I am grateful that Jesus made carbohydrates, particularly bread, central to Christian theology. I really do like, appreciate, and enjoy bread and food made with bread. In fact, when Jesus says in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life”, I have to admit: that’s not always what I hear. I sometimes understand him to say, “I am the Big Mac of life” or “I am the Domino’s of life” or “I am the Subway Foot long of life” or even “I am the Arby’s and We Have the Meats of Life”. Sometimes, things with no relation to bread are the bread of life. Did not Jesus once say, “I am the sweet tea of life?”
Each of these items, in their own unique manner, feeds my soul in a way reminiscent of how Jesus described his identity as the “bread of life”. Yet unlike Jesus, no matter how many roast beef sandwiches I eat or pizzas I devour, I will, once again be hungry. Like clockwork, my stomach will growl and I will want to eat again. Jesus talks about bread in different terms. Jesus isn’t like Chinese food; thirty minutes, one good burp, and thrill is gone. No, when Jesus talks about bread and life he means a kind of soul nourishment which isn’t measured or regulated by the cycles of the human body.
He’s moved into the realm of the Energizer bunny, that part of us that keeps going and going despite the food we eat (which will leave us hungry), the house we live in (which will crumble), or the people who surround us (who will die, like us). Jesus and the bread he’s talking about are part of a much bigger picture. There are needs at the level of the human soul which are bigger than the Grandest Canyon or the widest ocean. Jesus is saying, don’t let the size and spectacle of the world cause you to ignore the hunger inside your soul.
Why the “bread of life”? Bread seems so basic. Jesus could have used any number of words or phrases to describe himself, right? Jesus could say, “I am the Messiah” or “I am the Son of God” or “I am the Holy One Come to Bring Life” or “I am Mary’s Boy” or “I am the one who walks on Water”. The list could go on and on. All of those are accurate. Even though I made them up, they’re reasonable enough to believe that someone (even Jesus) might have described Jesus in such a manner. They even sound less opaque than “the bread of life”. They don’t require a metaphysical explanation and a deep dive into spiritual metaphors. Why not choose something simpler? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
However, I believe bread makes more sense than we realize. It’s less of riddle than we think it is. Bread makes the world go around. Before we had money, before civilizations had cash to run their economies, what made the world tick; bread. The cultivation of grain is the defining feature in western civilization. At one point, we were all tribal nomads, wondering around the plains. One day, that all changed. We decided to let our animals graze in one place and grow wheat. Cultivating wheat and growing grain changed the history of the world. We are who we are because of bread. We’ve been who we are, for most of recorded human history because of our relationship to bread. Grain allowed civilizations to thrive. Bread became one of the keys to life, wealth, commerce, and power. With the grain, you could get livestock, slaves, and land.
Jesus, on the other hand, speaks against the grain. He doesn’t talk about grain or its byproduct (bread) in a tangible way reflecting cultivation or accumulation. For Jesus bread or grain, as life giving as it is, can’t be measured on scale, then bagged, or sold to the highest bidder. Wheat can’t be planted in the ground, grain can’t be cultivated, nor can bread be baked. Jesus is talking about something everyone knows, something their parents knew, their grandparents knew and asking them to look inward. Jesus is going against the dominant culture of wheat, grain, and bread. What feeds us keeps us captive. What feeds us leaves us hungry. What feeds us keeps us apart. What feeds us is crumbling from the inside out.
We need new food, different grain, and better bread. It’s not Moses’ recycled bread, rediscovered ways to slice old bread, but a renewal of the spirit that Jesus brings to those who decide to go with him as he runs against the grain. It’s a rejection of scarcity economics and an embrace of abundant living. That’s what John means by the bread of life. It’s kind of scary to walk away from a table full of bread and toward a guy who uses bread as a metaphor. That is against the grain thinking. It’s also the most basic act of counter-cultural discipleship Jesus asks of any disciple. Step from what you know, away from your comfort zone, into an area where faith is your only frame of reference.
Because you’ve been so nice, I’m going to let you in on a secret about the bread of life. It’s not bread at all. Jesus is a way of life; life lived on terms of abundance, grace, joy, and love. Please, don’t mess it up. For bread’s sake.
Richard Lowell Bryant