“The Bread of Life” Colchester Federated Church, August 1, 2021, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (John 6:24-35)
A story is told of a man who went to prison in a time of great economic turmoil for stealing a loaf of bread. The man was forced to perform years of hard labor to repay his debt to society. Prison hardened him both physically and spiritually. He learned to look out for himself and to not trust anyone. Because of his crime, he was also forced to wear documentation pinned to his chest that specified that he was a thief upon his eventual release. Thus, the man (marked and ostracized) wandered from town to town unable to find work. Who would trust a known thief to work for a good upstanding person after all?
The man finally arrived in a town with a kind bishop who took him in for the night and gave him a large meal served on the bishop’s best silver. I’ll bet it was almost as nice as our Baptist silver here at CFC. The bishop treated the man as a human being and fed his weary body. In sheer desperation, the man stole the bishop’s silver in the middle of the night and hit the road. The next day, the bishop answered his front door to see his former guest flanked by two police officers. The one officer laughed saying, “You wouldn’t believe this guy’s story, bishop. He actually told us that you gave him your silver. He’s a thief and a liar.”
Meanwhile, the bishop took in the whole scene and told the police that the man wasn’t lying and that the bishop did indeed give his guest the silver. The bishop related that he did this knowing that they were fine pieces and the man could sell those pieces for a great deal of money. “But my son,” the bishop remarked to the man, “You forgot the silver candlesticks when you left in such a hurry. Would you leave the best behind?”
The stunned police officers released the man, leaving the thief and the bishop alone once again. With downcast eyes, the man had no idea what to say to the bishop for assuredly saving him from going back to prison. For his part, the bishop eyed the man carefully and once again saw him with the eyes of Jesus. “My son,” the bishop quietly said, “with this silver, I have bought your soul for God.”
Some of you may recognize this story from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—that classic work set during the French Revolution that was also made into a famous musical and several movies. In the story, Jean Valjean’s life fundamentally changes after this encounter with the bishop. It is the turning point in his life—he eventually becomes a mayor and business owner. Valjean saves an orphaned girl and raises her as his own daughter and spares the life of police inspector Javert who hunts him for years seeking vengeance. The bishop’s moment of grace spoke deeply to this hardened man and his life was never the same.
It’s worth remembering for our purposes that the crime that Jean Valjean committed that landed him in prison for years to perform hard labor was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. He was trying to support his widowed sister and her seven children. Valjean broke the window of a local bakery to steal bread—and he went to prison for 19 years. This is the backstory that Victor Hugo wrote about, and though it’s fiction, we know that there are instances of the punishment not fitting the crime. We know that desperate people will sometimes make terrible decisions in their desperation.
And that’s the power of a story like Jean Valjean’s. Yes, he stole bread for his family. He did it to prevent their starvation. Does that make us have some compassion? He was living in a society where the haves and the have nots were getting further and further apart, which in part led to the French Revolution. Remember Marie-Antoinette’s famously tone-deaf response to peasants who were starving and had no bread, “Let them eat cake!” Wanting to be paid a livable wage to be able to feed one’s family and have a roof over one’s head is not too much to ask. Though it’s certainly something we continue to debate because folks will have different opinions about what makes a wage livable.
Let’s face it, feeding one’s family remains a concern in our society. Some would argue that we live in a highly stratified society where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation. We have billionaires going on joy rides in space while people wait in long lines for food to be distributed at food banks.
Bread remains a staple of many people’s diets. Meat can be expensive. And sometimes folks just want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch or to treat themselves to a delicious pastry. Remember how many people began baking bread when we were quarantining in the early days of the covid pandemic? That was all over social media. Because a loaf of bread can be a comfort. Making your own bread to enjoy may feel like an accomplishment and Lord knows we all need wins these days. Bread remains an essential part of the diets of many folks.
All of this to say, over the next few Sundays, we’ll be exploring Jesus’ long teaching in the Gospel according to John about Jesus being the bread of life. By the end of these 3 Sundays, we may all be a little bit tired of talking about bread in church. Though we remember that Jesus was talking about bread when he was going about his ministry two thousand years ago. And we, in the Christian tradition, still use bread in our worship services to think about Jesus as the bread of life. It’s good to begin talking about all of this on a Communion Sunday. Bread does sustain people. Bread has staying power. We can immediately feel empathy for a poor person who went to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family even in a work of fiction.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus is using wisdom themes to lay the foundation of faith in him as Emmanuel—God-with-us. He is giving us guidance for ordinary life. He is going beyond the references in Exodus to people being fed with manna in the wilderness. That was indeed a miracle. But Jesus tells the people of his time that it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread to the people, it was God. Jesus takes this interpretation a step further by telling those who are following him that he—Jesus—is the bread of life. Whoever comes to him will never be thirsty and whoever believes in him will never go hungry. We need not think of this literally. It’s about Jesus’ teachings giving us new life just like bread helps give people life in the here and now. Let us move beyond this time of worship to see people with the loving eyes of Jesus, knowing that Jesus came to give us life and new life abundantly. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 John 6:35, Common English Bible.