The Bread of Life

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The theme of today’s service is food, so I thought it made sense to deliver my sermon from our lovely church kitchen. Food is always important to our lives, but in the last two years, it has become even more important. Many of us have been living at home a lot more than usual, and that’s meant that our relationship to food has changed a bit. It’s not unusual for people to complain about the pandemic pounds they have put on over the last two years. It doesn’t help the diet when your office is right next to the kitchen, or even in the kitchen. There are lots of people who have been working from their kitchen or dining room table, which makes the temptation to have a snack several times a day that much more real. I speak from experience!  

If you remember back to the beginning of the pandemic, grocery stores had a hard time keeping some items on the shelves.   

There were shortages of toilet paper and soup cans.  People were obviously stocking up in case the supply chains broke down. 

 And for many weeks, there were severe shortages of flour and yeast.  

Now, that’s interesting. Not that many people make bread at home, but when the pandemic started, many people decided to give it a try. There was never a shortage of baked bread, though, so I suspect that early run-on flour and yeast had a psychological component to it, not just a practical one. Home baked food feels homey. It feels like childhood, when the kitchen smelled like fresh baked cookies or bread. When a crisis hits, we often regress a bit, we become a bit more childlike. So, we seek out the things that made us feel safe as children.  

When it seems like the whole world is falling apart, a fresh baked chocolate chip cookie seems like a perfectly reasonable form of medicine.  And not just the eating, but the act of baking can be therapeutic, too. Instant results and gratitude for what you’ve produced is good for the worried soul.  

I went through this kind of crisis baking once before. When the crash of 2008 occurred, I was working in Toronto in the film business. The company I worked for made a lot of films for American broadcasters like Discovery and National Geographic, so we expected to lose some contracts as the American economy contracted. It took about a year and a half for that to happen. Our bosses told us that we’d have to go down to a four-day work week for a while. It was nice that they didn’t lay us off, but I was still kind of freaked out. I needed something productive to do keep myself busy while we waited to see if business would pick up again.  

I decided to make a bunch of videos about baking bread. I had been making homemade bread for a few years, so I thought this was a good time to share what I had learned. So, back in 2011, I uploaded the first Steve the Bread Guy video. Here’s a bit of it where I show how to make white bread.   

Steve, The Bread Guy

That’s our kitchen at home.  Over a couple of years, I produced a website and 17 videos for making all sorts of different kinds of bread. People still watch them on YouTube.  

I made those videos long before I ever thought of becoming a minister. But when I entered seminary, I found that knowing something about how bread is made helped to understand some of the imagery in the Bible.  

When we celebrate communion later in the service, we will be eating bread. In today’s scripture reading, Jesus announces that He is the Bread of Life. But why does he choose bread as his symbol? It’s not the only symbol he uses for himself. When he met the woman at the well, he said that he was the living water. Christians have also referred to Him as the lamb of God. In fact, in Christian art, he is often depicted as a lamb.   

 Here’s an image of Jesus as a lamb, being adored by angels. I am not aware of any images in Christian art where angels or anyone else bows down to worship a loaf of bread. But there are lots like these, where Jesus is a lamb.  

So why did Jesus say he was the Bread of Life? If his point is that Jesus can feed us in a spiritual way, why not say I am the Vegetable of Life, or the Fruit of Life? The apple of life or the date of life? Why Bread?   To understand why Jesus uses bread as a symbol for who He is, it helps to understand something about how bread is made. Back in Jesus’ time, most homes milled their own flour, and made their own bread. They knew from bread, better than most of us do.  

Then, as now, you needed four ingredients to make bread: flour, salt, water and yeast. Today, most of us make bread with instant yeast. You just add a couple of teaspoons of this to some warm water, and let it sit for ten minutes or so. Yeast is a fungus, and it floats around in the air. This instant yeast is inert until it meets the warm water. That brings it back to life. You can tell that it has woken up by the fact that it makes a scummy film on top of the water. The yeast is alive and hungry, so we feed it flour to keep it alive. We add salt for taste.  

Ask you mix in flour, you get a dough, like this. The yeast eats the flour and expels carbon dioxide. It’s like the dough is a balloon being filled with air from the inside. That carbon dioxide makes the dough rise. After an hour, it looks like this, all puffy.  

This kind of instant yeast was invented in the 19th century. It came from the bottom of the vats where beer was made. They took that scummy active yeast, dried it out and sold it in bottles. But in Christ’s day, this didn’t exist. If you wanted to make bread back then, you had two options. The first was you could start from scratch and capture the yeast from the air. Just put out a bowl with some water and flour, and hope that some yeast spores drop into it and start eating. If they do, the bowl will smell a bit like beer. Keep feeding it flour, and you’ll have a dough. This is how sourdough was made.  

