Heaven-Sent Bread – Amy Carr reflects on how the bread of life moves us more fully into an appreciation of this beloved created world.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 31 – August 6, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
The Hebrews who sojourned through the wilderness had an eye for God’s manifestation through the wonders and otherness and surprises of the natural world. To be sure, the divine personality was not contained in the natural elements per se—in the manna, the quails, the cloud. But after Aaron told them that God had heard their complaining about how they had had it better as slaves in Egypt, where they at least had fine food to eat, “the whole congregation of the Israelites . . . looked toward the wilderness and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud” (Exodus 16:10). Moses translated God’s message to them in this theophany: “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God” (16:12). The Psalmist interprets these gifts as God giving in to their cravings (Psalm 78:29—though see Psalm 78:30-31 for the ensuing consequences).
I had a miniature Exodus protest-in-the-wilderness moment while accompanying my spouse to the nearest airport about an hour and a half away. It seems I had somehow forgotten to put tea in the strainer to steep, and so had only hot water in my tea mug. I found myself complaining about how when I drove back home through small towns, I would not find a coffee shop with loose-leaf tea, nor one that would have the water sufficiently hot (with a pre-heated cup), because only diners pepper the towns we passed through to the airport. . . Then it struck me: I am acting just like the Hebrews did in the wilderness, complaining about how much I miss the stew pots and bread back in Egypt! (In Numbers 11:5 there is an even longer list of cravings for foods they took for granted in Egyptian cities: leeks, garlic, onions, cucumbers, melons, and fish.)
Of course, despite a similar spirit of petulance, my privilege of traveling by car through a metaphorical “wilderness” of small towns is nothing like trying to survive post-slavery in an uncultivatable wilderness. For this reason, it’s always puzzled me why God would seem so irritated that the people complained about having nothing to eat. Did God expect them to eat the air? Or did they have some other food that they were simply tired of? What about all the livestock they took along during their departure from Egypt (Exodus 12:38)?
Regardless, it is clear that the wilderness is not a romantic notion for the Hebrews—even if later generations of Jews to this day recall the time of sojourning in the wilderness with a warm glow during the festival of Sukkot, when they eat or sleep in an open-to-the-rains hut to remember the time when they were acutely aware of their vulnerability to the natural world’s dangers and of their reliance on God for sustenance.
In the diner where I did stop on the way home from the airport (disappointed yes by the tea but glad I gave the diner a try—of course spotting afterward a more promising looking “Candy Kitchen” just a block down the street), I came upon a photo in The Economist of a part of “Guatemala’s lush green countryside” that “became deathly grey after the Fuego volcano” (The Economist, 6-9-18, p. 30). The ash looked like light grey snow that had fallen out of season: astonishingly, you could see distinctly the details of leaves, branches, trunks—all coated in ash. The only thing not grey was an orange-suited human being staring at the transformed trees.
Studying this photo for a while, I recalled how as a child in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, whenever I was driving or walking through its ubiquitous forests, I would instinctively scan the environment for any sign of human presence—in telephone poles, in the shacks adolescents would build along trails, in any physical evidence that my species had passed through. I felt comforted by the idea that surveyors had walked and measured and put markers all through the forest in decades past, even though I rarely spotted them. Wilderness always seemed vaster than human lives; so one had to seek the protection of humans who knew how to survive in it.
During graduate school in Chicago, I found I had the exact opposite habit: instinctively attending to signs of non-human biological life—especially plants in parks, or deciduous trees that lined some streets. I was grateful for walkable access to the narrow strip of Lake Michigan lakeshore. At some point after leaving the UP and living in more cultivated and urbanized landscapes, I had suddenly become aware that the wilderness that surrounded me existed more in patches earth-wide—and I felt the vulnerability of the natural world as well.
We are mutually vulnerable to one another, our species and the rest of the natural world.
