The Bread of Life

Posted on November 20th, 2020

A few months ago, during a time of especially intense ministry, I noticed I was feeling low. The well-known words of Galatians 6:9 came to mind, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” We might translate “let us not be weary” as, “Don’t let negative influences cause you to become inwardly exhausted.”

The exegetes say Paul was speaking to himself as well as his brothers and sisters in Galatia, a collective “us.” I’ve felt that “us” in writing this piece. You’ve been on my mind as you seek wholeness and transformation in your inner life and relationships, fighting to persevere when it’s difficult or costly. And I’ve been thinking of you as you work to lead others, care for those in need, and influence the world around you for Christ. At the same time I’ve been deeply aware of my own highs and lows, the gratifying moments when I feel inwardly full and the days when I feel weary. The pandemic we continue to live through seems to create especially acute temptations to weariness.

We are people who truly desire to live in God’s service. We are not perfectly faithful, but much of the time and in many ways we offer ourselves to Him. We want Him to have His way in us, and we want others to receive their share in the blessedness He so freely offers. We have taken up our cross to follow Jesus, and He gives us the privilege of laboring for His kingdom in ways that involve sacrifice, self-denial, and even dying. Because He commissions us to minister in a world that’s under the influence of sin, there is a risk of weariness, as Paul’s exhortation implies. Following Jesus puts us in contact with negative influences that could, if we face them apart from Him, leave us exhausted and worn. We even carry some negative influences in the unhealed places in our own souls, and we must invite His presence into these places that need more thorough conversion. But following Christ is not an inherently wearying life — rather, we may get confused and go about it in a way that exhausts our inner wellbeing. Fundamentally, taking up our cross and following Christ is a life of joy because our lives are now rooted in the only real source of joy that exists.

I’d like to look more deeply at what we really think about our lives of service and sacrifice. What do we understand sacrificial self-giving to be? A right understanding of it protects us from weariness while a wrong understanding makes us vulnerable to utter exhaustion and emptiness. God led me into this exploration by showing me something in my own heart. I was dialoging with Him about weariness when a symbol bubbled into my awareness, one I’d picked up decades ago from Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. Nouwen summarizes his life as a Christian by saying, “I am called to become bread for the world:  bread that is taken, blessed, broken and given” (42). Similarly, Oswald Chambers equates the Christian call to becoming broken bread and poured-out wine. “Keep right with God and let Him do what He likes, and you will find that He is producing the kind of bread and wine that will benefit His other children” (September 30). Many sermons and worship songs draw on this metaphor to symbolize what it means to live in God’s service.

When this symbol presented itself to give meaning to my weariness, I decided to re-read Nouwen’s book. As I did, I found myself asking the Lord, “Is this a true picture? Am I really the bread with which You feed Your people?” As Leanne Payne wrote, “The imagery really matters” (The Healing Presence, 139). The images we hold in our hearts shape our choices and our very grasp of reality, and if the symbols are distorted, we will be distorted. I could see that my heart had taken in this symbol, but not every picture, story and symbol we take in provides a right and true perception. Certainly, the broken bread picture resonates with our experiences of being spent, exhausted, and consumed. But our own subjective sense of reality may not be a reliable guide. So let us consider whether the image of us becoming bread and wine poured out for others provides our hearts with a true picture of Christian life and service.

Bread and other symbols

Let’s begin with the central scriptural symbol of bread, the Bread of Life. Jesus, the incarnate Son of Man, offered Himself in unbroken communion with His Father:  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51). As Schmemann writes in For the Life of the World, all our hunger from the very beginning was a hunger for Him and all our bread was but a symbol of Him (43). Through His self-giving, the life we lost has been restored to us and we are reconciled to God. I can write these few, simple words, but in doing so I am pointing to a great mystery, and it is because our capacity for understanding is so small in the face of such wonderful mystery that we are given metaphors and symbols. After Jesus told His followers that He would give His flesh for the life of the world, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). The twelve who continued on with their Lord didn’t profess perfect comprehension of His disclosure, but only confessed that they’d come to believe He is the Holy One of God (John 6:68). As I meditated on this mystery, the Lord pointed out to me that scripture never symbolizes us as bread, and I believe there’s rich, good reason — more than we’ll have space to unpack in this short essay — that this symbol is applied only to the Messiah. Jesus revealed Himself as the Bread of Life, for He alone is the source of all life and the end of all hunger.

Although the Spirit-breathed scriptures never call us bread, we are offered many ennobling and hope-filled symbols of who we are and how God’s love flows in and through us. We are sheep who know His voice and belong to His one flock. We are branches in the true vine, pruned for greater fruitfulness. We become members of Christ, unique and complementary parts of His Body. Something deep in my soul shifts to a better place when, rather than thinking of myself as food for others, I meditate on these whole and living images. Consider that you are a living stone built right into the wall of the house of God, a tree whose roots draw from the cool, fresh steam of living water, and an athlete who is growing stronger through your challenges and trials. These are images of vitality rather than weariness, of inner fullness rather than of exhaustion, and of union rather than separation. 

Confusion

Our attraction to the picture of broken bread and poured out wine relates to a theological confusion known as substitution. In substitution, we confuse following the Messiah with being a messiah. We confuse our witnessing cross with Christ’s once-for-all atoning cross. Rather than rejoicing that we are the disciples who get to share the Bread of Life with the hungry crowds, we start to think of ourselves as the Bread. Of course in our rational minds we know we are not saviors or redeemers. But in our intuitive, emotional being, we can slip into supposing that we are somehow given away or consumed so that others might experience healing and redemption. 

