BREAD IS FOR SHARING - 2
Proverbs 9. 1 - 6

Feasting and befriending


From law and history we turn now to the acerbic wisdom literature of Proverbs, that treasury of fables and riddles which made up the earliest documentary deposit of Israel’s sages. Unlike Ecclesiastes, Proverbs is a fairly optimistic collection of sayings garnered over a considerable period of time.  It is also one of the most humanistic books in the Bible.  There is little reference to religious ritual or to faith.

The religion of Proverbs is practical and pragmatic — if sometimes a little paradoxical.  Rather like the person who is apt to say one thing to one group of people and something quite different to another, according to the circumstances, the Wisdom Movement in Israel (which shared much teaching with foreign neighbours, it seems) tailored the message to the moment.

In this startling passage, Wisdom (who, in contrast to the patriarchy of the culture, is characterised as a wealthy woman) talks about building up a huge feast in a fine building — and then throwing the doors open to all who may come, even the simple and the senseless.  Stupidity is, of course, a cipher for those most rejected in the society of the Wise, but the writer still can’t resist calling a spade a spade.  There is a combination of earthy generosity and unsentimental honesty in these verses.

The moral is straightforward enough, however.  To “lay aside immaturity [or simpleness] and walk in the way of insight” (verse 6) is to share widely both the substance (bread) and the excess (wine) that is offered in the midst of life.  The mixture of these two (verse 5) naturally reminds us Christians of the last supper, and that the nourishment and joy symbolised by the bread and wine can also require the flesh and blood of One who will not submit to an order that denies the gifts of God for whosoever needs them.

*  God of simplicity,
    Confound our wisdom with your overflowing love.



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TO THINK ABOUT

· What do you hunger and thirst for most at the moment, and why?
· In what ways is it possible even for people of faith to deny the bread of life to a hungry world?
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Isaiah 25. 6 - 9  (Hiroshima Day)

Choosing and cherishing


Throughout the scriptures we find an argument being waged between particularity and universality in the purposes of God. At some times and in some places it seems as if the love of God is directed particularly to ‘the chosen’, and is actively withheld from others. Such is the case with the particularly bloody diatribe against the Moabites that follows this passage from the great prophet Isaiah (cf. verses 10b - 12).  How do we square this with the glorious, inclusive vision of verses 6 to 9, which say unequivocally that God will create a feast for all peoples on the holy mountain?

Well, first it is important to recognise that the judgement which thunders forth from Isaiah is not a counterpoint to God’s universal love, but a feature of it. A thirst for justice requires intolerance of injustice; a quest for peace involves a condemnation of war.  The context of these writings is also, it must be recognised, a struggle for survival by a remnant in treacherous circumstances. It is therefore understandable that God’s stern love might be mixed (rather injudiciously, we might feel with hindsight) into a melting pot of vindictiveness towards the national enemy.

Jesus seemed to have noted this problem, and so he made enemy-love a key component of his renewing Way.  He also lived to the full this extraordinary, poetic and deeply compelling vision of food for all (verse 6), the swallowing up of death and the wiping away of tears (verses. 7, 8) by which Isaiah summarises the ultimate purpose of God to bring all creation to fulfilment in Godself.

This, along with Micah’s ‘swords into ploughshares’, the tree of life in Revelation, and Julian of Norwich’s assurance that ‘all manner of things shall be well’ is a definitive “last word” within the tribulations, triumphs and sorrows which make up the biblical tradition. In place of a shroud of death (verse 7), a tablecloth for feasting is offered. 

Whenever we, like (sometimes) the people of Israel, are tempted to think of ourselves as chosen alone, when we confuse God’s judgement with our sectional interests, we need reminding that the banquet of the kingdom is for all.

*  God of life,
    Deny us our instincts to punish others for wrongs we choose.




Hosea 14. 4 - 8

Harvesting and having


Like Isaiah, the prophet Hosea, whose ministry in the Northern Kingdom coincided with the war between Syria and Ephraim (5.8 - 7.16), was concerned to show that God’s assurance of forgiveness will finally bring restoration in the face of apostasy.  Both men vigorously condemned the neglect of the poor, foolish involvement in superpower alliances, the neglect of justice and the faithless accumulation of wealth for its own sake.