In North Enough: AIDS and Other Clear-Cuts (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1997), Jan Zita Grover describes leaving her depleting work with AIDS patients in San Francisco and moving to the north woods of Wisconsin. The north woods did not prove comforting, though, for she kept noticing parallels between the ravaged bodies of people with AIDS and the forests scarred by clear-cutting. But then she recalls that forest fires have long shaped the lifecycles of forests, which challenges a romantic notion of pristine conditions in the forest. And she observes that the birds make no sharp distinction between the natural and non-natural world, using bits of plastic they find in their nests right along with plant debris. Our castoffs can sometimes be deadly for other species, but sometimes useful to them as well. Grover gazed steadily at everything she found devastating, but without nostalgia for a pure world untainted by human effects, and without any gesture toward a redeeming transcendence. I felt tempered by her words, by her way of seeing—not unlike my experience of reading another writer with roots in the north woods, Reformed theologian James Gustafson, whose Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective: Volume One: Theology and Ethics (University of Chicago Press, 1983) likewise permits no self-pitying, but encourages a constant noticing of an ever-wider circle of relationships we are to attend to, cultivating habits of piety like awe and a sense of responsibility.
In fostering spiritual and practical concern for creation’s well-being, we often focus on noticing and addressing the deleterious effects our species has had on the planet. Or we recall how our exposure to wild places nourishes body and spirit in irreplaceable ways. What might be the role also for being in touch with our own vulnerability to the harshness of the non-human natural environment—and to our raw, relentless need for human technologies to survive?
The leadership of Moses and Aaron in the wilderness was secured through tangible divine signs that fed a hungry people, who were nevertheless scolded for failing to trust that God would provide. God met them halfway, reluctantly. The epistle and gospel readings call us to step forth into our co-responsibility for leadership by discerning how the nourishment of each of us depends upon a relationship with one another in the body of Christ. As so often, a deeper concern throughout scripture is about moving past our immediate cravings to really listening to the voice of God. And as our Benedictine sisters and brothers often remind us, the root meaning of obedience is to “listen toward”—to have ears to hear what is going on within and among us, and to act responsively with theocentric awareness. James Gustafson points out that intensifying theocentric awareness manifests as intensified cosmocentric awareness as well—enlarging our horizon beyond self-concern, even as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we do each need our daily bread as well.
Set between two interrelated but unique instances of divinely-met complaining in Exodus and in John, the epistle reading serenely—if with an undertone of urgent exhortation—reminds us that we are already “one body and one Spirit” (Ephesians 4:4) in Christ,
“from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (4:16).
We come to “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), by “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:2-3). Our gifts and callings differ, but cooperation is vital to growth in our identity in “one baptism” (4:5) and our responsiveness to the calling of “one God and Father of all” (4:6).
The beauty of this vision of oneness in Christ moves us to step back and see the larger picture that already is, even as it conditions mature unity upon our own loving participation in a corporate venture enabled by the expression of our own gifts on behalf of the whole. In so many spheres of our collective life we need this mix of vision and realism—of what we most seek being already secured, yet still in development. In and beyond a distinctly Christian worldview, we find a similar conditioning of environmental activism upon the already-given fact of our irrefutable interrelatedness.
Maturity in environmental commitments requires us to work with our respective gifts, but also to take seriously the expectation that we grow beyond our comfort zones, beyond self-justifying refusals to take any action at all:
“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ “(4:14-15).
Surely this involves growth beyond climate change denial, beyond evangelizing as if only life after death matters, beyond the persuasive rhetorical habit of believing that we are helpless as individuals to affect the trajectory of environmental catastrophe.
Of course, every activist—budding or mature—knows that seeking social change involves friction. Even efforts to speak “the truth in love” can be met with rebuke. Still, we know we are quite capable of using the truth as a weapon when we are certain of the rightness of our cause. Polarized politics settle in precisely when each side grasps some partial truth and justifies its cause in the name of that truth. To complain about polarization needn’t imply a moral equivalency of positions on the issues at hand; but how hard to avoid falling into a spirit of self-righteousness when we see so clearly how much is at stake! “They” are ignorant or willfully stupid, and “we” need to enlighten them (or at least wrest political power from them)—about the truth of evolution, about the truth of climate change, about the need to radically alter our use of resources now.
It’s true, isn’t it?
