As I was mulling over the whole
Jesus and “bread” thing
the Pledge of Allegiance
kept creeping into my thoughts.
It was kind of like an earworm –
a tune you can’t get out of your head,
and I couldn’t figure out why it was hovering around
in my strange little brain.
Then it hit me like a ton of bricks:
“I am the bread of life.”
Surely you see the connection now?
Okay, this is how my brain works,
or doesn’t work as the case may be.
A lot of people think about ‘the pledge’
in very religious terms.
I grew up at a time when people were burning
the American flag on a daily basis,
so taking a knee during the anthem
seems downright respectful in comparison.
But if you are someone who literalizes the flag
as the object of allegiance,
any disrespect is going to feel outrageous.
If “I pledge allegiance to the flag…”
means literally, I dedicate myself to the actual flag,
then the flag itself
becomes a sacrament
instead of a symbol.
As we know, a sacrament is imbued
with a great deal more freight than most symbols.
In contrast to a sacrament,
a symbol has a kind of mental weight to it –
a poetic image verses flesh and blood.
A sacrament has flesh on it – it is the thing itself.
So thinking religiously about ‘the pledge’
turns the flag into something more than it is.
But holding the flag as a mere symbol
allows much more room to explore
the elements and implications
of the flag as a symbol.
The same contrast can be applied
to the idea that Jesus is bread –
as in “bread of life.”
And that brings me to the song,
“I am the bread of life.”
While that song has an inspirational
and uplifting tune,
I find its lyrics very difficult to sing sometimes.
The lyrics to “I am the bread of life” say:
“The bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world,
and those who eat of this bread,
they shall live forever…
Unless you eatof the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink of his blood,
you shall not have life within you.”
Well, just like thinking religiously
about the pledge
can turn a piece of fabric
with stars and stripes on it
into more than it is,
the same kind of thinking
can turn flour, water, and yeast
into flesh and blood.
But my way of thinking
takes a much different turn
when it comes to Jesus and bread.
I’m not saying my way of thinking is best,
or truest, or anything else,
but it may help you to understand this guy
you listen to yammering week after week.
What my mind wants to do
is understand the relationship between
Jesus and manna.
The reason I feel compelled to go there
is that Jesus was a Jew
and he could not help but think of bread
and manna in relationship to one another.
And when he thought about manna,
it would surely cause Jesus to think
of God’s abundantlove
rather than an implied threat to those
who do not believe,
which is the turn that song seems to take.
And in all fairness to the song,
it reflects the turn the author of John’s Gospel
seems to take.
So let’s dig into manna a little.
The Gospel of John,
written seventy or eighty yearsafterJesus died,
says that Jesus is the “Bread of Life.”
That really meant something in those days.
Bread was often the difference
between life and starvation.
And in Israel’s communal memory,
bread was also more than basic calories
because it was totally
intertwined with manna.
Basic sustenance and deep memory
made bread something very different
for those ancients
than it is for us modern folk.
For people of modern affluence,
like most of us,
bread is a little morsel on the side we nibble
before the real appetizers arrive.
To Jesus, and those who shared the world with him,
bread was the main course.
Like rice throughout Asia,
bread kept people alive.
To most of us, today,
bread is something that keeps our hands clean
while we eat lunch meat, chicken salad,
or sauerkraut and pastrami.
To say Jesus is bread– for laborers,
fishermen, and even soldiers
that lived in the first century with Jesus –
meant that Jesus was a primary staple of diet.
Jesus is bread,
declares he is the main source of calories.
Jesus is bread,
meant he is a sustainer
who fills the hole that hunger digs,
and staunches that daily dread of insecurity
in a world in which you never knew
if there was going to be enough to eat the next day.
Think of it: If you had a loaf of bread,
some of which you could save until tomorrow,
then you had security beyond sundown.
That would have been a very good day for most people.
Bread was often the only thing standing between you and hunger on a daily basis –
the thing between you and starvation,
between you and death.
Declaring Jesus is the bread of life
is a metaphor of such massive proportions
I am not sure we can even get
our imaginations around it today.
But as I said,
it all goes back to manna.
Here is a CliffsNotes reminder
of the story and circumstance of manna.
After Moses and the slave nation
escape Pharaoh’s army,
they end up in the desert wilderness.
According to the story,
there were thousands of them
and the only food they had
was what they were able to carry with them
the night they escaped.
It wasn’t long before that food ran out
and they were in the desert hungry
and full of panic.
