A sermon preached for ML 502: Preaching the Gospel of John at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, October 25, 2017
If I’m being completely honest, the prospect of going on internship to Omaha, Nebraska, didn’t strike me as particularly exciting. I mean, really? Nebraska? As someone who grew up in the near suburbs of Detroit and had spent the past nine years in the Chicagoland area, never having so much as set foot in Nebraska, I had a lot of images of cornfields and prairies and not a whole lot else. You might say it didn’t exactly strike me as a picturesque image of abundance.
Abundance. It’s at the heart of today’s gospel. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves and start talking about “the bread of life” and “eternity,” concepts that have been hyper-spiritualized and are prone to mis-interpretation, the miracle story that jumpstarts the entire conversation that follows centers on real hunger and real bread. The abundance of the miracle is heightened by its numbers: with only five loaves and two fish, five thousand people eat as much as they want, with leftovers to fill twelve baskets. It’s simple math: that’s more food than we began with! But above all, this is real bread for real people with real hunger.
And yet: There’s something more going on. The next day the crowd chases after Jesus: How did you do that? Can you do it again?! And then a twist: “I am the bread of life.” Suddenly, it seems, we’re not talking about real bread anymore, and yet these words are a continuation of the miracle story, rooted in real, physical hunger.
In the midst of real hunger, Jesus senses something deeper going on, a deeper hunger and yearning. His was a world where abundance was not the norm, a world infused by empire, an empire that saw itself as a “golden age” that would presumably last forever. And yet: Despite Caesar’s agenda of “making Rome great again,” for the vast majority this was a society plagued by food shortages, restricted access to staple foods, malnutrition, and disease. Real bread was hard to come by. Scarcity, not abundance, ruled the day. We might even say that bread, which should be an image of abundance and sustenance, had become just the opposite.
If a society of scarcity, in a system controlled by an oppressive empire, sounds familiar, consider Houston resident Mary Maddox, whose home was flooded with nearly two feet of water after Hurricane Harvey hit her city in August. On her back porch sits a Lady of the Night plant, native to Puerto Rico. Pausing by the plant, Mary holds one of its leaves, says a prayer for those in the island nation still without water or electricity, and expresses her deep frustration in the drastically different disaster response she has benefited from in her own hometown.
The effects of empire are stark: While life slowly returns to normal in Mary’s Houston neighborhood, those in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have seen fewer resources and federal aid directed their way. Throwing a package of paper towels at a crowd of second-class U.S. citizens doesn’t exactly cut it when the very infrastructure of their homeland has been decimated.
Whether in modern-day Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria or in ancient Rome, empire privileges a select few at the expense of the many. It is in the midst of this scarcity, this devastation, this oppression, that Jesus senses a deep hunger for bread and more than bread, a deep yearning to be filled. Uttering six simple words — “I am the bread of life” — Jesus reclaims the imagery of bread from the clutch of empire to proclaim God’s reign of abundance over Caesar’s reign of scarcity.
Jesus reclaims and identifies himself with the imagery of bread to proclaim abundance in the midst of scarcity. And the thing about abundance is that it threatens scarcity. Abundance threatens scarcity and endangers the very system that has set it up. Abundance threatens to eliminate scarcity and to take away the fearful control it holds on those in its clutches. Abundance in response to real hunger and more than hunger is precisely what Jesus offers.
I am the bread of life… the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Jesus, the eternal Word of God, offers his very flesh, his body, for the sake of the life of the entire cosmos. Jesus’s flesh, offered in abundance, for all persons, without distinction, threatens empire. And try as empire might to push back and crucify the very one who threatens to undo its system of control, the abundant life that Jesus promises cannot be contained by cross or tomb. Abundant life breaks into the very places that we least expect it to thrive and says, no, this is not the way it has to be. Abundant life that foreshadows crucifixion promises resurrection and God’s decisive victory over empire.
This is the mystery we proclaim every week around the table before the Eucharistic meal: For as often as we eat of this bread and drink from this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
The bread we share is the bread of life, the body of Christ, given freely and abundantly for the sake of the life of the entire cosmos. This is Eucharist is John. It is political, it is defiant, it is hope-giving, it is liberation-seeking. It proclaims life in the midst of death, liberation in the midst of oppression, abundance in the midst of scarcity.
Nearly every week during internship, I stood in the chancel at Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha with a stream of people coming forward to receive a little piece of bread and a sip of wine. The words I would repeat are simple: “The body of Christ, given for you.” These words, evocative of Jesus’s own words in our gospel text, offer the promise of abundant life, but more: that abundant life is lived among the community that makes up the living body of Christ, for the sake of each other and for the sake of the world.
The body of Christ that offers abundant life in the midst of scarcity is the body of Christ that I encountered each week around a table of bread and wine, at our first Sunday potluck meals, in the mutual support of the community in times of grief, and in celebration as we marched in the Heartland Pride Parade. The body of Christ that offers abundant life, freely, to all, without exception, is in our midst, among the people we are called to serve and who in turn minister to us. This is an abundance that satisfies real hunger and more than hunger. Even in the midst of empire and all the forces that would try to tell us otherwise, the body of Christ, the bread of life, offers us abundance now and continues to do so with each new day.