It is a theme where I often pause, this one, where Jesus takes something we know so well we barely pause to take note of it, and imbues it with meaning far beyond that which was first intended. Surely not by the one who first discovered the rising power of yeast. Nor the one who first experienced the texture of flour and water together taking shape in her hands. And no, not by the one who realized the powerful difference a tiny bit of added salt could make to one’s palate. It is just bread, after all, and while in some circles now a less common part of one’s everyday diet, still part of all cultures in one form or another in every time and place for thousands of years.
Indeed, in our lessons today we hear of bread no fewer than three times. In Jesus’ speaking of himself, of course. In his pointing back to the wonder of ‘bread’ provided to ancestors in the wilderness. And yes, in the description of a brief interlude in Elijah’s life when bread was provided in order that he might go on. Whether it is Jesus breaking bread at the Last Supper or again at the home of his hosts at Emmaus, the bread that Sarah made for three visitors in the wilderness or the Bread of the Presence in the Temple or the bread that Jesus has said to have provided to the multitudes, in the faith tradition you and I call home, bread has always been a sign of God’s Abundant Provision. Even in the most familiar prayer we share, we ask for bread, symbolizing everything we need for this day.
And so it is as summer winds down, I am thinking now of a ministry dear to the heart of the congregation I serve which finds its expression in two slices of bread, multiplied again and again. It all began two autumns ago in response to the certain truth that too many students on our local university campus are hungry. Our first impulse to make a difference quickly translated into a weekly assembly line after worship where young and old alike spread peanut butter and jelly or pressed turkey and cheese onto two slices of bread, slipped it into a lunch bag and added a piece of fruit and a sweet dessert. After this has been done a hundred times over, on Monday a smaller crew carry those bagged lunches to the busiest corner on campus where our Campus Ministry building is and along with a choice of chips and a bottle of water, give them away.
I have stood on that corner and I have seen for myself the surprise on the faces of young people as they realize that the free lunch they have just been offered is, in fact, just that: free. I have witnessed their glad gratitude over and over again as they walk away with the promise of a full belly for one more day.
So it was that a few weeks back a member of the Campus Ministry Board was out shopping for paint for work which needs to be done to the building. At both places she went, Northern Illinois University students waited to help from behind the counter. She told them what she was looking for and why. And they both knew where our Campus Ministry was because they had seen or actually received one of those lunches being given away.
My heart was glad to hear of this, even while I am deeply aware that our small offering is not enough, of course, for those bagged lunches do not get at the reasons students are hungry in the first place. Even so, it comes to me now that those simple sandwiches — made of ordinary bread — truly do point beyond us to the very Bread of Life who stands with us on the corner of Lucinda and Normal on the campus at Northern Illinois University. Indeed, for now we may just be helping to fill their bellies, but might it be so that this serves as a first invitation to a relationship with Jesus, the Bread of Life via the larger gifts of our ministry? Surely this is more likely now that young people are at least beginning to recognize that building as an outpost of love and kindness, generosity and abundance: God’s Abundance!
So perhaps this ordinary bread is not so ordinary after all…
- Why do you think bread is such a powerful symbol in scripture? Besides the ones I offer above, what stories do you recall?
- How does the certainty that Jesus is the ‘Bread of Life’ hold meaning for you?
- I offer one example of how sharing ‘bread’ can be a front line invitation to sharing and deepening faith where ordinary bread is not so ordinary after all… What example might you share?