Reflection for Sunday – August 8, 2021
Since the start of the pandemic, food insecurity has become nothing less than catastrophic. Early on, volunteer workers in food banks noticed that those coming for food included not only people who had close to nothing, but well-dressed families driving late-model vehicles.
A few weeks ago I received a letter from my local food bank with a list. Up to then I had been donating canned goods that I thought would fly off the shelves, so to speak—tuna fish, canned chili, name-brand soup and canned fruit. But it seems that the volunteers pre-pack grocery bags with standard content to have ready to hand out to those who come for food. What they asked for above all were boxes of pasta, mac & cheese mix, beans, breakfast cereal, breakfast bars, soup, and canned vegetables.
This is the face of “food in the wilderness” today. This is what near-bottom-level sustenance looks like.
The foodstuffs named in our Sunday readings the past few weeks were also fairly basic. For Elijah this week, it was a round loaf of bread baked on hot stones plus water. For the crowd of five-thousand-plus who followed Jesus up the mountain it was coarse barley cakes and dried fish. For the Hebrew people in exodus from Egypt, wandering in the desert and grumbling their discontent, the food was really rather exotic by our standards: fresh roasted quail in the evenings, and in the morning “manna.” Manna is a word that means, “What is it?” In fact this “manna” was sap that dropped overnight from tamarisk trees in the desert. When the sap coalesced on the ground it formed a sugary, flaky substance that could be used as a beverage or as a dish with chunks and syrup.
Our Gospel reading today shows Jesus trying to radically shift the people’s understanding of “bread,” in tandem with a radically new understanding of who Jesus himself was. Jesus’ statements on what is necessary for salvation shift back and forth between having belief (or faith), and eating the “bread that comes down from heaven,” the bread of eternal life. As Scripture scholar Gerard Sloyan put it, “Previously, belief in Jesus could achieve eternal life… Now there is a food and drink requirement.”
In principle the way the stories have been framed by the authors of the Gospels has much to do with the lived experience of their own early Christian communities. Clearly if the Gospel of John devotes several chapters to Jesus as the bread of life and the wine of the new covenant, the community for whom this was written was experiencing some serious controversy over the Eucharist. It might have been due to pressure from those who believed that Jesus was really divine in nature and only appeared to be human, much like the mythology of Greek and Roman gods. If so, the whole idea of a crucified divinity giving his body and blood to be consumed by his followers would have been somewhere between unthinkable and unspeakably shocking
It’s telling that Jesus does not project “eternal life” to the end of time. It’s here and now. We see that first in verse 47, “whoever believes has eternal life,” and the “I am” passages: verse 48 (“I am the bread of life”) and verse 51 (“I am the living bread…”). The promise of eternal life begins now and extends into the future. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
It was one thing to cherish and retell the stories of ancestors who had been in danger of starvation and then miraculously rescued by the abundant goodness and bounty of God. It was quite another when Jesus identified himself as the bread, and his blood as the wine, and particularly horrifying in a culture in which blood meant life.
What can this mean for us, who are all too aware that someday each of us will die? Our earthly lives sometimes hang by a thread, as our spiritual ancestors in the desert knew, as the folks in food bank lines know. In fact we live always in a state of dependency – on good weather and a good economy, on good friends and family, in fact on the beneficence of God’s creation itself. All the more reason to pour out goodness and support to each other, in generous self-giving, a self-giving held up for us in the model of the Eucharist.