Jesus talks a lot about bread. References to bread fill several Gospel passages that are read on Sundays in August. But not only does Jesus talk about bread, he says he is bread: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:50).
What is intriguing about bread is that, unlike manna which just appeared on the desert floor every day for 40 years during the Exodus, bread requires a partnership of actors. Bread doesn’t just appear; God or nature provides the wheat and then people do the work – mixing, kneading and baking. The baking of bread is a joint venture; it is birthed in community. Which is part of Jesus’ point.
And as Jesus literally invests himself in bread – and in so doing embeds himself in community, he makes a subtle and extraordinary claim: “whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
Whoever eats this bread receives eternal life. Whoever. He is not limiting the offer of bread to men or Jews or people of influence. He is offering it to everybody – women, slaves, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers.
On the surface Jesus’ detractors complain that since he is the child of peasants and is not board certified, he shouldn’t be making wild ontological claims about being the bread of life which can feed the world. But beneath their surface complaints they are viscerally resistant to the challenge Jesus is making to the tribalism which framed the world view of his day.
And frames the world view of our day. Tribalism is an inherited impulse to protect clan or turf or way of life. It is rooted in a notion of scarcity – that there isn’t enough to go around and so we need to silo off what we can for the tribe, and deny it to those who don’t qualify.
Jesus’ witness is grounded in abundance; marinated in the hope and faith that there is enough to go around, and that “whoever” should have the opportunity to receive it.
Jesus challenged the tribalism of his day. It got him in trouble. Indeed, his loving embrace of the entirety of humanity is what brought him down.
In the past few years, we have heard a lot about the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter. Each of these grass roots movements is exposing the gender and racial tribalism of our day, which people in some quarters either want to quash or deny. And there have been moments when the rhetoric of these movements can sound, well, tribal. Whenever there is stress or confusion or fear, the tribal impulse kicks in. But the intent of the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter is to identify tribal behavior – and tribal blindness, and to insist that all people merit justice, mercy and fair treatment.
That certainly was – and is, Jesus’ message. The invitation and the challenge, indeed the expectation from Jesus is that we are to join with Him in identifying our own tribal impulses, to work to dismantle the tribal barriers that seem to be undergoing greater reinforcement with each passing day, and to more fully engage in a commitment to live together as one tribe. A tribe with many differences and dissonances, yet a tribe where all are gathered under the embrace of a loving God.
Take the bread and eat it. It makes a difference. It binds us together. And thus fed, we can make a difference in the world.