When the Japanese besieged
sixty-plus years ago and began starving the people inside the city, a
British banker was found sitting on the curb with his feet in the
gutter. He was dressed like
a British banker: cutaway coat, Homburg hat, pin-striped trousers, grey
spats. He was the picture of
upper-class privilege. He
had found an orange in the gutter. The
orange had been stepped on several times, had been exposed to the sun,
and had begun to putrefy. He
was about to bite into it when a British soldier knocked it out of his
hand, shouting, “Do you want to get sick?”
Whereupon the banker, still sitting on the curb, hung his head
and blubbered like a child.
Hunger is terrible. Hunger
bends people. Hunger forces people to be what they never thought
they’d become. The British banker would have given everything he owned
for just one slice of bread. But
there was no bread.
Bread was the all-important commodity in the ancient east.
Bread? Not money?
Money didn’t even exist in old, old
. In lieu of currency grain
was the medium of exchange. Hundreds
of years later, in Hosea’s day, Hosea lurched broken-hearted to the
market in order to purchase his “hooker”-wife from the clutches of
the local pimp. Hosea paid
part of the purchase-price in grain.
Whereas in our society there are few public officials more
important than the minister of finance and the president of the central
bank, in the ancient world the most important public official was the
one responsible for bread.
is one of life’s necessities.
Because bread looms so large in our lives and is essential to
life, we use the word “bread” metaphorically.
“I’ve got to have a second job just to put bread on the
table.” Everyone knows
what the expression is meant to convey.
When we pray, as we are taught to pray, “Give us this day our
daily bread”, we are asking for all
of life’s necessities: bread, to be sure, but also water and clean
air and safe cities and national security and effective schooling and
adequate medical care. What,
after all, would be the point of bread (literal) to sustain us if
disease then carried us off? What
would be the point of eating bread to forestall malnutrition if we then
had to breathe lung-corroding air or live in lethal streets or succumb
to military aggression? When
we pray for daily bread we are praying for all of life’s necessities as symbolized by bread.
When our Lord multiplied the loaves and healed the sick and
raised the dead he wasn’t doing three different things.
He was doing one thing: bringing with him that kingdom whose
manifestation we long to see.
Then is bread a physical matter or a spiritual matter?
To put such a question is to pose a false dichotomy.
All of us at Tyndale have been schooled in the logic of the
Hebrew bible, and therefore we know that to dichotomize life into the
physical (or material) and the spiritual is to dichotomize life falsely.
Dennis Niles, a thoughtful South Asian Christian of an earlier
era, used to say, “If I lack bread – that’s a physical problem; if
my neighbour lacks bread – a spiritual problem.”
Since the Christian community is birthed by the Spirit of God and
is concerned with spiritual matters, the Christian community is
therefore concerned with material matters – which is to say, the
Christian community is always concerned with bread of every kind.
we are speaking of bread metaphorically we should recall the way the
older testament speaks of the bread of tears and the bread of affliction
and the bread of idleness and the bread of adversity.
Because bread was the staple food in the ancient world, it was
eaten in huge quantities. Then
as now people knew that in one sense they were
what they ate. What
they ate became so thoroughly a part of them that they were
characterized by what they had had to swallow.
When the Hebrew bible speaks of the bread of tears or the bread
of sorrow, it means that someone is so thoroughly grief-saturated
she’s consumed by her grief; someone has been so thoroughly saddened
that she’s characterized by her sorrow and is now identified with it.
We all know people whom adversity has devastated so
thoroughly that we would say, were we living in the time of our Hebrew
foreparents, that they have eaten the bread of adversity.
As soon as we hear the word “adversity” we think of those
people who exemplify adversity and whom we now identify with it.
We know too people who have eaten the bread of wickedness.
They have become so very wicked that they are deemed to exemplify
of the different kinds of bread that we can eat and do eat, it’s plain
that we need one more kind of bread as we need nothing else: we need him
who is the bread of life. We
are sinners and we are sufferers. We
need our Lord, and he meets us at every point of our need.
’s 40-year trek through the wilderness there was given them a most
glorious anticipation of Jesus Christ, the bread of life.
They were given manna. Manna
sustained them in that era when bleakness loomed wherever they looked.
“Manna” is a Hebrew word meaning “What is it?”
They were sustained by God’s provision, the nature of which
they couldn’t explain (let alone explain away), yet whose presence and
significance they couldn’t deny. “What
is it?” How
God sustains his people is always a mystery; that
he sustains them is never in doubt.
Manna appeared to be so very ordinary, yet it was extraordinary
in its origin, its nature, its effectiveness.
Twelve hundred years after the wilderness episode some
descendants of wilderness-survivors said to Jesus, “Our fathers ate
manna in the wilderness. Moses
fed his people.
What can you do for
us?” Jesus replied, “It
wasn’t Moses who fed your foreparents; it was my Father.
He gives true bread
from heaven, and I, Jesus of Nazareth, am that bread. I am the
bread of life, just because I am living
bread. Whoever comes to me
will never hunger; whoever comes to me will never perish.”
Manna was an anticipation of Jesus Christ.
To say the same thing differently, Jesus Christ was the hidden
truth of the manna in the wilderness.
It was he who sustained
the people even though they knew it not.
“Now, however”, says our Lord, “you people are to know that
I am God’s provision. To
be sure, I appear so very ordinary as to be readily overlooked.
Yet my origin, nature and effectiveness are rooted in the mystery
of God. I am living bread,
the bread of life; whoever comes to me from this moment neither hungers
In the service of Holy Communion we eat ordinary bread, everyday
bread, bread plain and simple, and yet we are fed him who is the bread
of life. The bread that
sustains our bodies also sustains, by God’s grace, our life in Christ
as our Lord Jesus gives himself to us afresh.
only was bread eaten at Israelite meals; wine was drunk at every meal as
well. Where wine is
concerned our Israelite foreparents differed from our society in two
ways. On the one hand, they
abhorred drunkenness, finding it disgusting, whereas we seem to find it
amusing. On the other hand,
Israelite people customarily drank wine at every meal.
The rare exception was the highly unusual ascetic like John the
Baptist. People like John
who didn’t touch wine also refrained from touching much else,
including soap and shampoo. They
also avoided women. They
lived on the fringe of society. Their
witness had its place, to be sure, but it was never the witness that God
had appointed his people to bear characteristically.
John, it must be remembered, lived in the wilderness, dressed in
animal skins, stank like a garbage can, and drank no wine.
Jesus did none of this.
Again and again the Older Testament speaks of wine as God’s
gift that gladdens the heart of men and women.
Wine doesn’t appear to be essential to life.
Bread is essential to life, but not wine.
Yet wine is essential to life, said our Hebrew foreparents, just because joy
is essential to life. Life
is never to be bleak or drab or dull.
Life must never become utilitarian only.
In addition to the utilitarian there has to be a light heart and
a glad countenance, a happy time and a festive mood.
Jesus, we know partied frequently.
He partied so often that his enemies accused him of overdoing it.
They said he ate too much and he drank too much.
Whereupon he wheeled on his detractors, “John came neither
eating nor drinking and you said he was demon-possessed, crazy if not
wicked. I’ve come eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton and drunkard.
You don’t care about God’s Kingdom.
You care only about spearing those who challenge your
self-righteousness and your lovelessness.
That’s deplorable. But
in any case I and the people who love me are going to a party.
And we’re going to have a good time.
You’re welcome to come to the party too.
Maybe you’d rather stay home and pout.
We can’t help that. But
in any case you aren’t going to spoil our party.”
Wine is God’s gift that gladdens the human heart.
When our Lord insists, wine cup in hand, that he is the true
vine, the wine of life, he means that he
is that gift of the Father who profoundly makes the human heart to sing.
Whenever we drink wine, therefore – at the Lord’s Supper, at
a meal, on any occasion – we are announcing once again that Jesus
Christ is the one who profoundly delights and satisfies, doing for us
what no one else can and imparting to us what no one can ever take away.
our Lord most profoundly gladdens us through the blessing of his shed
blood, the apostles, together with the church after them, have
associated wine with blood. In
fact the church hasn’t hesitated to speak of eating Christ’s body
and drinking his blood. This
isn’t surprising, since Jesus himself said that he abides in us and we
in him only as we drink his blood. (John 6:54)
What did he mean? What
did he mean, in view of the fact that Jewish people abhor drinking blood
as they abhor little else? The
Torah forbids them to drink blood, and they take such precautions with
kosher meat as to ensure that they don’t eat or drink blood.
At the last supper, when Jesus took the cup and declared to the
disciples, “This is God’s covenant with you renewed in my blood,”
the one thing that his disciples never thought they were doing was
literally drinking his blood. The
thought of it would have sickened them.
It so happens that among the Israelite people to “shed blood”
meant to murder. Murder was
reprehensible. It so happens that among the Israelite people to “drink
blood” meant to murder and to profit from the foul deed.
While it’s dreadful to murder, it’s worse to murder and then
profit from the murder.
When Jesus tells us that we are going to drink his blood, he
means that our sin is going to do him in.
Humankind’s sin, collapsing on him, will crush him to death.
And humankind’s sin, crushing him to death, he will gladly bear
and bear away for our sakes, thereby giving us life.
We kill, and we profit from it.
We shed blood and we drink blood.
In the paradoxical mystery of God’s grace, the treachery of the
human heart, culminating in murder, the murder of the Son of God; this
becomes the means of our forgiveness and freedom.
Let me say it again. In
the paradoxical mystery of God’s grace, human treachery (the cross)
becomes the means whereby human treachery is pardoned and purged.
Plainly we do drink our Lord’s blood.
Then let us come to Christ’s table now, for as he invites us to
drink wine with him, the fruit of the vine, he invites us to drink again
that blood which we have already drunk in any case.
And he invites us to eat bread with him, and therein know afresh
that he, and he alone, is now and ever will be the bread of life.