I love bread—any kind. I’m happy with a loaf of enriched white Wonderbread, although I love bakery bread even more: cibatta, pumpernickel, and especially foccacia. Bread is a hearty and comforting food, worthy of its reputation as the staff of life. It is made of ingredients that come from the earth, and by eating it, we are nourished and strengthened to live another day. Bread is also one of the most significant and lasting symbols in the Christian church. Although we are identified most clearly with the cross, it is bread that shapes our communal life. Every time we gather for worship, a loaf of bread is blessed and broken to be shared with all those present. The ordinary bread that we consume together is just that—ordinary. The product of flour and eggs and yeast. What makes this bread the Bread of Heaven? What is the difference between a basket of bread passed around the table at a soup kitchen, and the bread we will share together today?
In the gospel reading today, a crowd of people are hard at work trying to sort out the message that Jesus and his disciples are preaching. Earlier in the chapter, John gives his account of Jesus feeding five-thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. This is one of the great miracle stories of the bible. It is both heartwarming and inspiring to think about Jesus simply feeding people, especially in our current context of widespread hunger and malnutrition throughout the world. Yet Jesus was deeply troubled by the episode. The people who had been fed began to believe in him immediately. After all, Jesus had performed a miracle that directly affected their lives: he had met one of their most basic physical needs. It is no wonder their hunger was transposed to faith.
Yet, John tells us, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to the mountain by himself.” Jesus did not want to buy their faith with food. When he returns from the mountain, Jesus tells them that they aren’t seeking him out because they understand who he is, but because they “ate their fill of the loaves.” He tells them that perishable bread is secondary, and that they should seek out bread from Heaven. “I am the bread of Life,” Jesus says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The message is clear, relatively speaking. Jesus fed them with ordinary bread—albeit ordinary bread that he cooked up in a miracle, not an oven. The point is that the people were hungry, and Jesus fed them, and they believed. But Jesus wanted them to go further with their faith—to crave that other kind of bread, the Bread of Life.
Jesus knew the weakness of humankind; he knew that the belief people developed after being fed might have been rich with gratitude, but it was not rich with genuine faith. He wanted people to believe in him because what he said was true, not because he had the ability to multiply loaves. It is challenging to desire Heavenly Bread when there is no earthly bread to be found. But it can also be challenging to desire Heavenly Bread when our cupboards are so full we forget to be grateful.
During my freshman year of college, I was assigned to read The Brothers Karamazov, a really, really, really long novel written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Even though I loved reading, I was not enthused at the prospect of getting through that enormous Russian novel, let alone figuring out what it meant enough to write a thesis about it. At first I carried it around like a paperback cross, but as I read I became completely immersed in the story.
Through the character of Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky explores the paradox of the two breads. Ivan is a brooding character, full of equal parts faith and doubt. Ivan tells a story that takes place in the sixteenth century, during the Inquisition. In the tale, Jesus returns—though not with the fanfare of the second coming. Even though he is quiet and unassuming, the people recognize him immediately; Ivan recounts, “The sun of love burns in his heart, light and power shine from his eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love.” Just as you might expect, within hours of appearing on earth again, Jesus raises a young girl from the dead. The crowd is delighted; but the local cardinal, who is affectionately called the Grand Inquisitor, is furious. He orders that Jesus be arrested and thrown into prison.
The Grand Inquisitor then visits Jesus’ cell and explains at length why Jesus and the message he brings must be suppressed. In the mind of the Grand Inquisitor, who literally represents the church, Jesus made things too hard for humanity. It all comes down to bread. Jesus had the ability to turn stones into bread, and feed the throngs of hungry people. But he did not give into that temptation; instead of giving the people the bread of earth, he gave them freedom to choose a life of faith, and the promise of the Bread of Heaven. According to the Grand Inquisitor, the Bread of Heaven could not compete with earthly bread in the eyes of weak and hungry humanity. Maybe a few strong-willed folks could withstand earthly hunger for the promise of eternal life, but what about the hapless weak ones? In other words, the Grand Inquisitor thought that Jesus’ refusal to buy faith with offerings of bread was a mistake.
Furthermore, the Grand Inquisitor states, because the church loves its people, the church would work to “CORRECT” Jesus’ teachings. The church would continue to feed people and quell their earthly suffering, all the while keeping that other kind of bread, the Bread of Life, a secret.
Dostoevsky offers a pretty searing critique of the church in this fable. He likens a respected religious leader to a intentional heretic. When I was eighteen and saw the church as a hypocritical institution, I thought it was so cool that Dostoevsky was pointing out how far from Jesus’ message the church had strayed. But now I understand something I missed: Dostoevsky was a faithful member of the church. His satirical treatment of the church’s inability to embody the teachings of Christ was an attempt to remind the church that we are most deeply sustained by the Bread of Heaven.
In the scriptures, Jesus struggles to balance the need for both the bread of heaven and the breath of earth. The world needs both kinds of bread: the bread that fills our bodies, and the bread that fills our souls. Earthly bread is a matter of justice. Today in the reading from the Psalms, we were reminded to Praise God because God is a God who executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. Every time we eat a piece of bread, we are to thank God for providing us with this most basic need. Likewise, as responsible Christians, we are charged with the task of providing food for the hungry. Literally. If we do not feed our hungry brothers and sisters, we do not feed Christ.
But we need that other bread, too. Desperately. The Bread of Heaven is the symbol of our salvation as a people. I know how important receiving communion is to each one of you. The broken bread is a sign of forgiveness, love, hope. It reminds us that God is ever present in our lives: even through something so ordinary as a piece of bread. We are given life through this simple ritual. Our voices join the voices of the crowd in saying to Jesus, “GIVE US THIS BREAD ALWAYS.”
The God who created us understands our needs. May our bodies be filled with the Bread of Earth. May our souls be filled with the Bread of Heaven. And may our hearts be filled with gratitude and the desire to share this message of Justice and Salvation so that all the world might taste such goodness.