They’d witnessed the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000….and had eaten the evidence. Not long afterward—maybe when they got hungry again?—they went back to the scene of the dine, looking for Jesus. He wasn’t there…so they went searching.
When they find him, Jesus says: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Then he tries to explain the deeper meaning of the bread they’d received. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
This is Jesus’ M.O. in the Gospel of John—start with something mundane and use it to teach a deep spiritual truth. That’s what he did with Nicodemus when he told him to be “born again.” That’s what he did with the woman at the well when he promised to give her “living water.” And that’s what he’s doing now with the bread: He fed the crowd with real bread, but did it as a sign of something deeper. His conversation with the crowd today is an attempt to move them to that deeper place.
Sara Miles understands well this movement from real bread to deeper meaning.
The daughter of committed atheists, Sara grew up without religion. And happy with that life. Early on she became a radical journalist, the kind who goes into war zones—like El Salvador in the 1980s—and tells the stories of oppressed people.
Seeing so much suffering and poverty, though, finally took a toll on Sara and she returned to the United States. She floated for awhile, not certain what to do with herself.
Always a fan of cooking, Sara worked for a time in the kitchens of restaurants. There, her love and appreciation of food grew.
Still trying to decide what to do with her life, Sara—surprisingly—became a Christian. And—not surprisingly, considering her love of food—it happened at the communion table. Here’s the story of Sara’s first communion.
“Early one winter morning,” she writes, “I walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian—or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut. But on other long walks, I’d passed the beautiful wooden building, with its shingled steeples and plain windows, and this time I went in, on an impulse, with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity.” (57)
“I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyone’s eye. There were windows looking out on a hillside covered in geraniums, and I could hear birds squabbling outside. Then a man and a woman in long tie-dyed robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit: just the unadorned voices of the people, and long silences framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang, too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous.
“We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. ‘Jesus invites everyone to his table,’ the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.
“And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.” (58)
“I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the ‘body’ of ‘Christ,’ a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named ‘Christ’ or ‘Jesus,’ was real, and in my mouth—(all of that) utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything by cry.
“All the way home, shocked, I scrambled for an explanation. Maybe I was hyper-suggestible, and being surrounded by believers had been enough to push me, momentarily, into accepting their superstitions … (Or maybe) my tears were just pent-up sadness, accumulated over a long, hard decade, and spilling out, unsurprisingly, because I was in a place where I could cry anonymously. Really, the whole thing, in fact, must have been about emotion: the music, the movement, and the light in the room had evoked feelings, much as if I’d been uplifted by a particularly glorious concert or seen a natural wonder.
“Yet that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant; I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion: It was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh.” (58-59)
“Eating the body of Christ, and drinking his blood, was too much. My own prejudices rose in me … I had no particular affection for this figure named “Jesus,” no echo of childhood friendly feeling for the guy with the beard and the robes. If I had ever suspected that there was such a force as ‘God’… I hadn’t bothered to name it, much less eat it, for crying out loud. I certainly had never (equated) this force with a particular Palestinian Jew from Nazareth. So why did communion move me? Why did I feel as if I were being entered and taken over, completely stirred up by someone whose name I’d only spoken before as a casual expletive?
“I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: For some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again … I wanted it all the next day after my first communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table at St. Gregory’s through my fear and confusion.” (60)
As Sara continued feeling pulled to the physical meal of bread and wine, she began trying to make spiritual sense of it. Here’s how she tried to make sense of the wine.
“The wine was sticky and sweet: pale gold, not at all red, but it warmed my throat as I swallowed and then passed the cup to the person next to me. “The blood of Christ,” I’d repeat, in turn. Yet obviously it wasn’t blood: It was Angelica fortified wine, alcohol 18 percent, from a green screw-top bottle, as I saw once when I peeked in the church kitchen. It was no different in its basic chemical makeup from the zinfandel I’d drink with my brother in between bites of a nice hanger steak. So, then, was it a symbol? Did the actual wine symbolically represent the imagined blood? No, because when I opened my mouth and swallowed, everything changed. It was real.
“I went around and around like this, humiliated by my inability to articulate, even to myself, the nature of what was happening. It seemed as crazy as saying I had eaten a magic potion that could make me fly …
“This went on for a while—me going to St. Gregory’s, taking the bread and bursting into tears, drinking the wine and crying some more. It was inexplicable.” (61) Of this tumultuous period, Sara says: “All that grounded me were those pieces of bread. I was feeling my way toward a theology, beginning with what I had taken in my mouth and working out from there.” (70)
That’s what Jesus was doing in today’s Gospel lesson—beginning with what the people had taken into their mouths and working out from there.
Where are you in the process of working out your theology of communion? What deeper spiritual truths do the bread and juice teach you? How does this meal feed you? What does it tell you about God? About Jesus? About community? About yourself?
Having trouble answering these questions? That’s okay. We’ll get another chance to continue working out our theologies in just a minute when we once again receive the bread and juice. Once again—Who knows how?–Christ will become known to us in the breaking of bread. Thanks be to God!
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012
Miles, Sara. Take this Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-First Century Christian. (A Radical Conversion) New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty