9th After Pentecost
Ever so often, I get asked what I miss most about Germany. It is an understandable question, which is rather timely so shortly after my vacation. Usually, I fire off a standard answer: “Beer and bread.” It is a good alliteration that is guaranteed to make the questioner smile. Beer and bread… rather stereotypical, eh?
Now, I have to admit that this answer is not quite accurate. Believe it or not, I don’t really miss German beer that much, partially because I do not crave after alcoholic drinks that much and partially because there are some really good beers in this part of the world, too. I am pretty frugal when it comes to beers.
However, with bread this is a different story, quite a different story.
Maybe I am addicted to carbohydrates, but bread is rather important in my own life. It is one of those things that links me to my cultural heritage and defines who I am. Yep, I miss German bread. And, with all due respect, most of the bread I can get here is a real disappointment. This is why during my vacation I basically gorged down all the bread I could get my hands on. There was wheat bread as heavy as bricks, rye bread as dark as the night, bread made from six, ten, or twelve different grains. This could be spiced up by rolls with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, and rolls made from spelt. And this is just the tip of the iceberg!
I am salivating even as I am talking about it.
Yes, I miss German bread!
I do understand, of course, that bread isn’t just important to German culture. It is a core ingredient to many traditional cuisines. But it is not just about food. In a way, bread is more than food. It really is a basic, rudimentary, and fundamental ingredient to human culture: Even before our ancestors moved from a group of hunters and gatherers to a collective of farmers and cultivators bread had played an important role. Bread was already very much part of our existence at the cradle of civilisation. No wonder that bread has developed an impact on our identity that transcends pure nourishment. There are even books written on the spirituality of bread!
Bread was also an important in Mediterranean culture in the first century. And for the people of God, for Israel, bread was an essential component not just of secular meals, but also of religious rituals: God had, for example, commanded that Israel keep 12 showbreads representing the twelve tribes in the Temple at all times. And to this day, bread is used at every Shabbat and every Passover celebration in Jewish households.
For Jesus, too, bread was both very commonplace and also very central to life. It was so ordinary, it was extraordinary. It is therefore not surprising that bread was one of the two elements singled out at Jesus’ last supper. And it is furthermore not surprising that Jesus used bread in a number of his teaching, at least when we read the Gospel according to John.
Today, we enter into a month full of discourses on bread in the Gospel according to John. Or at least, so it seems. For four weeks we will hear a lot about bread. And maybe by the end of it all, you might have developed the spiritual equivalence to a gluten-allergy, because of the over-abundance of bread stories.
But maybe we must give John a bit of slack. After all, the Gospel of John does not offer us an account of Jesus breaking bread at the last supper. John rather focuses on the foot-washing as a sign for God’s expectation of us to serve one another. At least we are bread-free on that account!
But not for the next month.
It will be all about bread, bread, some more bread and even more bread.
Or will it be?
One of things you might have noticed in today’s reading from John is this: It really isn’t one story. There are two stories: First, we hear about the miraculous multiplication of bread and fish. And then we hear about the miraculous rescue of the disciples.
That’s a bit odd, don’t you think? What’s going on here? Isn’t one story enough? It feels a bit like my sermons sometimes, right? You think it’s all over and then I add another story, another aspect, another point, another ten minutes. But I promise I had nothing to do with the selection of today’s text. It really is all part of the appointed text for today.
So, what’s it all about then?
Well, the quick answer is this: Despite its prominence in culture and even despite its prominence in the Gospel according to John, the Gospel, the Good of God in Jesus Christ really isn’t about bread. It is about something else.
Let me explain.
At the beginning of this sermon I boldly confessed that I miss German bread. I do. But it is not just because German bread is among the best in the world. Frankly, I could live a happy and blessed life without bread. In fact, it would probably be healthier for me. I don’t even want to know how many pounds I gained during my vacation!
However, my answer points to something larger. “German bread” is a placeholder that stands firstly for a realisation that as much as I enjoy living in Canada today, I was brought up in another cultural setting. And there are days, when I miss the sense of cultural familiarity that comes with living in your home country.
Furthermore, “German bread” also is a metaphor in my life for the people with whom I break and eat this very bread, i.e. my German family and friends. (And this is, by the way, not to take away anything from the importance of my Canadian family…)
Similarly, if we make today’s reading all about bread, or if we alternatively focus on the miracle surrounding the bread, or the fish, or even the rescue in the boat, we don’t quite get to the core of the story, the core of what is important not just in the reading, but also in life itself.
Sure, we could talk about the process of making and kneading bread and what it means for our spirituality. Remember, I told you there are books on the spirituality of bread!
Equally, we could discuss the awesomeness of the miracles or debate till the cows come home how on earth five loaves of bread and two fish could have fed a multitude and how Jesus could have walked on water. And some of you might remember my “Stone Soup” sermon from August 2008 when I gave a more postmodern understanding of how the miracle might be grasped and utilised in our times.
But today, this is not the point.
Today – and not just today I might add – it is all about Jesus.
It is about encountering the One, in whom God is fully present. It is about understanding a bit more about who Jesus is and what he is for us. It is not firstly about bread. And it is not foremost about the miracles. The Gospel according to John is quite clear on this. Jesus is more than a concerned provider of food. And Jesus is more than a colourful miracle-worker. But Jesus is the one, in whom God comes to us, meets us, and restores us. Jesus takes seriously our needs, whatever those needs, and offers us relief – and even more. Jesus embraced the hungry crowds and the fearful disciples and offered them more than what they were yearning for. In Jesus offered life: life abundant in its beauty.
Maybe the central verse in today’s reading from John therefore is verse 20, which is not at all about bread or miracles. Jesus simply says “It is I” in response to the fear of the disciples. Think of it this way: You are in a dark room frightened to the core. You can’t see a thing and the darkness threatens to swallow you whole. All of a sudden you hear a door open with a creak and you hear somebody coming in, coming towards you. At this moment of intensified fear a voice gently calls out to you: “It is I. Do not be afraid.” It is the One, who loves you and who cares for you. And because you understand at this very moment that you are safe, that nothing can come between you and this love, the darkness has lost its power and everything that follows is a result of this intimate and loving encounter.
The Gospel is not about witnessing to miracles and acts of wonder. Jesus does not need these miracles to define who he is. Jesus’ identity isn’t made manifest or proven because of the wonders associated with him. It is the other way around: Because of who Jesus is, because he is the love of God born in our midst, because of this, wondrous, mysterious, and miraculous things happen.
If we let ourselves be taken into God’s incarnate love in Jesus, then fear, death, and darkness will lose their power and their grip on our lives and then hunger will be stilled as we follow Jesus to feed those who starve in body or in soul. In Jesus, God offered life in abundance to the crowds on the mountain and to the disciples on the sea. And God in Jesus still offers life in abundance to you and me, to all of us, whoever we are and wherever we may find ourselves on the journey.
No, it is not about bread, as much as I might regret this.
It is about Jesus. Yesterday. Today. And always.