Bishop Peter F. Hansen
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Trinity, July 31, 2022
“His disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness? And he asked them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven. And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake.”
HAVE YOU entered a bakery the moment bread comes out of the oven, golden brown, with new loaves waiting, yeasty white in pans, ready to bake? Smell the fertile aromas of dough and fresh bread? More than visual, it’s the smell of bread that touches our ancestry, a memory of our race, perhaps ten thousand years back when we harvested grain, pounded, winnowed it in strong spring breezes, carefully swept the bare grain and stored it in dry buildings with the hope to survive another year. It’s bread that marks a civilization from the nomadic herdsmen or hunter gatherers. It’s bread that causes families to build and stay together on the land. It’s bread that marks fields and lines of property, irrigation ditches, roads and market places, towns where rural life becomes a city. Bread, the staff of life, gives humanity its roots.
Bread is among the oldest prepared foods. Think of the power in it: of all other plants we eat a portion—leaves or fruit, stalks or roots. But here we take the seed, dry or sprouted, and with hundreds of other seeds, each seed containing an entire plant concentrated, we pound them into paste with salt and water and yeast from other plants or just from the air, we let it rise, then bake it. Each slice is a hundred plants. We’re eating concentrated life. It amazed ancient people, as bread became both a symbol and reality of God’s good pleasure for us.
The first bread mentioned in Scripture is where we see Adam in disgrace. “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” Gen 3:17-19 God didn’t curse mankind. We’d done that to ourselves. But the work and sweat of the wheat field was part of our restoration, and was our survival now in a world that would not so easily yield its fruits to us.
See Abraham returning from victory in battle, and Melchizedek, high priest and king of Salem, serving him bread and wine with a blessing. God and His angels visit Abraham, who offers to set bread before them: “That you may refresh your hearts.” Gen 18:5 Jews in Egypt prepare unleavened bread for their first Passover and freedom. Ex 12:6-11
Jesus, just baptized, on the desert, where the devil hisses, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones be bread.” Jesus says, “It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Matt 4:2-4 Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray with the words, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Matt 6:11
There is something about bread, the common food of every nation with agriculture, that calls us to sit and be social. 5,000 follow Christ and He feeds them with five loaves. On another day 4,000 are fed with seven loaves, leaving seven baskets of food uneaten, today’s slice of the Gospel. But look how Jesus deals with the rebound after 5,000.
In Capernaum, Jesus meets a throng of those looking for more miracles. “You seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” Jesus calls Himself the bread from heaven that, if you eat of Him, you will never hunger again, nor thirst. “I am the bread of life… If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you… My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed… He who eats this bread will live forever.” John 6:26-58 This lesson baffles even His closest associates. On the night of His arrest and betrayal, Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.’” Luke 22:19-20
So, bread means more than just seeds, ground to flour, prepared and baked into loaves. This is a deep and holy memory, a sense of God’s purpose in making us, in giving us the waving fields of wheat, barley, rye, oat, corn and other grain.
After both miracles of bread, Jesus sat in a boat with the apostles and said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” They thought this was about bread, because they didn’t bring any. Leaven was like infection, spores of yeast, like germs, that change what they invade. It’s a symbol both good and bad, and this time the bad influence from Jewish spheres of power. They miss the point. He reviews the two feedings, asking how many loaves they began with, how many were fed, how much was left over. It sounds like a word problem in math class. The way I resolve it is this: less bread and more people fed, equals a greater remainder because more faith is needed, thus a higher mark is reached. When it’s more bread and less people, all are fed but not as much remains because less faith was required. Then Jesus asked, “How is it you do not understand?” Mark 8:15-21 I’m not sure that I do, actually.
Jesus died and rose the third day. Lessons about bread not over, He meets two travelers on their way to Emmaus and regales them with Scriptures fulfilled by Jesus Himself, proving He is the Messiah. When they reach Emmaus, they invite Him to eat. He blesses bread, then disappears as they realize that who’s been walking with them is the risen Jesus. Up they jump and run 7 miles back to the apostles, telling them all, “about the things that happened on the road, and how He was known to them in the breaking of bread.” Luke 24:35
Bread is one of two elements for our Eucharist. We meet Jesus at the rail because He said, “Take, eat, this is my Body.” Hymn 195 is from the 2nd century Didache, an instructional book. “Concerning the broken bread [pray]: We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” Didache 9:3-4
Now let’s make sense of all this. Bread is a miracle food, all by itself. Grain brought together in great quantity, dried and stored for long keeping—manna you don’t have to gather every day—which means people can remain where they’ve settled. It ends nomadic life. It means building homes, granaries, wells, towns and rudimentary civilization. I’m not a huge fan of civilization, when I can sit on an 11,000-foot pass gazing over the majesty of wilderness, free of smog and freeways, litter and iPhones. But it’s lonely. God’s highest purpose for every one of us is to love, and that requires other people in close proximity. We need each other. And God brings us together like grain in a barn.
Jesus was not ashamed to call Himself bread. “Eat my flesh” was His way for us to gain intimacy with the God made man. We shrink from such an idea, but He loses nothing by giving Himself to us. We don’t eat dead Jesus, but incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended and glorified Christ in this bread. He extends His life into us, and we become part of Him. He lives on. We don’t kill Jesus by eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Rather, He makes us alive. That’s exactly what He said.
What was once a sack of grain becomes a field of waving heads of wheat. Then it is gathered again into thousands of times as much seed as was planted. This is the multiplication of loaves, like Jesus did with baked bread, only in its natural form. The miracle is nevertheless God’s doing. Jesus only did it in a different manner and all of a sudden. Either way, God increases food in a wonderful way.
Just so, Hymn 195 continues, let the Church of Jesus Christ, scattered with the Word of God over all the earth, growing in many differing soils, all the peoples of the world, in time be gathered from the four corners of the globe on that last day. Holy angels will bring in God’s harvest for the Kingdom coming.
A loaf of bread is a lovely thing. All round and golden, sesame seeds on top, slits cut before baking opened to give it crisp ridges… well, we can just look at the bread and yet starve. Or, we can rip it apart, dig our thumbs into it, or carefully slice it with a bread knife. Either way, if you don’t break bread, you don’t eat.
Just so, we are like bread that is periodically broken. It happens. That’s existence. What we admire in the morning, is all in pieces by the afternoon. We sacrifice our solo existence, give up our singularity, lose the solitude for the sake of others and are broken up in pieces of care, work, strain, loss, painful thoughts, sacrifice—because it must be done. There are others to serve. We’re not self-important. We must be given away. And in suffering the breaking, we join with Jesus, being lifted up with Him, and in dying, we begin our life anew. Even our most heavy losses and cruel blows will become part of the glory to be revealed in us for His sake. For we are bread, His bread, and we have no value on the shelf. We’ve been blessed—to live, to grow, to learn, to achieve—and we must be scattered once again, that others may live and grow and learn and achieve as well, nurtured through our experience shared with them.
We are bread. And as bread, we are a miracle. Wine is grape’s blood fermented, transformed. Bread is the heart of a wheat field, a life within a life, brought together for this moment of grace.
We will say grace in a moment, but for just now, breathe deeply and smell the savory loaf just emerged, warm and fresh from the oven of God.