BREAD OF DEATH, BREAD OF LIFE
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." These are such words of hope and comfort, especially at the times in our lives when we are squarely confronted with the powers of death. We've had a week like that here at Emmaus as we've lost both a dear sister, Barb, and are losing a dear brother, Jim. With two funerals likely this week, we need to hear such words from Jesus as, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." We need to drink in such words of comfort; we need to be able to sink our teeth into such bread of life.
Perhaps we can digest this bread of life even further by asking what may seem to be a strange question, but one I think that can help us to savor this bread. The question is this: if Jesus gives us the bread of life, is there such a thing as the bread of death? Is there something of which we partake that consumes us in the powers of death? This bread, I think, would be the opposite of Jesus' bread which satisfies our hunger. Instead of satisfying us, this bread of death would seemingly only make us hungrier? What kind of things in our life make us hungrier instead satisfied, things that only famish our cravings?
I'd like to begin with the most obvious answer to these questions: addiction. Addictions are basically cravings that are continually famished. No matter how much we get, we still have got to have more. The well known ones are addictions to things like alcohol, drugs, sex, eating, tobacco. Instead of us devouring them, they end up devouring us, taking a toll of death not only on our bodies, but also on our spirits, our families, our sense of mission in life, and on and on. Addictions are a bread of death; instead of being satisfied, we become hungrier and hungrier. And Jesus comes to those suffering under addictions and says, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
There are the well-known addictions like alcohol and drugs. But there is an increasing number of analysts who wonder if our society itself is becoming an addictive society. They wonder if we have so many problems with the well-known addictions because all of us are living in an addictive environment. We often call this environment by a very telling name, considering our question about the bread of death; we often refer to this environment as "consumerism." And so we might ask what or who is really being consumed. Obviously, we the consumers consume goods and services; but to what extent do we the consumers begin to become consumed by our very consumerism? Do we find ourselves craving more and more and still being famished. Do we find ourselves constantly keeping up with the Jones' to the point that we end up so often like Elijah in our first lesson, ready to collapse in exhaustion under the nearest tree? What kind of toll is our consumerism taking on us as we struggle to constantly increase our standards of living? In what ways are today's consumerism a bread of death, a bread that only makes us hungrier for more? Jesus comes to all of us who live in this environment and says, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
I'd like to interject a more personal note here, that this is why tithing to the church is so important to me. It helps me practice in a real and meaningful fashion limits to my consumerism; it becomes very much a spiritual discipline that hopefully helps to keep me from being consumed by consumerism. And it does so in a meaningful way by supporting our ministry of word and sacrament together in this place where we come to be fed by the bread of life. My weekly tithe signals to me both my resisting the temptations for the bread of life and my support for the bread of life. My hope is always that all of us can find such meaning in our weekly giving.
Finally, I would like to point to one other possibility for the bread of death, and this one is paradoxically both more literal and more subtle hidden. It is our seeming need to make scapegoats of others, our need to try to limit our violence by focusing it somewhere, on someone. It is the need for revenge that is so difficult to satisfy, that seems always a famished craving that pops up in violence all over our world. It is most obvious in those hot spots of violence at any time, such as Bosnia, or Northern Ireland, or the Middle East, or so many places in Africa.
Did you know how things got started between Serbia and Bosnia several years ago? The Serbians actually exhumed the body of a Serbian commander that had been killed in battle with Bosnia 600 years ago. 600 years! Then they paraded his body around Serbia for a whole year whipping the people up into a vengeful fury. That's when they went to war against Bosnia -- over a 600 year old grudge. Talk about a famished craving for vengeance!
But the tricky part of this hunger for vengeance is to see it in ourselves. Like I said, it tends to remain hidden from us. Instead of seeing it as vengeance, we generally see it as "justice." There's an awful lot of violence done in the name of just causes.
I think that Elijah in this morning's first lesson provides a more good example. Do you remember what has just happened when he sits down exhausted under the broom tree, wanting to die? He has just won a great victory in a showdown with the priests of Ba'al. Elijah had one of those just causes; he knew the Lord hated the sacrificial altars to Ba'al. But do you remember what happened after he won his showdown with the priests of Ba'al? He had them all slaughtered! In other words, Elijah carried out his own bloody sacrifice, but it was against these priests, not some goats or oxen.
Yes, Elijah had a just cause. When he goes on to Mt. Horeb to talk to God there, he tells God, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." But the most telling comment comes in today's passage, when Elijah sits under the tree, asking to die: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." For I am no better than my ancestors! In other words, Elijah realizes that he has done the same thing. In the name of his just cause, he has succumbed to the hunger and thirst for violence; he has partaken of the bread of death.
What are our just causes? Yes, stamping out crime is a just cause. Yes, stopping an evil enemy in war is a just cause. Yes, things like sexism and racism are just causes to fight against. We have the right to get angry about such injustices in the world. But, as our second lesson tells us: it's O.K. to get angry, but do not sin. In other words, as we often try to teach our boys: yes, it's O.K. to sometimes get angry, but you can use it as an excuse to do violence. You cannot hit one another, you cannot call each other names, you cannot hurt one another. No, St. Paul tells us instead that we must "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you." Forgiving love is the only thing that can finally satisfy our hunger for vengeance. Forgiving love is the bread of life. Jesus comes to us when we are caught up in our just causes, when we are partaking of the bread of death, and says, "I am the bread of life... Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
I'll develop this a bit more next week, as Jesus himself continues to develop these themes for us to understand, as told to us by St. John in this 6th chapter of his gospel.
For now, as we move to the confession of sins, we can better reflect on the fact that we all have partaken of this bread of death in our lives, whether it be through a struggle with addictions, or the ways we give in to this environment of consumerism around us, or the ways we ourselves have participated in violence against others. The Good News is that this Jesus has given up his flesh for us and been raised from the dead so that we might be forgiven, and not only forgiven, but offered his bread of life. As each of us faces the forces of death again this week, tempted to eat of its bread, Jesus comes to us saying, "I am the bread of life... Whoever eats of this bread will live forever." Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 9-10, 1997