The emphasis in this chapter is on God as the source of life and its renewal.  It is divine love which will “heal their disloyalty” (verse 4), divine protection which will enable the people to “live beneath my shadow” (verse 7) — the darkness of night is transformed into the darkness of God — and divine faithfulness “like an evergreen cypress” (verse  8) which will restore their trust.  The suffusion of the material world with the Spirit of God foreshadows the age of fulfilment in the vision of the prophet.

The components of that time of renewal (dew, blossom, lilies, forests, olive groves, gardens and trees) are as much to do with beauty as with physical nourishment.  The renewal of the aesthetic world accompanies an ethical reformation.  The reference to the vine (verse 7b) echoes Isaiah’s dream that “everyone under their own vine and fig tree will live in peace and unafraid”.  That is, as the Latin American writer José Portifa Miranda points out, all people will enjoy the benefits of their labour in a way which is free of exploitation and suffering.  In an ever more complex, technocratic and commodified world we do well to remember that work and its produce (like the Sabbath) was made for humanity, not the other way round.

*  God of beauty,
    Keep us from gorging the glorious feast of life.




John 6. 22 - 35

Here and then


Enlivened by our rapid journey from Genesis through to Hosea we return to the Gospel of John’s enigmatic portrait of Jesus as the sum and essence of all that the people of Israel had been looking for.  On the basis of these verses it seems that the Word became, not just Flesh (1.14) but also, in a certain sense, Bread.  In other cultural contexts we might easily say, as one Japanese theologian put it, “God is Rice”.

What we are talking about here is a representation of the very core and substance of life — the energy of God that makes itself known in manna (verse 31) and in loaves (verse 26), but which in no way is confined to or exhausted by them (verse 27).  There is far more than sustenance to be found in Christ, there is overflowing abundance (verse 33). Yet the very physicality of the imagery prevents us from disengaging the things of the spirit from the stuff of the universe.  One transcends the other, to be sure, but in the direction of fulfilment rather than negation.

Since John is a relatively late Gospel, many commentators suggest that passages such as this one embody the growing sacramental and liturgical understanding of the Johannine community which produced it. We are not wrong, therefore, to see the bread of eucharist (thanksgiving) and communion (unity with each other and with God) in Christ’s words (see also verse 51) here.  As we break the bread, in the church and in the world, in remembrance of Jesus’ brokenness, we enable new life to be shared — and we experience his power, presence and purpose with us, in the community and at the table, inviting all to the Feast of Life.

*  God of communion,
    Spare us unity at the expense of others.




John 6. 36 - 51

Food and faith


The clues to understanding Jesus’ continuing discourse in chapter six are his words in verses 45 to 48.  Throughout his Gospel, the writer of John dramatises the Christian good news as a continual struggle between true faith and false religion, between the life that has been revealed in Christ and the death dealing of the current world order.

Certainly we know that Jesus, while remaining thoroughly faithful to the religion of his forbears, directly challenged the right of religious leaders to determine who was and who was not acceptable in the sight of God.  Faith (trust) is enough, says Jesus, to be embraced the eternity of God (verse 47).  By denying the efficacy of worthiness and works (cf. verse 29 above, and the mocking words of his opponents in verse 42), Jesus challenged the power of the cultic elite, rather unhelpfully generalised by the writer as “the Jews” (verse 41). 

This implication is further confirmed by his avowal that, as the ancient prophets emphasised in contrast to some of the priests, “they shall all be taught by God.”  That is, no religious system, doctrine or representative will obstruct the relationship between the humble person and the Lord of all.  It is this life-giving truth that is enfleshed for us in Christ. This is why he is “the bread of life” (verse 48) in whom God is transparent (verse 46).  As we might say these days, employing a different food metaphor, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”.

*  God of eternity,
    Confound our limitations with your freedom.



John 6. 52 - 59

Flesh and blood


The sacramental terminology of chapter 6 gets even stronger in these verses, which form the apex of a long discourse on life-giving bread from the life-giving God.  John’s gospel is addressed to the philosophical Gentile world as much as to its own Jewish religious environment. So it is hard not to see in these words ascribed to Jesus the Johannine community’s own justification for its practices of Agape and Eucharist. For elsewhere these provoked accusations of near cannibalism in some quarters.

