“Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” (John 6:48-51a)
When my kids were growing up, they used to spend two weeks at the start of summer each year at my parent’s place. It was my mom’s idea – she said, “Why don’t we take the kids for a couple weeks at the start of summer? We have the swimming pool here. We’ll enroll them in swim lessons each morning and they can swim in the pool each afternoon. They’ll be like fish by the end of their stay so they’ll be safe at the cottage or in the boat all summer long.” I said, “Mom, you had me after “Why don’t we take the kids for 2 weeks!”
So, Sue and I got a break from parenting which made us happy. Mom and dad got to spend time with their grandkids so they were happy, and the kids got to swim in the pool all day, so they were happy.
But if you asked the kids about their favorite memories at grandma and grandpa’s place they wouldn’t limit it to the pool. They’d also mention the big raspberry patch they had and how they raided each day for berries on their cereal or just to eat right off the bushes. They’d mention walks up to “Old Baldy,” a lookout atop of the Bruce Trail overlooking the entire Kimberly Valley. But most of all they recall making homemade bread with grandma.
My mom is a great cook but her hallmark is homemade bread. It’s the first thing the kids would smell when they go through the door, and the last thing they’d do before leaving grandma’s is make a batch of bread or buns and bring them home for us all to eat. I figure long after my parents are gone the memory of that bread will stick with them and whenever they pass by a bakery and smell bread, they’ll think of their grandparents.
The sense of smell is perhaps the most amazing of our senses. First of all, it last throughout our lives. With age, sight tends to grow dim with age, so does hearing, but the sense of smell generally remains strong throughout life. And the fascinating thing about smell is how it is connected to our memory. What memories come to your mind when you smell the sweet odor of pipe smoke? Or the fragrance of fresh mowed grass? Even the smell of wet canvas can stir memories of camping days.
I don’t think it was a mistake that Jesus chose bread as a way for us to identify with him. Bread is such a universal food - common to so many different cultures. There are different kinds of bread from different cultures because anything that can be milled into flour can be made into bread - wheat, rye, corn, rice - all different textures and flavors, but all bread nonetheless. And bread has such a savory smell when it’s fresh baked that it can’t help but evoke memories.
When children were first invited to participate in the Lord’s Table, we used to hold a three–session class for them, to help them understand this sacrament better, and we devoted one entire session to the baking of bread! We’d meet in the kitchen where they’d knead the dough, let it rise, punch it down and put it in loaf tins, they bake it in the oven. Everyone got to eat some bread and take home a loaf of bread that night. Why so much attention on bread-making? Because we wanted to establish a strong connection between bread and Jesus, the living bread. Our hope was that they would think of Jesus and communion every time they smelled fresh baked bread. It was a great idea! In fact, I think we ought to bake bread in the church on every communion Sunday to help establish that connection within the membership. That way we’d remember Jesus, not just once a month around the communion table, but every time we smelled fresh-baked bread.
It’s the sort of connection that Jesus is trying to make with the people in today’s passage from John’s gospel. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus has fed the 5,000 by the Sea of Galilee. He then crosses over to the other side of the water, but the crowds found him again. They are looking for more bread - they’re hungry for something to eat. Jesus says to them: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” They respond: “Sir, give us this bread always.” Then Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes will never be hungry, whoever believes will never be thirsty.”
Apparently, there is some controversy among scholars as to whether this passage is intentionally Eucharistic or not. Some suggest that these comments of Jesus aren’t necessarily made in connection to the sacrament of communion that the church observes. Personally, I find that hard to believe because almost everything in John’s gospel has liturgical and Eucharistic significance. John’s gospel was one of the last books written to be included in the New Testament… somewhere around 90AD. By that time, the church was well-steeped in tradition and liturgy. John wrote not to be biographical but liturgical… to place Jesus centrally within the life and tradition of the church and its people. So, all the stories are told in such a way as to comment on the worship and liturgy of the church.
A case in point - have you noticed that John’s Gospel does not include Jesus sharing in the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before his arrest and crucifixion. There is no Passover meal mentioned at all. Why? Jesus doesn’t keep the Passover because he is the Passover. Jesus is the one sacrificed for all… no bones broken because the paschal lamb was unbroken. And when they pierce his side blood and water come out - a witness of the sacrament. So, the story is told to give it Eucharistic and liturgical significance. So, when Jesus says, “I am the Living Bread,” it has liturgical significance and was likely used by the community at communion, just as we use it.
But it’s also presumptuous to think that these words have no meaning outside of the sacrament of Lord’s supper either. We need to remember that Jesus had a broader understanding of the sacred that we do. He’s not limited to the sacraments, so when he says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he’s not just dictating words to be said during communion, he’s saying “remember me every time you break bread.” He wants us to remember him more than once a month during communion but every time we sit down to bread. We need to see the Bread of Life at work throughout our lives… experience moments when an ordinary meal becomes communion. After all, Jesus says, “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst.” We all experience Christ in our midst at this table, but have you ever experienced Christ at your own table, or at a restaurant table or a picnic table?
Years ago, when I was minister in Palmerston Ontario, we lived in a manse that was located right beside the church. It is hard to be inconspicuous when you’re the minister living in the house right beside the church! Even complete strangers can figure out who you are. One Saturday afternoon in the spring there was a knock at the front door. There was a man looking for money to buy a bus ticket to Toronto. Often churches have a special fund set up to assist the needy in such cases, but my church did not. So, I said to the fellow, “If you’d help me wash these windows, I’ll pay you!” He looked at the windows, shrugged his shoulders and said “sure.” So, we spent a good part of the afternoon washing the windows of the manse. It was late in the afternoon when I paid him. It didn’t seem right to send the fellow away so close to dinner, so I invited him to stay and eat with us. Nothing fancy - I think Sue had put something in the slow cooker to eat.
He gratefully accepted, so we washed up and sat down at the table. I asked him to say grace and we all bowed our heads and he gave thanks. And during the meal and the conversation, this stranger no longer seemed strange at all… not a drifter passing through town, but an invited guest at our table, a brother in Christ breaking bread with us.
He kept complimenting us on what a wonderful meal it was. “This is such a good meal ma’am, you’re a great cook.” It was a slow cooker meal but he couldn’t say enough good about that dinner. But you know what? He was right - there was something special about it. It was just meat and vegetables cooked in a slow cooker but it tasted even better. Like bread and wine. Yea, that’s it… just like bread and wine.