Jesus could hardly have come up with a more fitting metaphor than bread. It is not called the staff of life for nothing. Since the industrialization of agriculture and the cultivation of grain no product, no matter what form it takes in your particular culture, no product has come to mean food more than bread.
Remember back to cereal commercials in the seventies and eighties, when a balanced breakfast included two eggs, a bowl of Kellogg’s Frosted Choco-mini-fruity bombs, a small glass of orange juice and two slices of toast. I think that’s how they got away with calling the cereal a part of a balanced breakfast, by including all of the real food to balance the choco-fruity-ness.
Even in the presence of a big bowl of cereal, there was also toast.
Bread. Indian naan, Ethiopian Injera, Mediterranean flat bread, called Pita in Greek or <hoobs> in Arabic (the difference is the pocket), soda bread, black bread, sourdough, rye, whole grain wheat berry; no matter what you call it, bread is fundamental to how humanity rose and conquered the known world, for the longest time it was essential.
I wonder what metaphor Jesus would have used nowadays. Nowadays we have gluten intolerance, and carbohydrate free diets, and a turning away from the factory-produced, mass-marketed nature of bread in modern culture. How many people have eaten white bread recently, not sourdough white, not potato flour white, but old-school wonder bread white? The ads where peanut butter and jelly were spread across plains of purest white bread are gone now, bread is different now, and we are different as well.
Now everyone hews to their own individual track, they chart their own course and are the masters of their own destinies. We laugh at the characters in our movies and televisions, who, like Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory, always make particular and peculiar requests of the server (I’d like the chicken shredded, not cubed, and could I have the vegetables braised instead of steamed? Also, I brought my own hot mustard, and could I get credited back on the bill for not using yours?).
We laugh at their antics but our entire culture is more and more like that every day. Heck, one of the reasons that there are so many presidential candidates is that there are so very many different, individual constituencies to appeal to, and each has their favorite.
The bread section in the grocery store of my youth had, and I grant you this was in Alaska, maybe seven different choices. There was already a whole wheat option, but it looked just like the other loaf except it was browner. There was butter topped, remember that? The options were not vast, it was just bread.
Now the bread aisle goes on forever, with the seven choices of yesteryear in the foreground and in the distance, the freezer case where the no preservative, gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free, flavor-free, sawdust bread is kept because it doesn’t last long on the shelf or on the counter at home.
What bread we eat now says something about us. It isn’t just what goes around our ham and cheese or our PB and J anymore.
How is it that we can still draw together under the same metaphor for shelter from the storm of sin and death that is all around us? We are not called to worship an individual Jesus, as if the lord were simply a character in our lives, a choice like whole wheat or Alvarado Street Sprouted whole wheat berry. Faith in our lives does not say something about us, like our choice in bread. The fact that Jesus has saved us on the cross says a lot about Him, but precious little about us.
I don’t think we like that. I don’t think we are comfortable being overwhelmed by Jesus, by the power of the Most High in such a way that we are not, for want of a better term, “Special” or “unique” or “individual.”
I rubs against the grain, like stroking a cat the wrong way and that reflexive arching of the cats spine, that wriggle they go through to set things right once their fur has been ruffled, that is us as well, when the Gospel gives us the picture of our lives, as characters in the vast, cosmic drama of God’s will in the world, with Jesus as center stage and not us.
At no point in the Bible is Jesus anything other than the Son of God, the main character in not just this narrative, but the main character in every narrative, from now on, until the end of time.
And we sing in the chorus, or not, as the case may be, but we are there, swept along in the flood of grace and mercy come from heaven and while we are transformed for certain, we move no closer to the spotlight, it doesn’t become about us, it is still about Jesus.
I’ve been doing some challenging reading lately, I’ve had some time to do that away at camp and I took every opportunity to read something I hadn’t read before as well as some things that were worth re-reading.
One of the things I’ve been reading challenged me (and, I assume every reader, once again, it isn’t about me) to look at the sermons I have preached and to find out if I’ve been truly preaching Jesus as center stage in the life of the faithful or not.
The alternative, since you may be wondering, is, in the author’s words the “do more, try harder” sermon.
Surely you know the one, “If you just go to Bible study and try and live according to the word of God, and get involved in the church’s ministries and learn to quote the Bible as justification for your thoughts and actions, then it will all work out in the end, and if it doesn’t seem to be working out, then do more, try harder.”
