word, inseparable; he is God’s love, incarnate. He is more than daily bread; he is the Bread of Life.