As a child, I remember buying bread at the grocery. I remember it came as whole loaves, either white or brown. That’s all I remember about bread until at some point a third option became available – sliced. The arrival of a slicing machine in the grocery meant that in our house bread now came presliced in a plastic wrapper.
A common saying in both New Zealand and the UK is: it’s the best thing since sliced bread! Maybe it’s a saying used by Americans as well. Being a denizen of all three cultures, it’s increasingly difficult for me to keep straight in which of the three cultures a certain aphorism originates. The saying means: wow, this [thing, situation] is a wonderful invention. I remember sliced bread as the staple of my childhood, for bread was not the specialty item to be savored and delighted over that those of us living in Providence find at Seven Stars Bakery. Bread was bread, white or brown, sliced or not, used as toast or to make a sandwich or a bread pudding –a great favorite of visits to my maternal grandmother.
I also remember a time when the eating of bread had little down side. The purity of the grain and the metabolism of youth allowed me to consume bread without regard to quantity or consequence. This is alas, is no longer so. The processed nature of much wheat used in making bread is making bread toxic and I now strictly monitor my wheat intake. The slowing of my body’s metabolism also means that bread is now a source of unwanted carbs, and unwanted carbs are the enemy of my aging male waste line.
Bread is the staple food in all cultures where wheat is the staple grain. Bread is the staple food, the fruit of nature’s bounty. Wheat growing societies dependence on bread as the staple food has led such societies to view Bread is also a symbol of divine generosity – an embodiment of God’s care and concern for human beings. Our own religious memory contains countless instances and references to bread as a sign of God’s presence, God’s communication with and involvement in human affairs.
We read of the prophet Elijah (1Kings:19) at a point of despair retiring under a solitary broom tree to await the welcomed release of death only to be awoken to find God’s gift of bread, baked on stones heated by the merciless sun as a both a means not only of physical sustenance but also as a sign of God’s promise of a future. The feeding of the Israelites (Exodus 16) with manna (a form of flaky bread) in the wilderness has become the archetypal bread story. It’s echo sounds throughout the scriptural record where bread becomes a sign of divine deliverance at times of crisis and a promise for the future. This story finds a strong resonance in ministry of Jesus, who feeds 5000 with two loaves; again bread used not only as a real material expression of God’s care and concern but an action that has a huge symbolic significance, the meaning of which Jesus begins to unfold.
We continue in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel with Jesus following his feeding of the 5000, expanding on his theology of bread. The crowds flock in increasing numbers to hear Jesus, drawn as he suggests not simply by the signs and wonders he performs but by the promise of a full stomach; the satisfying their physical hunger. We recall that hunger was the commonplace experience for the masses of displaced peasantry that flocked to hear Jesus. 1st Century Palestine was undergoing a commercialization of agricultural production with land being increasingly vested in powerful landowners who like the powerful in our own time were intent on the monopolizing of resources. Independent peasant farmers were being displaced and turned into itinerant day laborers, a story as old as time, and one alarmingly familiar to us as we view with a sense of increasing helplessness the trajectory of economic developments in our own day.
Jesus challenges the crowds to consider what it is they have come expecting. If it’s to be fed then that’s important but only a temporary fix. He pushes them beyond the familiarity of their boundaried imaginations and they don’t like it. They begin to challenge his presenting himself as the bread come down from heaven. Jesus is telling them he is the manna of God, which is much more than physical bread that temporarily satiates hunger. As God’s living bread, Jesus offers them the spiritual nourishment of transformation. If Jesus had read Maslow he would have realized that it is a tall order telling people about spiritual nourishment, whose bellies need filling.
I don’t imagine that Jesus as unsympathetic to the crowds drawn to him by the promise of a free meal. Yet, his purpose seems to be to lay out a much larger perspective, within which satisfying physical needs has a place, but cannot be the ultimate end goal. As human beings, we need spiritual nourishment that enables transformation, as well.
Bread the life of heaven and the life of the world
Bread is the fundamental element in Christian community. Christian community, to be Christian must be concerned with the need for real bread to feed the hungry. Give us this day our daily bread – extends bread as a metaphor for all of life’s basic needs: something to eat, somewhere to live, and someone to love and be loved by. Christian community is also concerned with the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger.
Every Sunday and in some communities more frequently than that, Jesus’ gift of the bread from heaven that feeds the life of the world is renewed in time and space in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the central aspect of Christian worship. At the Eucharist real bread, the staple of life becomes the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger.
The celebration of the Eucharist must bear certain characteristics according to one of America’s greatest lay theologians of the 20th Century, William Stringfellow.
