Back in March of 2020, when it was clear that COVID had arrived among us but no one really knew what was going to happen next, my son and his family, who were living in Philadelphia at the time, decided they didn’t want to be in the city right then. So he and his wife and their two little girls, who are 2 and 4 now, came out to live with us in New Hope. And I have to say that for us, it was a great blessing because it really gave us a chance to grow close to those kids, and to my son and his wife.
But we did especially try to find things that would engage the kids while they were with us. So at one point we decided we were going to make homemade pizza, because what kid doesn’t like pizza? And it was a good thing, making the dough and all that. But what we found was, you couldn’t get flour or yeast. It had all disappeared from the shelves. I had a little flour and some yeast that was way past its expiration date. And a friend of mine who’d gotten extra yeast in advance to bake Easter bread gave me a little, and we made do so we had our pizza. But I still think back on that explosion of bread baking. All of a sudden, everybody was making bread. Why?
Sure, in isolation—if you were isolated—certainly you had time on your hands. So it was a good activity, it filled the time. And we were eating more meals at home, so we were doing more cooking. But I think the urge to make bread went deeper than that. There’s something about bread, it’s different from piling up shelf-stable beans and pasta in your pantry. Bread is just so basic and so simple and it tastes so good. I don’t know if there’s anything better than bread warm from the oven with butter melting into it. It evokes a nostalgia for past times, which somehow I think we imagine to have been better than the present. That may be myth, or it may be true. But we do have that feeling that bread is something old-fashioned and special, and that it’s something that’s meant to be shared—because who could eat a whole loaf?[i]
You might want to try, but you know you shouldn’t.
There’s something about bread that’s life-sustaining, it’s basic to being human. The archeologists tell us that the oldest bread they’ve found is something like 14,000 years old. And from this ancient, ancient hearth, they swept up something that looked very much like the the burnt crumbs that pile up in the bottom of your toaster. I’ve read that every culture in the world has some form of bread in their diet. Bread is the staff of life.
So it makes sense that when Jesus wanted people to understand that he himself was the foundation of a new life, that he was offering them a life that would sustain them through joy and sorrow and even persecution, which they did face, he talked about bread. He called himself the bread of heaven, the bread that comes down from heaven. He promised to give this life to everyone who eats this bread.
But the people misunderstood. They took him literally. After all, he had given them real, literal bread in that miraculous feeding of thousands of people. He wasn’t speaking literally now, but that’s how they heard it. So they said, this teaching is difficult, who can accept it? And the Gospel tells us that many of them went away and no longer followed him.
But of course he wasn’t telling them to take a bite out of his arm. He was offering them instead a deep and abiding relationship based on trust, based on a mutual indwelling, and they didn’t get it. And I think that kind of misunderstanding lives on with us today. I think there are a lot of people who still struggle with faith because they have a hard time with the intellectual part of it. They just can’t believe that it’s true in an intellectual way.
So I was reading last week a column by a New York Times columnist named Ross Douthat. He’s a conservative columnist. I often disagree with him, and sometimes I agree. And he had a column that was called “A Guide To Finding Faith.” And I thought, oh great, this is going to fit right in. I’ll find some good material here from my sermon. And when I read it, it was all about intellectual believing. He calls it “a suggested blueprint for thinking your way to religious belief.” Now thinking certainly is important—if it weren’t, they wouldn’t send us to seminary for three years. But nowhere in that article, does he talk about being open to the real presence of the divine, which is what Jesus is promising us.
So today I want to wrap up these past five weeks, including today, of bread of life Gospels. I don’t know if there’s much more to say about bread at this point, but I want to talk about what faith looks like in the 21st century and about that real faith in Jesus that’s not a head thing. It’s a heart thing. It’s about relationship.
In today’s gospel, it’s Peter who’s the model of this kind of trust. When Jesus asks the twelve if they too will go away, Peter says, “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And we’ll see, as the story continues, that he has no idea what he’s getting into. He doesn’t fully understand what’s going to be involved in this. He sometimes stumbles as they go along, but he does understand about this relationship with Jesus. He’s willing to put his trust in Jesus, and he knows that it’s going to change everything.
And I think that’s the kind of faith that can bring us through these difficult times in which we find ourselves. I have a friend, a woman in her 90s, who told me that never in her long life had she experienced the kind of fear and uncertainty that she feels now about so much that’s happening in the world. And I know exactly what she meant.
And yet I believe that if we can open our hearts to the kind of abiding faith that Jesus is talking about in this Gospel, we’ll find that we can endure through these difficulties. We’ll find the courage to believe that we’ll come out of all of this, and we’ll find the peace to live into that hope by doing day by day whatever it takes from each one of us to make that happen.
Because the thing about bread is, not only is it life-giving, but it actually is alive. It rises because of the yeast, which is a living organism. And it only works if we stay with it, if we actually, you might say, enter into a relationship with it, kneading it for the proper amount of time, letting it rest and coming back to it at just the right time, giving what it needs, the right temperature, the right amount of moisture, a little bit of sweetness to feed on.
It’s a recipe that’s been working for a long, long time and I believe that if we stay faithful to that relationship, it’ll work for us too.
Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Doylestown, PA
[i] See Emily VanDerWerff, “How To Bake Bread,” Vox, May 19, 2020, https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2020/5/19/21221008/how-to-bake-bread-pandemic-yeast-flour-baking-ken-forkish-claire-saffitz. Accessed Aug. 20, 2021.