This confusion manifests in many subtle ways in our approach to Christian service and what we understand bearing one another’s burdens to mean. At a gut level we may believe being converted means we’re now content to be the one who gets eaten so someone else doesn’t go hungry. The imagery in our hearts may suggest that Christian conversion changes one’s position in the eat-or-be-eaten equation. Perhaps followers of Christ are the meek and docile who no longer chew others up, and instead are ready to be consumed as a remedy for others’ deprivation. I suspect this subtle distortion also confuses our picture of what it means to be long-suffering.

I would suggest that thinking of ourselves as bread means we’ve unwittingly traded a different story for the gospel which is centered on the death and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Our cross is not an atoning cross, and no one is saved by it. Although we will suffer in following Christ, our suffering does not serve as a trade or replacement for any one else’s suffering, not Christ Himself, a loved one, or a stranger. Our cross is a cross of testimony, a witnessing cross, and as we carry it, we are continually transformed. So we can’t be food, but we can be witnesses, and witnesses bring glory to God! 

Martyrdom & Joy

In being witnesses, we engage the battle in which the forces of evil attempt to thwart God’s loving and victorious actions in this world. Jesus has commissioned us to baptize others into His new life and make them into disciples. As we do so, we will suffer some of the hatred with which this world reacts to Him. Our witnessing cross can lead to drinking His cup. How essential it is then that we go about our lives of service thoroughly centered in Christ. Our offering of ourselves must be to Him, in Him, through Him, and for Him. If we deputize ourselves as substitute saviors, we’ll be devoured by the very world into which He’s sending us as witnesses. But if we do His works in union with Him, rather than making us weary, any suffering we undergo will have redemptive power.

This sort of suffering is what Paul is referring to when he says, “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Colossians 1:24). The closest thing we find in scripture to the image of us being poured out wine is Paul’s admission that he will soon be poured out like a drink offering. Paul knew his martyrdom was near. The original Greek root of “martyr” means “witness.” Those who are persecuted or put to physical death for their testimony are witnesses to what Christ accomplished on His cross. Whatever we may suffer for His sake brings Him glory because we are witnessing to His offering, urging all to find the answer to their hunger in Him.

The story of the Maccabean martyrs gives us a winsome picture of the joy of witnessing, even when it involves great suffering. During the Greek persecution of Jews in the second century BCE, seven brothers and their mother were arrested. The king demanded that they eat swine’s flesh as a way of renouncing their faithfulness to God. These brothers valiantly refused in the face of cruel torture and death. In this telling of the third brother’s death we hear a joyful witness:

“When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said bravely, “I received these from heaven, and because of His laws I disregard them, and from Him I hope to get them back again.” As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing.”  2 Maccabees 7:10-12

Although this man lived and died before Christ’s incarnation, he demonstrated eucharistic living, entrusting his whole being to God’s triumphant reign. Like him, we joyfully offer ourselves in Christ’s service because His perfect self-offering has freed us to be faithful witnesses. As we follow Him, rather than being made into bread and wine, we become whole men and women who are increasingly able to testify that He is the Bread of life. 

If we embrace the image that God makes us bread to feed His world, the most troubling consequence is what this suggests about God Himself. It implies a zero-sum game in which God must take from one to give to another. It suggests some sort of scarcity in the Kingdom, some need in God’s economy that is met by using up the lives of His children. When we put it this baldly, we know it is untrue. The God of the universe has all He needs, and all we need. In pointing to the joy that Christ’s cross brought to this fallen world, Alexander Schmemann notes that this joy “is pure because it does not depend on anything in this world and is not the reward of anything in us” (For the Life of the World, 55). This gift of joy was made complete through Christ’s sacrifice and is given freely and eternally to all who will receive Him. Our God is the One who says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all its fullness are mine” (Ps 50:12). He neither needs nor desires to spend us. He has plenty to feed His children because He has given of His own life which is infinitely abundant. He is the great I AM, an unfathomable depth and height of love, and as the Father gave His only begotten Son, He poured out grace that is utterly and absolutely sufficient for all.

You’ve likely heard “The Blessing,” a worship song written in the early days of the pandemic and recorded and shared by community choirs around the world. If you’ve heard it, you’ve likely been moved as the song culminates with the simple but life-changing words, “He is for you.” This truth feeds a hungry place in us, a place where we need divine assurance:  in the morning, in the evening, in your coming, in your going, in your weeping, and rejoicing, He is for you. If we offer ourselves to God, He wonderfully involves us in His redemptive work. He even gives us to one another, but not as food. He gives us whole and the giving makes us more of who we are. As He gives us we remain in Him, and we are not exhausted but rather filled and fulfilled. We are not bread; we are sheep of one flock who know His voice. We are not wine; we are oaks of righteousness. We are given, but never given away. Even as He gives and sends us, we never leave His hand.

References:

Chambers, Oswald. My utmost for His highest : selections for the year. Uhlrichsville, Ohio: Barbour & Co, 2000. 

Jobe, Kari, Elevation Worship, Caries, Cody. “The Blessing.” Graves into Gardens, Provident Label Group, 2020, 4.

Nouwen, Henri J. Life of the beloved : spiritual living in a secular world. New York: Crossroad, 1992.

Payne, Leanne. The healing presence: curing the soul through union with Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the life of the world : sacraments and orthodoxy. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973.

Paintings:

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, 1852-1929, The Last Supper.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1311, The Last Supper.

Rodrigo Fernández, 2015, Jesús multiplica los panes.

Fra Angelico, 1402-1455, Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints.

James Tissot, 1894, La multiplication des pains.