In an essay entitled Liturgy as Political Action1 Stringfellow outlines three basic characteristics for liturgy that roots it in the integrity of the gospel. Let me apply some of Stringfellow’s thinking about liturgy more specifically to my task in hand.
Transcending categories of time
The Eucharist is where the Biblical story of creation is recalled and rehearsed in the full knowledge of the world’s redemption by Christ. In a modern world enthralled by the concepts of time travel and parallel multidimensional connections across time, the Eucharist, as action forges a conduit between past and future allowing the energies of the past and the promises of the future to flow into the present, i.e. into present time and the particularity of place.
This drama – dramatic action requires the full participation of all the people to prevent it becoming simply a spectacle to be observed. As Stringfellow puts it:
As a transcendent event, the [Eucharist] collects all that has already happened in this world from the beginning of time and prophesies all that is to come until the end of time. But the [Eucharist] is also a contemporary event, involving these particular persons gathered in this specific place and in this peculiar way.
In other words, the Eucharist is here and now and its effects are real in the here and now. It becomes for us a way of focusing our attention on our connections within the community – past and present, and between the community and rest of the world around it. [It] is the normative and conclusive ethical commitment of the Christian people to the world2
The Eucharist celebrates not only God’s gift of Godself in Christ as the bread from heaven given for the life of the world, it also expresses the involvement of the Christian community in the life of the everyday world through the acts of service and witness, i.e. real bread, necessary for real people as staple of life.
Eucharist is the central act of worship in the historicl3 tradition of Christianity of which the Episcopal Church as a Church of the Anglican Tradition is a part. This summer at St Martin’s we are deepening our understanding of Eucharist, which for many of us becomes rather routine and devoid of impact, cocooned within the familiar recitations on Sunday mornings. Eucharist becomes merely a matter of doing what we do without any real connection to the why. For the months of July and August, we are exploring Eucharist in instructional format at the different time of 5.30pm on Sunday evenings. In this format, the familiar cadences of the Prayer Book give way to reveal the skeleton of actions that undergirds Eucharist as one whole action.
Returning to an expansive vision
Since the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, we have sought to overcome the legacy of the arid argument as to whether at the Eucharist the bread becomes Christ’s real body or remains just bread. Today we transcend the controversy particular and peculiar to the 16th century by reconnecting to a larger and more encompassing vision of sacramental action and sacramental authority.
Our current science fiction fascination with time and anomalies of time fuelled by the real physics of Quantum observation opens a way to revisit the historic concepts of anamnesis, i.e. the remembrance of things past made effective again through action in the present. Like the crowds that came to hear Jesus, what are our expectations as members of a community whose central action in the world is the celebration of Eucharist?
St Paul offered two tests for measuring our spiritual vitality. Can we allow ourselves to be part of community -something greater than ourselves, and can we engage with our individual calling through which we can make our distinctive contribution, bringing our skills, passion, and resources to the building up of the community?
For so many of us our membership of the community of faith has become perfunctory and at times can mean little more to us than belonging by habit to a club or association. This is not always our fault. It can be just the way life is at times. Yet, no matter how exuberant or lackluster we feel about church, I have yet to meet a person who is not spiritually hungry for something more.
Bread, the bread from heaven, which satisfies our spiritual hunger (John 6:35, 41-51) in the celebration of the Eucharist brings the nature of Christian community into sharper focus. Is our community a place where we can expect to eat the bread of heaven? Is St Martin’s a place where we can begin to distinguish between our emotional wants and moods and our spiritual needs? It can be only if we invest ourselves in its life.
Much of what we long for is not more happiness, but a more vital sense of purpose and connection beyond ourselves. We find that what we need as a community of seekers journeying together is to become a community where transformation is an expectation in everyday experience. We long not only for personal transformation; we also long to become transformed as a community, fit to carry out the mission of the being Christ’s body in the world.
The Book of Common Prayer tells us that the mission of the Church is to pray, worship, proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace, and love (Pg 854BCP). Through whom does the Church carry out its mission? The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members, i.e. you and me gathered to celebrate and receive the bread from heaven.
William Stringfellow again: Eucharist is not any ritual such as the rituals of the Masons or any other secret society. It uses ordinary things that are the staples of life in the world –
bread, wine, water, cloth, money, color, music, words, or whatever else is readily at hand.
Using the ordinary things at hand to celebrate and make present the extraordinary gifts of God is a political event. By political event Stringfellow clearly has an event in mind that challenges and changes things.
The very example of salvation, it is the festival of life that foretells the fulfillment and maturity of all of life for all of time and in this time. The liturgy is social action because it is the characteristic style of life for human beings in this world. 4
 A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (1994) Ed by Bill Wylie Kellermann. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
 The History of the Liturgy Pp 124-5
 Catholic and Apostolic
 Pp 125-6