What we have to understand is that Jesus’ images form a deep and uncompromising language of participation. To be “in Christ” (to use Paul’s phrase) is not merely to ascribe to a belief or to place one’s trust in a particular person, it is to share tangibly in the very power, presence and purpose of God-in-Christ.  Only words of the utmost physicality and down-to-earthness can begin to do this justice.  They are not signs (disconnected from what the point towards) but symbols (participating in the reality which they still cannot fathom).

Perhaps, with our contemporary scientific language, we can begin to understand the larger implications of this fleshy, incarnational faith.  For we already know that there is a sense in which we are what we eat, and we have come to discover that the stuff of dead stars is also the stuff of the carbon-based life through which we humans take our form. Similarly, Jesus says here that the communion which unites him to God and us to him and to one another is a kind of mutual in-dwelling, a sharing of the very substance of life.

We are left in the realms of mystery and metaphor, to be sure. But it is a mystery and a metaphor that helps us to understand the sheer extent of the interdependence of creature and creation, and the liberating dependence of all on the life of God.  If we can begin to live this out in our own lives and communities then we shall begin to see the kin-dom (sic) of God taking flesh among us.

*  God of indwelling,
    Grant us unity with all that draws us to you and your will.





Acts 2 . 42 - 47

Serving and saving


Perhaps we are tempted to dismiss this famous post-Pentecost picture of the early church as a little too perfect or ideal.  If so, the rest of the Acts of the Apostles serves to remind us that imperfection, disagreement and vulnerability was as much part of the weft of the Christian community in its early days as it is now!

Even so, we are right to be intrigued and attracted by the purity, simplicity and integrity of the Gospel vision that lies at the heart of this account of the first believers in their common life. The unity that is both practised and ascribed to is of the fleshy kind that fully accords with Jesus’ vivid symbolism in John 6 (above).  At its heart is the breaking of bread, both in the context of worship (verse 42), in the distribution of goods to the community (verse 45) and in the household (verse 46).

Here is no divorcing of prayer and work, piety and service, but a new society in the making. It is one based in for-giveness, the predisposition to share without limits (verse 44), it generates goodwill in the world (verse 47a), and its attractiveness consists of its inherent divine value rather than in evangelistic technique (verse 47b).

Is it too naïve to believe that the churches in our modern, complex urban world need (as a matter of priority) to recapture something of the principle and practice of the Acts community if they are to have any chance of convincing the world at large that what they seek to share is truly the bread of life?

*  God of purity,
    Make us clear about what builds up our common life together.




Romans 12. 9 - 13

Creating and stirring


The final word in our exploration of new life in Christ, the bread of life, belongs to Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome.  At the heart of a burgeoning imperial system the Apostle commends an entirely new way of living, a common life in both senses of the word — one rooted in the extraordinariness of ordinary things, and one based on sharing that which has been received from God.

In this entirely new order strangers become friends and outsiders become insiders (verse 13); people do not try to outdo each other, except in multiplying virtue (verse 10); pursuit of goodness is the core motivation (verse 9); service, rejoicing, hope, perseverance and prayer are the principle aspirations; and ultimately (see on to verses 20 and 21) enemies become friends and good overcomes evil.

As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Understood rightly, the church does not have an ethic, it is an ethic.”  If we take Paul’s words seriously, we have not just a new loaf in Christ (if you will pardon the pun) but a recipe for the whole new creation which takes shape in him.  As we cross over into the third Millennium of the Christian era, the need to rediscover a vocation to be the church in and for (rather than over and against) the community becomes ever more pressing.  Our tendencies to division and sectarianism are beyond scandal in a traumatised world.  What we need are people who can share bread (life), and share it now.

*  God of blessing,
    Show us the ordinary way to live eternity today.


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TO THINK ABOUT

· Orthodox Christians talk about service to the world as ‘the altar beyond the altar’.  How can our churches better integrate worship and work into their common witness?

· What is it that feeds and strengthens our participation in Christ, and what difference should our neighbours reasonably expect this to make?

· What would people in your neighbourhood recognise as ‘the bread of life’ for them?

FOR ACTION

· Plan a church or community event around a common meal, or invite people to make food or some other gifts to share with others at the end of a church service.

· Talk to a development agency or Christian service organisation about food security for vulnerable people in another part of our still hungry world.  What programmes, projects or actions might your church support as part of its common life?


(c) Simon Barrow and IBRA.
First appeared in 'Words for Today', IBRA, 2000.

Continued from Study Notes 1
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