That is a sentence wherein Jesus in not found, Christ is not preached, and Christ-centered faith cannot be transmitted. That sentence is all about you, standing in the bread aisle, deciding how much fiber you really need when what you really want is the cinnamon-raisin-swirl, toasted with butter; admit it.
That is a “Climb into the spotlight, you made it!” sermon, filled with congratulations for your faith and prescriptions for “good living” and lots and lots of rules, or as we say in Bible Study, Law.
Law as opposed to Gospel, Law which cannot save as opposed to Gospel which can do nothing other than save.
I’m reminded of Mark 10 where, as Jesus was setting out on a journey the man came and knelt before Him and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. In today’s metaphor he may as well be asking, “Lord, what bread should I buy to have the cleanest colon?”
Since he asked a Law question, Jesus gives him a Law answer, quoting the commandments to him and then making on final demand, that he sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor, then he would be fit to follow onto eternal life.
Sawdust-bread, in the freezer, nothing in it but dust and disappointment.
But that’s the answer when the question is “how do I?” “How do I” is only answerable in the harshest, most punishing terms because the only way you can achieve eternal life is to live entirely righteously, without sin and pure, sinless in all you think say and do each end every day of your life, from beginning to end, from soup to nuts, no exceptions.
That’s why it sounds harsh, why the man in Mark 10 walks away dejectedly because he had a lot of possessions, why it is impossible.
But that is what lies at the end of the “do more, try harder” way of thinking, the grabbing of center stage in the drama of our lives; the endless demand for more, the bottomless pit of need in the world and the incapacity of humanity to fulfill all righteousness. You simply cannot eat the sawdust-bread every day; there is insufficient nourishment in it.
But the way of Christ is not easy in comparison. It is not easy to let go of the spotlight and live in the light of Jesus the rest of your days. To our ears it sound like giving up the one thing that makes us truly human, that makes us worthwhile as people and as the children of God, our individuality, our uniqueness, our choice.
To ears so used to the pleadings of the world to have it our way it sounds like sawdust bread for the rest of our lives, healthy choices only, the right path only when Christ is our light.
As if we had the capacity to surrender that much of our freedom. No, surrendering to the notion of Christ taking center stage in our lives is not abdicating choice or freedom or responsibility. We will still sin. We will still eat cinnamon raisin swirl from time to time. We will still be greedy and selfish and lustful and all the rest. We are not the young man who fell at Jesus feet; we are not asking what we must do.
We are seeing for the first time, with Christ as our light, what Jesus has already done. Dark corners of ourselves are cast into bright light when Jesus is at center stage and we can see the good and the bad and we can celebrate the small victories, the small scraps of righteousness and we can mourn and confess the errors and the sins and the choices we have made that we wish we hadn’t and watch as they melt away into nothingness as the light washes us clean.
With Jesus at center stage our relationship is clear and it is holy and it is unchanging.
We still retain choice; we can embrace our neighbor or shun them. We can see the struggles of our brothers and sisters or we can turn away to our own pursuits. We can eat the high-fiber bread or wallow in the oddly satisfying pleasure of white bread.
Our relationships with one another might still fluctuate and be subject to the choices we make but when we surrender center stage and find our place in God’s narrative for the whole of the world and for all time, then that relationship begins to color the rest of them, we cannot help it, Christ our center transforms us and questions of what we must do become laughable.
The bread of life is ever the same but because it is fortified with grace and love the way that we now pump bread full of vitamin D, it is never boring or stale. It is ever sweet on our tongues because in it we find ease for our troubled minds normally so filled with choices and pressures; we find rest for our weary souls because we know our sin and seek release from its pain and guilt; we find sustenance for our lives because it gives us a place in the kingdom of God that will not be lost.
We can eat whatever bread we want in this life, I’m pretty sure Jesus doesn’t care which one you choose. Sure, he’d prefer you had a clean colon but I don’t think it weighs too terribly on the divine mind.
But in our relationship with God we eat only the Bread of life, the word of God that places Jesus not as our battery, giving power for a better life; not as teacher, giving us instructions for a better life; not as judge, giving us a standard for a better life.
The word of God places Jesus as our life, the source from whence it sprung, the meaning for its living and the destination for when we lay our burden down and return home. If we can surrender the spotlight and its demands for us to do this or that for our salvation, we will find that His light is our salvation, the peace, the grace, and the bread of life from heaven that is ever sweet in our mouths and delivers us unto eternal life.
Full disclosure,the title is not in any way to disrespect the redoubtable Ms. White but it is true.