About thirty years ago, we were in the process of purchasing a house, when there was a last-minute legal complication, which set back the completion date, rendering us temporarily homeless. We ended up renting a room with a marvellously hospitable, very open, but rather wacky Polish family, who took in boarders. Interestingly there was really only one rule in their house, which was an unusual one – which was that on no account was any resident to throw away bread. You could throw anything else, any other kind of food – anything from lasagna to cornflakes – but never, ever bread. And there was a story behind that.
Because when she was a young child during the Second World War, the Polish woman with whom we were staying had been taken from her home by Soviet troops, put into a cattle truck with her family and other members of her community, and deported to Uzbekistan, where they were simply dumped in a field in the middle of nowhere, with nothing – no food and no shelter. She remembers a hunger so desperate that some around her were reduced to trying to eat grass and leaves. The one thing that they all craved above all else, herself included, was bread. And that memory was so powerful and so formative that she never ever took bread for granted, and she could not bear to see anyone else waste it.
In the Bible, bread is of immense significance, on all kinds of levels. In our reading from the book of Exodus this morning, the Lord rains bread from heaven for the Israelites, who are lamenting their departure from captivity in Egypt where they point out they had their fill of the loaves. In the Gospels Jesus talked a lot about bread, as well as doing some very significant things with it: feeding five thousand people with five loaves; teaching his followers a prayer that included the phrase, ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ And in our Gospel reading today, identifying himself as being living bread.
And in addition, of course, we have that strangest of incidents, which we commemorate today, as we do each Sunday in this Eucharistic service: at the Last Supper, when Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying ‘Take; eat it. This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And so, in obedience to his commandment, that is what we do here, every Sunday morning.
So when the Bible speaks about bread in these highly significant ways, both literally and symbolically, it is not simply referring to any old kind of food – but to something that is so fundamental to human existence that we cannot survive without it.
For those of us who have grown up within the church, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is so familiar that we probably don’t pause very often to reflect on quite how weird a thing it is for us to do together – let alone how weird it must have been in Jesus’s own day. So let’s think about it for a moment.
Bearing in mind that Judaism has very strict guidelines about what can and cannot be consumed, particularly where flesh and blood are concerned, the suggestion that 2000 years ago you could give a observant Jew a piece of bread, inform him that it was the flesh of the person who gave it to him, and then command him to eat it, was not merely morally and aesthetically abhorrent, but outrageous and shocking. And yet we know without any shadow of doubt that Jesus actually did that very strange thing at the Last Supper, and commanded his disciples, good Jews every one of them, to repeat that action in remembrance of him.
We know for certain that Jesus actually did this weird thing, firstly because it is so utterly bizarre that nobody would make it up, but also because testimony to it happening is everywhere. There are references to it all over the New Testament: three of the Gospels and St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, describe that actual incident at the Last Supper – and the Fourth Gospel is so soaked in Eucharistic imagery, that we can be in no doubt that its author assumed that its readers had full knowledge of the blessing, breaking and sharing of bread (and wine) at the Last Supper and so would make the connection – it didn’t need to be spelled out. And we also know from the earliest historical sources that the Eucharist was indeed celebrated by Christians from ancient times.
So what on earth was Jesus doing at the Last Supper, and why? At this point I want you to forget completely all the complex debates of the Reformation about what actually ‘happens’ to the bread and wine at communion, and how they are changed, and all that stuff about transubstantiation and consubstantiation, and instead just keep it very, very simple, which is what Jesus did.
Just think about it for a moment. At the Last Supper, Jesus is in his final meeting with his closest followers, knowing that what lies before him is his imminent arrest, trial, and execution. So what parting gift does he leave them? What instructions or guidance does he give them to follow once he has gone? None of these things. What he does instead is to perform before them, and share with them, a symbolic act so powerful and so striking and so memorable, that his followers would never, ever forget it- they might continue to argue for centuries about precisely what it meant – but they would never ever forget that he did it – and that he instructed them to continue doing it once he had gone – so they couldn’t forget it.
Because that action of blessing, breaking, sharing and eating, and Jesus’s charge to the disciples to do likewise, was the key to enable them to understand everything that was about to unfold: his passion, his death and his resurrection; and by extension, a new revelation about the true meaning of his ministry – a ministry that was leading inexorably to his death. And the disciples were to take the reality of his sacrificial death to themselves – by a means so tangible and so visceral and so physical, that it entailed the symbolic consuming of his person: his broken body; his shed blood; broken and shared for them; for their forgiveness; as a sign of the power of his saving love. ‘Take me not only to yourself, but into yourself’ – so that a flood of forgiveness and grace might be unleashed in the world. ‘Take, eat, this is my body … do this in remembrance of me.’
In the prologue to her book Take This Bread, the American writer Sara Miles describes how one day, at the age of 46 she walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine, and how that simple action changed her life for ever. She was the child of avowed atheists, who were deeply alienated from the Church, so this was unfamiliar territory for her. And yet, to quote her own words:
It took actually eating a piece of bread – a simple chunk of wheat and yeast and water […] to make food both absolutely itself and a sign pointing to something bigger. It turned out that the prerequisite for conversion wasn’t knowing how to behave in a church, or having a religious vocabulary, or an a priori ‘belief’ in an abstract set of propositions: it was hunger, the same hunger I’ve always carried.
That is what Jesus responds to. That is what Jesus does. He feeds us. He feeds us because we are hungry. He feeds us because he wants us to feed others. The bread of life that is Jesus Christ is not simply one item amongst many on an ‘a la carte’ spiritual menu – it is something utterly fundamental to human existence. Which is why no image other than bread can get close to describing it. We have lost touch with the true significance of bread as fundamental to life amidst the profligate choice of foodstuffs on offer at even the smallest corner supermarket in the wealthy Western world, and by the same token we can so easily miss the point that its spiritual significance is every bit as essential.
And for us, who receive the bread from this altar, Sunday by Sunday, it is not merely sustenance for our spiritual journey – it feeds us; but also, as the Eucharistic prayer reminds us, it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people at the end of the age – which is the end of our journey.
I shall leave you with the words of a short poem by Lorna Inman called Only a Broken Flask, in which she weaves together three Gospel incidents and explores their significance: the anointing of Jesus’s feet by the outcast woman; the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion. At its heart, a broken loaf.
Only a broken flask,
But through her love
A fragrance stole upon the evening air,
And Christ was honoured there.
Only a broken loaf,
But from his hands,
A food sufficient for the souls of men
Was offered to them then.
Only a broken life,
But from that Cross
A love to save the world went forth in power,
Born of his darkest hour.
A flask, a loaf, a life with love infused –
Are all things broken that are greatly used?