Now, getting yeast this way can take days, so it wasn’t practical for everyday baking. So, people discovered that if they took a chunk from a piece of dough, they could use that to make a loaf tomorrow, after this one had been baked. This was important because when you bake a loaf of bread, the high temperature kills all the yeast. So, you need a chunk from the unbaked dough. This is how people made bread in Biblical times.[1]  

To make the next day’s dough, you would take that saved piece, add it to some water and flour, and give it time to rise. Sourdoughs take longer to rise than instant yeast breads. This takes patience.  

Now, in the Bible, there are some key stories about bread. You may recall that when the Israelites were wandering around in the desert with Moses, they were hungry and God fed them with the bread of angels, manna. And of course, Jesus multiplied loaves of bread when he fed the five thousand who had gathered to see him preach.  

For Jews, the most famous story of bread in the Bible concerns what happened on their last day in Egypt. When the Pharoah demanded that they leave after the ten plagues, the Jews were in such a rush that they had no time to add the sourdough yeast to their flour and water. So, they left without being able to let their bread rise. (Exodus 12:34) For the next few days they had to eat unleavened breads, flat breads, like pita and matzo. In the years to come, whenever Jews celebrate Passover, they eat unleavened breads for up to 8 days, to remember that night when they left without letting their bread rise.  

That event is important to Christians. When we celebrate communion, we are remembering the Passover celebration that was observed by Jesus on the night of his arrest. This is the famous last supper. On that night, when he said when you eat bread, think of me, he would have been holding a piece of unleavened bread, bread without yeast. That’s the only kind of bread that could be served that night. Jesus compares himself to bread without yeast. Eat this in remembrance of me.  

But Jesus is more than his physical self. He is man imbued with spirit. That’s why when we celebrate communion, we ask that God’s spirit come into the bread and the wine. The spirit brings them to life, so they become God with us, the bread of heaven that can fill us.  

And this is why Jesus chose to call himself the Bread of life instead of the meat or vegetable of life. Everyone back then knew that bread was a special kind of food. Most of it is just powdery flour and some water. Mix that together and you get an inedible paste. (Grab some dough) But if you add yeast to it, something wonderful happens. This goo rises and becomes a dough. It is an everyday miracle, where inert substances come alive.  

In one of his parables, Jesus compares to the kingdom of heaven to yeast that is added to sixty pounds of flour. (Matthew 13:33) The yeast spreads within the whole batch and makes a gigantic amount of bread. Jesus often exaggerates in his parables to make the point that God’s power is always far more powerful than normal powers found on Earth.  

God’s spirit enables people to change, even entire societies. Think of what happened with Christianity. It starts off with 12 men and a few women and grows to become a faith that now counts two billion followers. The reason it has grown is that people feel changed from the inside by this faith. Christians look the same as everyone else from the outside. But as we hear this message of love and forgiveness, hardened hearts become softer. It is like an invisible kind of yeast has taken up residence in us. When we realize that Jesus means what he says – we really are loved, we really can be forgiven for anything that we have done, that is tremendously liberating. People who get stuck in life are usually hung up on something that happened in the past. They keep going back to it, over and over again, unable to let it go.

Forgiveness of ourselves and others allows us to move on, to get unstuck. When we realize that we are loved even though we are not perfect, even though we have hanged ups and failings, that is tremendously liberating. You are allowed to be imperfect right up until the day you die. When that message gets through, that you are loved for the messy, shamble person you are, it can feel like a weight has been lifted. You can talk to God all the time, because you know the door is always open. If you’ve done something wrong, just admit it to God, make amends if necessary, and move on.  

Letting God in like this is like putting yeast into your dough. You will feel like you are rising on the inside. And it makes it easier to see that everyone else is just like you. Chances are when they yell at you, it’s not about you at all, they are just wrestling with their own ghosts and complexes. They are just as imperfect as you are. That realization, that you and everyone else are just works in progress, imperfect to the finish line, that’s the truth that set you free. All grudges are a waste of time – yours and everyone else’s. Let them go. They serve no purpose but to hold you back.  

Instead, let yourself be the flour that receives the yeast that can make you rise above all that bitterness and regret. God wants to feed you bread full of holy yeast. To make you grow and expand with spiritual warmth and generosity. Like a fresh loaf od bread, your loving kindness will bring comfort to others, and perhaps even inspire them to try some of that yeast themselves. Jesus is the bread of life because bread is alive and it can cause inert ingredients to come alive, grow and expand. So, dare to accept this holy yeast in your life. And if you already have it, let it grow inside you, only God knows what wonderful things you can do – in your kitchen, it your house and in the world.