When I was a little kid – from the ages of four-to-six- we lived just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in a little community called Fairview, New Jersey. It was a classic immigrant town – with lots of Greeks and Italians who were first- or second-generation Americans.
Right down the block from our home was Gennaro’s bakery. Grammie Gennaro – the owner – was at least 90 years old and had a thick Italian accent. I cannot say for sure, but I have no doubt she came through Ellis Island like so many other people in that neighborbood.
Early every morning she would build a wood fire in the brick oven – right in her shop – and make bread. She would pull it out with a baker’s peel – a big, wooden paddle – drop it in a bag, and hand it to you. If my father was with me – wearing his black shirt with the clerical collar – she would cross herself and pronounce blessings on us. I suspect she didn’t charge him, either.
Oh, that bread! I remember it well, even though I haven’t tasted it in more than 50 years. They speak of “the mind’s eye,” but I think there’s also a mind’s nose. The crust was slightly chewy; the inside was soft and warm. Eating it made you feel more alive – because all of your senses were involved in consuming that bread.
You can smell it, can’t you? You can literally smell it, can’t you? Because it has been baking right here in the church throughout this service.
While experiencing bread can be wonderful – the importance of bread lies in what it does for us. It is a source of nutrition – especially if it is the whole-wheat, unleavened kind that Jesus ate with His disciples at the Passover supper we just read about.
A one-ounce serving of whole-wheat matzo is fat-free and has only 98 calories, 22 grams of carbs and 4 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and small amounts of riboflavin, pantothenic acid, niacin, folate, vitamin B-6 and thiamin. It also contains more than 40 percent of the daily value for manganese and 36 percent of the daily value for selenium.
But when Jesus spoke of Himself as the Bread of Life, He was not speaking of nutritional value. He was speaking of how He gives eternal life, and how He makes us feel more alive in this life.
He first says this in John 6. After feeding 5000 families with five small loaves of bread and two fish, He and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. Many of the crowd went around the lake to catch up to Jesus and see whether He would do another miracle involving food for them.
He sets them straight when He says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
We eat physical food in this physical life and we always get hungry again – so we know that Jesus is speaking of the Bread of Life as being spiritual food that satisfies a spiritual hunger. He made that clearer a few verses later when He said to the same people, “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.”
But how does that happen? Let’s think about what happens when we come to the Lord’s Table: we take the bread and the fruit of the vine – whether it be wine or grape juice – into our bodies. Then the digestive process sends the nutrients to every cell in our bodies. In that way it becomes part of us, filling all our being.
Another way of putting it is that we become one with what we eat.
And on a spiritual level – the same thing is happening. The bread and wine travel through our whole being – a physical representation of the spiritual way we are united with Jesus Christ and with each other in the family of faith. That is why we call this sacrament “Communion” – a word which means “united together.” United with Christ and united with each other.
And that unity means a lot for this life and for the life to come.
Jesus as the Bread of Life unites us with Himself – so that His eternity becomes ours, freeing us from captivity to death. Do you see how Jesus took the elements of the Passover celebration and turned them into a metaphor for what He would do on the cross the very next day?
But in our reading from the Gospel According to John, we are told that Jesus showed His disciples “the full extent of His love.” He did that in several ways during their final meal together.
He served them by washing their feet, and by telling them to do the same to each other. Then He commanded them to love each other – because it would show the world that they belonged to Him, that they were united with Him and with each other.
Coming to the Lord’s Table together is perhaps the most powerful sign of our unity with each other in Christ. Eating together is one of the most intimate things people do. We become vulnerable with each other when we eat together. We could spill something or drop crumbs on our clothes or leave the table with food on our chin or – best of all – we could laugh while taking a drink and send it out our nose … That is intimacy and vulnerability.
People celebrate over meals. People eat meals together after funerals. People have first dates and get engaged over meals. Families that spend the day apart reunite over meals. Some of our best memories involve meals. We feel more alive when we share meals. And Jesus unites His people into one family at the meal we are about to share.
Unity with Jesus and each other makes us feel more alive in this life.
So come to the Lord’s Table to meet the Bread of Life – the Bread that gives more life in this life, and life in the life to come.