Bread has been an object of human desire, a sacred object even, for thousands of years.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 29th July 2018 at 11:15 AM
A couple of weeks ago, archaeologists working in Jordan, discovered fragments of a rudimentary flat-bread over 14,000 years old. It was made at a time long before the cultivation of crops, and consisted of various types of wild grain, which had been carefully gathered and prepared, in a long and laborious process of de-husking, grinding, mixing, kneading and baking. This bread must have been a rare and precious commodity, so I wonder why it wasn’t all eaten? Were its makers unexpectedly disturbed by a rival tribe, or a sabre-toothed beast, causing them to flee, leaving their meal behind them? Or was this bread simply, miraculously, surplus to requirements; a pre-fulfilment of the words of Elisha – ‘They shall eat and have some left’? In fact, the evidence of surrounding buildings at the site suggests that this bread formed part of a religious ritual. This bread was sacred.
The discovery of this ancient bread appears to confirm the theory that the desire for bread-making was the stimulus for early agriculture; for the selection and cultivation of various grains so that a regular and plentiful supply of bread could be assured. And I, for one, am grateful for their efforts. Nothing creates such gladness in my heart than the smell of bread, freshly-baked; surpassed only by the untold bliss of eating it.
Bread has been an object of human desire, a sacred object even, for thousands of years, it would seem. It already held a special place in our genetic and cultural inheritance, long before Jesus of Nazareth fed the five thousand with the five barley loaves, and described himself, mysteriously, as the ‘Bread of life’. Sigmund Freud may have thought that human desire is mostly about sex, but I think he may have underestimated the allure of flour and water, leavened and baked.
The feeding of the five thousand with the loaves and the fishes is one of comparatively few miracles, or signs, that St John reports. Compared to the other gospel writers he is quite sparing with miracles, although he alludes to many more. For St John, the significance of Jesus is not that he could perform wonders. There were plenty of others who could attract attention that way, and indeed, even in our sceptical age, wonder-workers can still attract a crowd, or a congregation. But what matters for St John is not so much that these things happened, but what they signify. He didn’t imagine that we would have any problem with the events themselves. He could not have foreseen the scepticism of a scientific age. In fact St John would have been more concerned that we might get too focussed and excited with the miracles themselves, and fail to look deeper, at what they suggest about Jesus; who he is.
As modern readers and hearers we may well find ourselves having to suspend judgement about miraculous events such as the feeding of the five thousand. We may want to affirm that ‘something happened’, even if we squirm a bit when more secular-minded friends look at us askance, suspecting the kind of lapse into irrationality that they assume to be common in religious people. It takes some nerve to say; “actually not only did ‘something happen’, but it must have been something like 5 thousand people being fed with 5 loaves and a couple of fish”, because the meaning of the event is not unconnected to the event itself. We might justify ourselves a bit in the eyes of our sceptical friends by saying that the credibility, the believability of the miraculous event comes out of the meaning it generates – we might argue that we can accept (or at least trust) the account of what happened, in reverse, as it were, on the basis of what it signifies; what it suggests about the person of Jesus; who he is and what he is about. If, as modern readers and hearers, we need to take this slightly roundabout route in order to acknowledge the ‘truth’ of a miracle, I don’t think St John would have a problem with that. He would be much more concerned, as I suggested earlier, if reading or hearing this account only left us hungry for more miracles in general, and not hungry to know more about the particular man who performed this particular wonder.
One of the unique features of St John’s gospel - his presentation of the story of Jesus of Nazareth - is the way he spreads the ministry of Jesus across the course of three years. This is made clear to us because three Passovers are mentioned; the first, in chapter 2, when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple – the third being the Passover when Jesus was crucified, and after which he was raised; and the second mentioned here in Chapter 6, today’s gospel, when Jesus feeds the five thousand. Three Passovers, explicitly mentioned, each associated with significant events; events that lead us (if we wish) deeper and deeper into the heart of the gospel, into the person of Jesus; who he was, and why he came.
The first Passover, and the rumpus in the Temple hints, shockingly, at the Temple’s destruction, as Jesus under-mines its systems of commerce and sacrifice. ‘Destroy this temple – says Jesus - and in three days I will raise it up.’ But, as John helpfully points out, he is no longer speaking about a venerable building but the temple of his own body.
Remember in the prologue of John’s gospel we are told that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ – from the very beginning John draws our attention to the body, and at this first mention of Passover speaks of that body’s destruction and it’s raising up.
It is as if John is preparing us for the denouement of the 3rd Passover, when Christ is physically lifted-up; his body displayed, destroyed, on the Cross; the body that would be raised, transformed on the third day.
And so to this middle Passover, and we should expect it to point us again towards the Passion; we should expect it to speak of Christ’s body. If we weren’t shocked enough by the prospect of his body’s destruction, here we are confronted with something much harder to swallow. The miracle of the loaves and fishes leads, in true Johannine fashion, to a deep exposition of the significance of the miracle, and what it tells us about the man who took the loaves, gave thanks to God, broke and distributed them. Jesus himself teaches the crowds who follow him – who were fed with the loaves and, like those first humans who went to all the trouble of cultivating grain, are hungry for more. And Jesus himself shifts the crowd’s attention from the bread that he broke, to the bread that he is. ‘I am the bread of life. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever.’
When St Paul wrote in the letter to the Ephesians that he prayed for them to ‘be filled with all the fullness of God’, he could pray this because he knew that the Word made flesh, the body that was destroyed, has been raised and has become the means by which God inexhaustibly gives himself to us; fills us with all his fullness. The Christian calling is not just to accept Christ in the manner of a guru, a worthy exemplar and teacher – we are offered more than that, more than we might actually want. In Christ God invites us to share his very life – for his life to be in us – so that we might become his children, his own flesh and blood, by accepting Christ’s body as the answer to all our hunger.
John tells us that this teaching did not go down terribly well. How can this man give us his flesh to eat? – they grumbled, and it remains a good question. How can this man give us his flesh to eat…?
…how else, but in bread taken, blessed, broken and distributed – bread over which the mystery of the incarnation and passion is retold, day by day, week by week. Bread which is broken to denote sacrifice, but marks not just the ending of a life, but the giving of a life that is without limit; with this bread there will always be more than enough.
When we walk past a bakery, and inhale that heavenly scent, and feel the desire that wells up from our very DNA, yearning through millennia of human experience, we should rejoice to sink our teeth into that deep crust, that soft yielding centre; but whatever we do, as good students of St John, we should not get too caught up in this miracle of water and wheat, leaven and fire. Don’t let your hunger be entirely satisfied even in such delicious miracles, but hunger for more; for the true meaning of bread, for what it signifies. Hunger for the God who desires, in Christ, that we should be filled with all His fullness.