3 March 2013
Week 3 - Fed by the Bread of Heaven
Exod 16:2-5; 13-21a, 35 (Manna);
John 6:30-35 (‘I am the Bread of Life').
Discussion: ‘What does it mean to us to share in the eucharist?'
Topic for local radio: A personal story of hunger and being fed
The Israelites who crossed the Red Sea safely must have moved very slowly through the heat and barren land of the Sinai desert. After three days, they badly needed water, but the only water they could find was undrinkable. In Exodus, we read that God provided a piece of wood for Moses to throw in the water and then they were able to drink it. When the Israelites needed drink, it was provided for them. At Elim (15:27), they found ‘twelve springs' of water - water in abundance.
When, after six weeks in the desert, they had moved on again, as they looked back on the plentiful meat and bread in Egypt, they were full of complaints against Moses and Aaron for bringing them out into the wilderness to die. God's response is to promise ‘bread from heaven', with enough for each day's need and on the sixth day enough for two days.
This is what happened: in the evening small birds called ‘quails' that could be eaten came around the camp; then, in the morning, the ground was damp, and there was an edible substance which looked like frost and tasted like ‘wafers made with honey' (v.31). The Israelites called this ‘manna'. In this way, God provided both the drink and the food they needed to sustain them in the desert.
In John's Gospel, Jesus offers a number of ‘signs' to show who he is. When the five thousand people are fed with five barley loaves and two fish (6:11) this is interpreted as a ‘sign'. The crowd who follow Jesus are reminded of the way their ‘ancestors' were fed with manna in the wilderness. Now, Jesus is giving people ‘bread from heaven'. (In Mark's story of the feeding of the four thousand [8:19], the disciples ask, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?'). In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus tells the crowd, it wasn't Moses who provided ‘bread from heaven', but ‘the Father'.
Jesus goes on to hint strongly that he is God's gift to the Israelites of his day: ‘For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.' ‘Sir', they say, ‘Give us this bread always.' This is when Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.'
Unlike the other three gospels, the Fourth Gospel gives us no account of the Last Supper, with Jesus's words ‘This is my body' and ‘This is my blood' (and in Matthew 26:26, ‘Take, eat; this is my body'). The equivalent in the Fourth Gospel is the continuing discussion in chapter 6, where Jesus says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh' (v. 51). For Christians, who share in the eucharist regularly, it very hard not to see this as a reference both to the manna and to the bread of the eucharist.
In I Corinthians 11:23-25, Paul introduces his account of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper with the words, ‘For I received from the Lord, what I also delivered to you.' He then goes on to quote essentially the same words as those in Luke (22:19): the Lord ‘took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it [and gave it to them saying], "This is my body which is [given] for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
Both Paul and Luke speak of Jesus's words as a command to remember him in this way. There has, of course, been much debate as to what Jesus meant, and how sharing the bread and the wine of the eucharist brings us into communion with Jesus and with each other. What almost all Christians agree on is that the eucharist is a sacrament: it is a means of communion - or communication - between God and the church. Sharing the eucharist brings us together as ‘the body of Christ'.
What we need to sustain us on our journey of faith is Christ, and in the eucharist we are nourished by Christ; we ‘feed on Christ'. In this sense, we can speak of the bread which we share in the eucharist as the ‘bread of heaven' and we can be confident that as we feed on this bread, we receive the
nourishment we need for our journey through the wilderness of this life to the promised land.
Questions you may wish to use in discussion
- The story of the Manna in the wilderness is of great important for the Jewish people. Why do you think this is so?
- Why do you think the Fourth Gospel tells us that Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life?
- The understanding of the eucharist (or Lord's Supper) is different in different church traditions. From your experience of your church tradition, could you speak of the bread of the eucharist as ‘the bread of heaven' and, if so, what does that mean for you?
- If you could never share the eucharist again with your Christian sisters and brothers how much do you think you would miss it? How much, then, do we miss by not sharing the eucharist with all our brothers and sisters in Christ?
- What is the link between the idea of the ‘bread of heaven' and the petition in the Lord's Prayer: ‘Give us today our daily bread'?
- Are food banks and similar initiatives God's way of feeding the hungry in Britain today?
- Are there ways in which the members of your group can see the stories we have discussed this week reflected in their own journey of faith?
Lord God, who provided food for your covenant people to sustain them in the wilderness, give us the bread we need to nourish both our bodies and our souls, and make us generous in caring for all who go hungry because of human greed and indifference, through Jesus Christ, our living bread, Amen.