In 2016, Netflix produced a series called, Cooked, based on food-writer Michael Pollan's book about how basic ingredients are transformed into food through the four basic elements of fire, water, earth, and air.
Although the series was full of surprises regarding the history of food, it is fairly easy to imagine how fire, water, and even earth create the food of myriad human cultures. But, air? Pollan admitted at the outset that "air" as transformation is the most mysterious, perhaps the most spiritual, of all the ways in which we cook. Despite the mystery of it, "air" has also give us the most basic of all food: bread.
Bread was a bit of an accident - about 6,000 years ago in Egypt, when, as Pollan says, "some observant Egyptian must have noticed that a bowl of porridge, perhaps one off in a corner that had been neglected, was no longer quite so inert. In fact, it was hatching bubbles from its surface and slowly expanding, as if it were alive. The dull paste had somehow been inspired: The spark of life had been breathed into it. And when that strangely vibrant bowl of porridge - call it dough - was heated in an oven, it grew even larger, springing up as it trapped the expanding bubbles in an airy, yet stable, structure that resembled a sponge." (Cooked, p. 207)
Bread. With bread, everything changed. We learned how to turn grasses into food human beings could eat, store, and transport. We learned how to cultivate grains and manage fields, how to harvest and mill and leaven and bake. We created agriculture. We developed entire communities - entire civilizations - devoted to the making of bread.
No wonder that in Arabic the words bread and life are the same word. And in cultures where the words are different, bread is so basic, that the term is often used for food in general, and later, when modern economics were born, we nicknamed even money, bread.
And Jesus said, "I am the bread of life."
Just the day before he said these words, Jesus and the disciples had fed the multitude with only five loaves of bread. The disciples had handed Jesus those few loaves, and after they quieted the crowd, "Jesus took the loaves, and gave thanks."
He probably prayed the ancient Jewish prayer the one traditionally used before a meal:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe,
Who brings forth bread from the earth.
The bread is broken and shared, and as the story goes, all were fed, fully fed, sated, satisfied. The disciples gather up the leftovers, and there were twelve whole baskets of remains from the original five loaves.
Although the text doesn't say so, Jesus very likely prayed again over those fragments. Jewish tradition, based on Deuteronomy 8:10, directed God's people to pray after meals. And, most particularly, they were to pray this prayer when bread had been served:
Sovereign God of the universe, we praise You:
Your goodness sustains the world.
You are the God of grace, love, and compassion,
the Source of bread for all who live;
for Your love is everlasting.
In Your great goodness, we need never lack for food;
You provide food enough for all.
We praise You, O God, Source of food for all who live.
Jesus' words, "I am the bread of life," fit into a larger story - Jesus has set a table on the hillside, where there was little bread, abundant bread appeared. There were blessings and thanks, and all were fed. This is Jesus' miracle of abundance, the echo of the manna in the wilderness, where God's people were fed real food, a food that sustained them when lost in the desert.
This is God's long dream for humankind - that we all might live without lack, that our world might not be one of scarcity, but one of abundance. At the beginning in the creation story, Adam and Eve lived amid abundance, where the earth brought forth its harvests, where hunger was unknown, where the tilling and keeping of the garden was not a labor, but a joy. But, Adam and Eve chose wrongly, and one of the consequences was that abundance receded, the earth yielded bounty less readily, nature was disordered, and bread became a backbreaking chore.
As a result, our ancestors created towns and cities and civilizations that controlled bread. Scarcity, not abundance became the by-word. Kings and pharaohs hoarded bread, distributing it at their whim, reaping fortunes through it and even oppressing their people by withholding it. The garden faded in memory, and the toil and terror of empire took its place. And bread, the staff of life, became a commodity in a struggle for wealth and power.
Jesus said, "I am the bread of life." And then he added, "Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
When we modern people hear those words, we think that Jesus sounds narrow, exclusive. Only those who believe in this bread and eat of this bread will be saved. But that isn't the point at all. Jesus is reminding his followers that bread is for everyone. That God is the Source of Abundance; the One who promises that in the Age to Come no ruler, no Caesar would control the bread. Instead, there will be bread - bread for all, bread that will not lead to death, but abundant bread, the bread of life. Jesus tells us to pray for our daily bread, a radical vision if ever there was one - that bread shall be at the table, every table, every day, the gift of God.
And then, Jesus says, that Age, the Age of the Bread of Life, has arrived, "For the bread of God is the one descending out of heaven and imparting life to the cosmos!" (John 6:33). Bread shall no longer be a tool of empire, a product of toil, the reminder of slavery and sin. Bread will be again as it was intended, the life of the cosmos.
Bread is real food and bread is the spiritual food of the Age to Come. In the same way that actual bread is transformed by air, so Jesus' bread is transformed by the Spirit. The bread of life descends from heaven; it is cooked with spiritual leaven. In another Gospel, Jesus says: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough." (Matthew 13:33)
As an inert porridge becomes infused with life, its dough rising, so the cosmos, now sluggish in sin, is surely, slowly being yeasted. The bread of life has come, it sparks and bubbles among us, the table is set, and the blessing proclaimed. This is the wisdom of God, the miracle of Jesus: that all will be fed, that the ills of a world based on scarcity are passing, and that the time of abundance is here.
Thanks be to God, the maker of bread. Amen.