So here’s the thing—bread is a universal food.
Now it varies, of course. Some people eat wheat-based bread of all shapes and sizes. You’ve probably tried that at some point in your life—a flaky croissant, a baguette, an Italian loaf, even a doughnut. And even if you’re gluten intolerant, you have options. In some cultures, like that of Mexico, the staple “bread” is made out of corn masa.
Any way you look at it, bread is a staple. It is often the thing that we associate having enough to eat with. If someone is going hungry, that person is without bread.
So on this level, bread is universally about filling our stomachs, satisfying our hunger, fulfilling our need to survive physically. And bread is a symbol of our diverse cultures and our uniqueness.
As usual, Jesus of Nazareth would take universal symbols like bread and then use them to illustrate something, to make a point, to bring people to a realization, a transformation.
So Jesus, in John’s Gospel, says that bread is life. He says that he is the bread of life, and this is John’s Gospel, and so remember that any I AM statement [ego eimi in Greek] means “divine presence.”
So in essence, Jesus is saying that the divine is present in him, and this presence provides sustenance to all who embrace it in themselves.
But Jesus, [and John’s writers] were addressing an audience much different than us. It was a different time and culture, and this audience was made up of Jews, Greeks, and others. But they would have known the story about the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness. They would have known the story about manna [bread] being provided but not being enough. Their ancestors couldn’t just live by this type of bread alone. Bread runs out; people get hungry. All you have to do is keep your eyes open to see that in our communities and around the world, people go hungry. We don’t share enough of our bread and so, people are hungry. And even those of us lucky enough to have enough bread to eat, the satisfied feeling doesn’t last.
Eventually, we get hungry again.
So Jesus was taking bread to another level. Eat this new idea of bread, live forever. Eat this new bread, be truly alive.
And yes, it may sound a little weird the way John’s Gospel spells it out. Jesus is the living bread and the bread Jesus gives for the world is flesh. Flesh? Huh? Okay, now these theories about Christians being cannibals don’t sound so crazy, right?
Of course, some have taken this idea to an extreme. In some religious traditions, the bread used in Communion services becomes Jesus’ flesh. At least, that’s what some people believe. This is also why historically, there were people of other faith traditions [and the original followers of Jesus] who saw this as weird, this whole Jesus-flesh-eating-thing.
I think we’ve overblown this. In fact, I think John’s Gospel is pretty clear. Jesus’ flesh isn’t actual flesh, though Jesus’ presence with people was most certainly real, down to earth. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is logos—word, presence. Jesus is vine, good shepherd, life, love.
Jesus is presence.
So it’s not about some mystical meal where bread turns into human flesh. The metaphor is: Christ is life-bread, this life-bread is in us, and it is freely given to us to share with others.
This Bread reanimates us, shows us our inner beauty. And if we apply this in life, we will also see this bread in others. They will be our family. And if anyone lacks this bread, we will be sure to share it with them, remind them of their beauty, help them to discover the life inside them. In turn, we become the living bread and spread the life all around.