Idealistic visions of hope
soon turned into the anger and resentment of the mob:
“The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness…’If only we had died at the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”
So, as the story goes, God intervenes.
In the morning dew, miraculously,
there rains down upon the earth a substance
called “manna” – from then on,
known as the bread of heaven.
Manna had special properties,
very special properties.
First, God alerts the people
that there will be enough for everyone.
That is the first property of manna:
there is always enough of it to sustain those who eat it.
The second property, God tells them,
is that manna can only be eaten in the moment,
never kept more than a day.
No hoarding, God says.
But of course, the first thing that hungry,
scared, and starving people do,
is try to stash some.
But when they do, they discover
that second property:
it only lasts one day
and then gets wormy, stinky,
Now if we engage this story with a little theological reflection,
which is what my brain likes to do,
it will bring us to some startling conclusions.
One possible rendering of the manna story
suggests that manna,
with its intrinsic properties
told to us in the story,
is the primary currency in the economy of God.
That phrase right there,
the economy of God,
is a way of messing with an important
and traditional Christian symbol:
the kingdom of heaven.
To call the kingdom of heaven
the economy of God
is to more plainly reveal that it has to do
with real life stuff that is here and now,
not just pie in the sky when we die.
I honestly think that is what Jesus was getting at
when he spoke so often about the kingdom of heaven.
Thinking about that manna story,
if the property of manna is
that there is always enough to go around
and everybody gets enough,
then perhaps it is saying to us –
even today, so many millennia later –
that anything that really matters
cannot be collected, amassed, or hoarded.
Let’s think about that
with an open mind and a deep breath:
In the economy of God
there is enough to go around
and everybody gets enough,
so that anything that really matters
cannot be collected, amassed, or hoarded.If that is true,
if that is actually the way the kingdom of God works –
and we are supposed to pray that
thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven–
then think about what we are actually asking.
Symbols and sacraments aside,
our real work – the thing our spiritual practice
and community of faith is supposed to be up to –
is co-creating with God,
the kingdom on earth as in heaven.
In other words,
we are supposed to be creating, with God,
an economy in which there is enough to go around.
One thing we know right now
is that in our world today,
poverty is a problem of distribution
not an issue of scarcity.
We DO have enough to go around
if we were to distribute it differently
and hoard it much less of it.
So now we can see, that this manna story
as well as the Jesus is bread story,
has a point aimed at us and we can feel it poking.
To say Jesus is the Bread of Life –
the manna we need to survive –
is to say, thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
What that means,
if we use our theological imaginations,
is that we are supposed to be co-creators with God.
In other words, we are supposed to bring about
the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven:
the economy that God intends for the world.
It is not something that any one of us can do
all by ourselves, or even
a few of us gathered in groups
and impassioned to change our ways.
It is a collaboration between God and us,
and somehow, we have to convince
enough other human beings
that we would all be better off
living on manna
than hording what we imagine is the good stuff.
The first challenge we have
is convincing ourselves and one another
that all those material creature comforts we adore
is not our manna.
We imply such twisted thinking
with some regularity, maybe
without meaning to, when
we say we are blessed or someone else is blessed,
because they have stuff or got some more stuff –
even though we know true manna cannot be hoarded.
So often we think that blessings
are something some people ‘get’
and others lack.
Because we are so used to thinking that way,
we have commoditized manna
by talking about health,
as blessings from above.
In this scheme of things,
there are those who are blessed
and those who are not –
as if the economy of God
operates on the principle of scarcity
instead of abundance.
But that is because we define blessing so completely
by the amount of stuff we have
or our security, power, and health.
That is how our economy operates.
In God’s economy, rather than ours,
there is only blessing.
The story of manna in the wilderness
is a little reminder of that.
We have all been blessed;
we areall blessed.
No one gets more manna than anyone else
and no one gets more blessing than anyone one else –
we have all been blessed.
We would see and understand that
if ever we established the economy of God
as it is in heaven.
But until then,
we suffer and inflict suffering on one another
by amassing and hoarding anything we can,
and then we blame those who didn’t get much
and say it’s their fault.
It is absolutely as crazy a way of thinking as it sounds,
which is why Jesus asked us to give it up
and instead, work with God
to create God’s economy
as it is in heaven.
So, Jesus is manna:
he is a reminder that there is always
enough to go around
and everyone gets enough,
and anything that really matters
cannot be collected, amassed, or hoarded