Jesus is the bread of life

Jesus is the bread of life

August 5, 2012
Stina Pope

Jesus says: I am the bread of life. Paul says: When you live in Jesus, when you are part of the Body of Christ, you become part of that bread of life for others.

One of the long-standing stories that helped form the Jewish people was the story about how God gave them bread in the wilderness, the bread of angels, it was called. It was something new, something they did not even recognize as food, like Westerners who encounter tofu for the first time! There was a whole bunch of concepts tied up in the term “manna from heaven,” like the idea that God could and would actually help in a very physical and practical way. The story talks about both meat and bread, but it is the “bread” or “manna” that is carried down through the years. So when Jesus feeds the multitudes, just like the prophet did in ancient times, they bring up the story of God giving them manna, giving them bread. They ask, will you give us bread? This is very insulting, because he has just done this, fed the multitudes, but it is as if they don’t see it. They want flash-bang. As usual, Jesus turns their question upside down, and says no, I am the bread.

As I have said before, there are a whole series of “I am” statements that Jesus makes, in which he tries to talk about things that cannot be put in language directly. He tells the parables, he says, well, it’s like this…, and finally, in John, we hear, I am… And it still doesn’t make good sense – if we try to listen to it with our logical minds. But if we think about this being a people for whom bread was truly the staff of life, then Jesus saying I am bread, is a little different. What happens if we “understand” bread? Bread for them is like rice in Asia. How does it sound if Jesus says, “I am rice. If you eat rice from your rice bowl, you will get hungry again. If you take my words into you, you will receive life.”

Is Jesus like rice for you? Have you received that life? Never mind that we don’t eat as much rice these days as we used to! On a very basic level, rice gives life, so if we say Jesus is rice, it is an interesting way of saying that the basis of life is to be found in Jesus.

Then Paul picks up the message and says, ok, now you have received life, what does it look like? How does that life full of the words of Jesus, when our lives are full of the life of Jesus, how does it work? Paul starts giving us some pictures that are a little more tangible. First of all, Paul says, when you have received life in its fullness, you receive gifts. These gifts are not for you, they are to be used for the community. The other part of what he says is that we need to act like adults, not children.

I have been reading Doi’s work on amae. There is no direct translation for amae in English, or any other Western language. Because Doi is in psychology, and because he recognized amae as a critical component of behavior in Japan, and then realized that other languages did not have a word for this concept, he became fascinated with how it played out in both Japanese and non-Japanese social responses. Amae is the feeling that a child has for its mother, or a wife has for her husband. It is not about love, if I am understanding it correctly, but rather about the feeling of connection, and it is the sort of connection that allows a certain kind of behavior that otherwise would not be permitted.

If we look in the animal kingdom for this behavior, it is the mother dog allowing her puppy in for milk, but not allowing a strange puppy in to nurse – unless the mother dog is a nurturing sort. There are wonderful videos on youtube showing unlikely pairings where clearly one animal is in need of another, and that need is allowed. One especially touching story is of the baby hippo whose mother was swept away in the tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean. The baby adopted this crochety old tortoise as its mother. The tortoise obviously did not feed the baby hippo, the zookeepers did that, but the baby did clearly regard the tortoise as its surrogate mother, and the tortoise took on the job. As a result, the next season when the tortoise would normally have left land and gone on its normal migration, instead it stayed with the baby, and the zookeepers noticed.

In reading Doi’s work about amae, I started thinking that perhaps this is how Jesus is to us, the mother offering unconditional love to her children who may or may not be behaving themselves. The love is simply there, and can be depended on, no matter what. Doi talks about the difference between this model of dependence, as he calls it, and the Western model of independence, and concludes that while there are some issues with the Japanese model, the Western model of radical independence is not workable in the long run. I agree with him – we need each other. But I think there are some other parts to the picture, and here we come back to what Paul says. The other piece I think needs to be brought in is that of the adult child. What do I mean by that?

There are at least two ways to be an adult child in a family system. One is to be accepted as an adult, the other is not. In some families, when you reach adulthood, you are treated like an adult. When you are younger, then you are treated like a younger adult, but still an adult, and as you get older, you are expected to take up more responsibility. You take your place at the “adult table,” as it were. In other families, it does not matter how old you are, you are always the child. You know which kind of family system you come out of.

What Paul says is that we need to grow up. It is not that we are totally independent – as though we could be independent of God! No, it is that we need to become adults, we need to act as adults, still within the loving family, still having much love, but acting as adults instead of children. This is a model of mutuality based on love. There is the offer of love from Jesus, our elder brother, who shows us how to love as God loves, but this love is not one that wants us to stay as children. Rather this love encourages us to become more of who God created us to be, encourages us to love each other as adults, rather than as children. So part of the way that we show that we are growing up is that we love each other as adults, rather than as children competing for the adult’s love.

When I think about the difference between a child’s love and an adult’s love, it is not that one is good and the other bad. It is good when a child loves without reserve, without caution, this is something we need to remember and to experience. I think of my little dog, who easily forgets that I left him alone to go to work. He lives in the moment, and when I come home he is totally joyous loving me for all he is worth. And he is also jealous, he does not want to share my attention with the other animals. This is the other side of that child’s type of love. An adult’s love is more measured, able to hold up longer, able to share with others, and – adults have to work much harder to let go of jealousy and anger that get in the way of love.

So Paul calls us to live a life of humility and gentleness, bearing with one another in love, living harmoniously. He reminds us that we have been given gifts to equip us for the work of helping each other, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to maturity. We must no longer be children. It is not that we leave the family. Rather, we are adults in the family.

I am also reminded of the old model of the priest in the parish – Father knows best. While this fits with the traditional understanding of amae, I don’t think it is a healthy model, at least not any more, if it ever was. In moving to a mutual understanding of ministry, where the priest does some things and the laity do some things, and each is important in its own right, we do not have to let go of the unconditional love and acceptance which is a critical part of amae. We are all parts of the body of Christ, and we all need each of us to use the gifts we have been given. And we need to love each other. This often is not easy, and we are called to do it anyway.

I hope this week you will think about what it means to be an adult child in your family, and what it means to be an adult child of God. How is that different from being a child in your family, or a child of God? And, I hope you will think about what gifts you have been given. This is always interesting to ponder. Sometimes we think we don’t have any, and I will tell you that’s not true. We all have been given gifts. We may not identify them as gifts, but that is another question entirely.

Our Readings Today

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