In John 6, Jesus works with one clear truth to challenge his listeners to recognize a truth for which they were not prepared. Jesus had just pulled a Moses by feeding 5000 people with two fish and five barley loaves. The next day the crowd follows him across the Sea of Galilee and Jesus complains, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). Like Moses, Jesus acknowledges that we need food; like Moses, Jesus communicates that this truth rests within a larger framework.
The next exchange taps into the heart of the controversy between the prophets of God and the people of God—between a vision of life in God and our quite justifiable earth-centered priorities. Jesus challenges the priority of pursuing earthly food as an end in itself: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). The people respond by wondering what kind of “works of God” they must perform to receive enduring food, and Jesus responds, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). The people echo the complaining Hebrews in the wilderness in their appetite for more signs to prove that Jesus is God-Anointed, ironically pointing out that Moses had given them “bread from heaven to eat” (John 6:30-31; Exodus 16:4)—perhaps doubting that their own having been fed by Jesus the day before constituted a comparable miracle, perhaps simply challenging Jesus to a repeat occurrence. Jesus reminds them that “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven,” the “bread of God” which “gives life to the world” (John 6:32-33). When the crowd asks to have “this bread always” (6:34), Jesus replies, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35).
I suspect I am not the only one who worries about those in a Christian crowd today who latch onto this saying of Jesus as an evangelical truth that overrides all earthly concerns, seeing them as shadows of the truer need for salvation in Jesus. Saving souls for eternity John 3:16 style becomes the Christian mission—not a focus on care for this world in which creatures grow hungry and thirsty over and over.
But see what odd thing Jesus does: in response to the people’s demand for a sign, Jesus gives them himself: “Eat me. I myself am the bread of life, the bread from heaven.” Far from devaluing bread, Jesus identifies his very own being with bread.
Here the ecologically-minded among us can be fed by the insights of the 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus. In his intense polemical dispute with gnostic Christians of the 2nd century, he fleshed out the implications of Jesus’ bready identity for earth-valuing. Against gnostic ideas of Jesus as a spirit who was never fully embodied, a Jesus who taught humans to see their own abiding spiritual identity as something having no part of this mortal world, Irenaeus insisted, “If the flesh is not saved . . . the bread we break is not communion in His Body” (The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus against the Heresies, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 90).
And because we are His members, we are nourished by means of creation, the creation which He Himself gives us by making His Sun to rise and sending the rain as He pleases (cf. Matthew 5:45). The cup, which is part of creation, He declares to be His Blood, by which our own blood is fortified, and the bread, which is part of creation, He affirms to be His Body, by which our own body is fortified (Scandal, pp. 90-91)
. . . [Gnostic Christians] will not admit that the same Lord is the Son of the world’s Creator, that is, His Word, through whom trees bear fruit, the fountains gush forth, and “the earth gives first the blade, then the earth, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:28; Scandal, p. 92).
Then again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the Body and Blood of the Lord, falls into corruption and does not partake of life. . . . Our opinion, however, is in harmony with the Eucharist. . . . For we offer Him His own, consistently proclaiming the communion and unity of flesh and Spirit. For just as the bread which comes from the earth, having received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly, so our bodies, having received the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, because they have the hope of the resurrection (Scandal, p. 92-93).
While understandings of bread and wine in the sacrament of communion continue to vary among us, we can see in Irenaeus an ally in our own efforts to articulate how considering Jesus the bread of life moves us more fully into an appreciation of this beloved created world—not away from it toward a future disembodied heavenly state.
Jesus as bread is a sign of the value of bread; bread blessed as the body of Christ reminds us of the interpenetration of the “earthly and heavenly.” While we might be tempted to place all our hope in the incoming new creation and give up on this world, Jesus’ call to eat himself, as the bread of heaven, in grain and grapes, draws us into working through the very matter and matters of this world as part of the birth pangs of that new creation.
This is the larger perspective that John 6 invites us to hold in mind as we engage in this-worldly activism, in all of its unavoidable political messiness: the mutual pointing to one another of earth and heaven, of bread as food of the earth and bread as the body of Christ, of the church as for the world insofar as it is rooted in heaven-sent bread—bread that feeds creation eternally by the Word of God.
Originally written by Amy Carr in 2018.