38John said to [Jesus,] “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
30[Jesus and the disciples went on] and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
[Jesus said,] 56“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
24When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were [beside the sea,] they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
I imagine several of us have tried, at least a little bit, to learn a new language. There are a lot of reasons to learn a new language – it exercises your brain and helps you think more quickly, it helps you communicate effectively with more people, and you begin to appreciate the intricacies of your own language. Perhaps you work with people who speak a different language and don’t want to rely on an interpreter. Maybe you’re traveling internationally and you want to be able to order at a restaurant without looking and feeling completely lost. Or maybe it’s just a requirement for school. Regardless, learning a language, even your own, is a hard endeavor. Language is tied to culture and time and it can be rather difficult to translate between what you want to say and what you meant to say. But something that seems to carry over, regardless of the language or culture, is the use of metaphor. Metaphors, of course, will vary and change depending on dialect, class, and culture, but they’re there.
In this gospel reading, Jesus describes himself as the true bread of heaven and like any metaphor, it will bring about a different meaning for all of us. Maybe the bread of life image conjures up for you a memory of the smell of fresh bread from the oven, lovingly made by a family member. Or perhaps the memory of bread is related to the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you used to get in your lunch box. When I think of bread, I remember traveling through Europe for a month in college and, through a mishap with my ATM card, I was left with very little money for about a week. I ate a baguette for lunch almost every day on that trip to save what little cash I had. I relied heavily on that dense, grainy bread to get me through the day. In these memories, we encounter the God who provides.
For some, the metaphor conjures a memory. But for others, the food itself becomes a metaphor. There is a poem by an anonymous Indian woman, a refugee, who encountered God not in the metaphor, but in food itself.
Every noon at twelve
In the blazing heat God comes to me in the form of
Two hundred grams of gruel
I know him in every grain
I taste him in every lick.
I commune with him as I gulp
For he keeps me alive with
Two hundred grams of gruel
I wait ‘til next noon and now know he’d come:
I can hope to live one day more
For you made God to come to me as
Two hundred grams of gruel
I know now that God loves me-
Not until you made it possible
Now I know what you’re speaking about
For God so loves this world
That he gives his beloved son
Every noon through you.
In our gospel today, Jesus calls himself the true bread of heaven, which tells us more than what he can say. Jesus is telling us that he cares for those who followed him across the Sea of Galilee and for us. Jesus fed them bread, a miraculous sign of his abundant love and grace, but also a sign that he cares for their bodies, too; that Jesus comes to satisfy their spirits, yes, but also their physical needs. This is keeping in line with God, who gave manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The Israelites gathered this manna every day because, just as we do, they got hungry again. As an illustration to this, we see that the people asking for more bread, more signs, are the same people Jesus fed with a few loaves and fishes last week. They, like we, grow hungry again. Jesus understands their physical needs but we also come to realize that Jesus isn’t just meeting physical needs. Hopefully we can see that metaphors are complex.
They’re even more complex when we consider that every metaphor for God eventually breaks down. We use metaphors to describe God because we can’t completely know God. Unlike bread, for instance, Jesus does not grow stale, nor does he require kneading and baking. Despite the beauty of the metaphor which we hear today and for the next few weeks, a metaphor cannot tell the whole story. Jesus is the true bread, the true God, but as the true God, he will not be restricted and confined to one metaphor.
We, like those who ate their fill and followed him asking for more, do not see the whole picture. We can’t. Metaphors help us know a bit about God, but they are unable to take us the whole way. What they can do is set up an encounter with the living God and each encounter shapes us a little more to carry out the life-giving ministry and carry the life-changing good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to the world.
This metaphor, Jesus as the true bread of life, urges us on to enact and practice that metaphor for others. We cannot know God completely, but we can encounter God and often this comes in our response to God’s love and grace. Jesus died and rose again to be your bread, your sustenance on the journey of your life, and our response is to care for those among us and around us who are looking for bread, both the spiritual bread and the physical bread which gives them hope and life.
Ultimately, the best way to think about the metaphor is to look at the one who said it. Jesus is the bread of life and gave that life away for the good of all. As followers of the bread of life, we will do the same. Our response to God’s love is not to ask for more, but to give what has been given, understanding that it will never run out. As we come to eat the bread and drink the wine, as we experience God’s presence with us in these ordinary things, we leave and show that love to others. We not only reflect on the bread of life, but as followers of Jesus, we act it out. We practice it. As Jesus gave of himself, feeding, teaching, and comforting, so we give of ourselves. As we receive the bread of communion, fed by the life of Christ, we become the bread that God serves to the world. That’s what the followers of Christ do – see the hungers in the world and then work to address them.
So, whatever your hunger, the table is set. The bread of life is given for you. And we, like those Jesus spoke to, say “Give us this bread always.” Amen.