The Bread of Christ is Life, and All of Life is Communion.
Ecojustice Commentary on the Common Lectionary Year B: 2014—2015
By Tom Mundahl
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B
Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78: 23-29
Ephesians 4: 1-16
John 6: 24-35
It is fitting that this week’s First Lesson, the story of the gift of manna, is the common source for the variety of feeding narratives found in each of the gospels. The Book of Exodus has often been considered a work of history detailing the liberation-redemption of God’s people. But a closer look—especially at the provision of manna—uncovers strong creational themes that cannot be ignored. At the root of the exodus is the threat to creation posed by Pharaoh’s “anti-life purposes” which attack the promise of creation’s blessing celebrated in Genesis.
As Terence Fretheim suggests that “God’s work in redemption, climaxing in Israel’s crossing of the sea on ‘dry land,’ constitutes God’s efforts at re-creation, returning creation to a point where God’s mission can again be taken up” (Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p.13). But it is only after little more than a month “on the road” that the newly-freed Israelites begin to long for the old security of slavery, especially the regular regime of rations. “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you (Moses) have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).
The cost of a full belly here is Egyptian slavery and death. Yet the known is often preferable to an uncertain future based only on promises. The bread of Egypt is kneaded with death, but certain, as certain as the slaves being underfed and administrators having plenty. The bread provided by the God of freedom is new and unforeseen. “The LORD said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day’” (Exodus 16:4). God’s bread does not come as the result of royal administration; it is the bread of sufficiency--enough for the day.
Brueggemann suggests, “That is strange bread, certainly not the kind gathered in the land, in the place of planning and control. That is bread such as they had known in Egypt. Egypt was the land and the land is always organized and administered, and the purpose of administration is that some shall always have too much and some shall always have too little” (The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 33). In other words, it is the bread of scarcity, not bread which requires trust in the giver for providing just enough. Ghandi, who wrote, “there is enough for everyone’s need, not everyone’s greed,” would have fared no better in Egypt than he did in colonial India.
Recall that the Israelites accused Moses of leading them to certain death in an unknown wilderness, long before the Sierra Club organized “desert camping weekends.” The people just cannot see the richness of God’s created order—what is available in “the wilderness.” In fact, “raining bread from heaven” (v. 4) seems, at root, to open the eyes of the wanderers to the gifts of the wilderness in order to discover food. As Fretheim suggests, “it is important to stress the naturalness of manna and quail. It is precisely the ‘natural’ that is seen as a gift from God. God’s gifts to Israel are to be found not only in the unusual but also in the everyday” (Fretheim, pp. 181-182).
The clues for understanding the natural source of manna are revealed in Numbers 11:7-9. There we learn that this mysterious food substance results from plant lice puncturing the fruit of the tamarisk tree producing a flaky substance that falls with the morning dew. Not only is it sweet to taste, rich in nutrients, but it is still baked by local residents, who call the bread “manna” (Fretheim, p. 182). That these are natural gifts is confirmed by the people’s response to this source of nutrition. There are no exclamations of amazement; people gathered and ate this strange food, yet were frustrated by their greedy attempts to gather more than was needed, and saw that the excess manna “breed worms and become foul” (Exodus 16:15, 20).
Not only does God’s action free the people to discover the resources of this new environment; it intends building their trust in the giver of freedom: “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” (Exodus 16: 12). God’s actions to recreate and liberate a people are “of one piece with daily blessings” (Fretheim, p. 183).
This contrasts with attempts to understand God’s actions apart from the intention of creation to provide food and freedom. “Then the people will look for God’s care only in the extraordinary and miraculous. The result is a faith which cannot connect the Creator with the ordinary. Consequently, the people of God will not be able to see in the very ordinariness of things that God is the one who bestows blessings again and again” (Fretheim, p. 182). We need to recover this view as we continue to learn more about essential “ecological services”—crop pollination, wetland water filtration, decomposition (dung beetles are essential for manure decay leading to natural fertilizer!)—all beyond economists’ ability to calculate (although they keep trying). These are all central to a working creation.
Most important in our reading of the discovery of manna in the wilderness, then, is a recovery of God’s purpose for creation. Both the gifts of food and the limitations surrounding Sabbath observance reveal a God who provides food and time for rest to maintain freedom not only for humans, but for all creatures (Exodus 20:10, Deuteronomy 5:12-15). “The world of God’s creation, including the distribution of food resources, is to be so structured that ‘those who gather little have no lack’” (Fretheim, p. 186, Exodus 16:18, 2 Corinthians 8: 15). Our challenge in serving creation is to learn and to help make this “distributive justice” real not only for humankind but also for otherkind. This will require attentive and loving listening to what we call “the natural world.”
Our Gospel Lesson continuing the Bread of Life Discourse may also be read this way, especially when we recall John’s Prologue. There, the evangelist introduces us to the Word (ό λόγος) made Flesh, “through whom all things came into being” (John 1:2, 14). This is hardly the view held by the crowd that has followed Jesus back to the western (Jewish) side of the sea. They still long for one who could provide a steady supply of bread to give them what they believe is real security. They want to “eat their fill” (John 6:26). Jesus responds in a way that both angered and puzzled them.m“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).
When they ask about what “performing” (v. 28) the works of God might entail, Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). Performance is one thing, but putting one’s faith and trust in a new leader or way of life is risky business. Some proof—a sign—would be a good thing. And, as an example of such a sign, they refer to nothing other than manna in the wilderness. But Jesus does not buy into this game. After all, it was not Moses who gave bread from heaven. “But it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. Notice that what Moses failed to do is in the past tense; what God does is in the present tense—it is an action that is continuous. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, these desperate followers after Jesus are invited to trust in the very purpose and generosity of creation, something far superior to a temporary food “fix.”
And this essential trust in the unity of the creator, creation, people and the very generativity that comes from these bonds is what really nourishes all that is. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). Or, to repeat Norman Wirzba’s insight, “John’s point, however, is that Jesus is not simply a ‘provider’ of bread.’ He is the full meaning of bread, the nurture that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, p. 155).
Perhaps this helps us grasp the strange phrase “For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal” (John 6:27b). “Set his seal” (σφραγίζω) reminds us that this is the one “through whom all things came into being” (John 1: 2) and, therefore “accomplishes what God purposes” (Isaiah 55:11). This one is the “image” (εϊκων) or the “sealed imprint” through whom all things were made and in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15f.). This is the one who has made known to us a pattern or melody (οίκονομία) for the fullness of life (Ephesians 1:10). This is the one capable of going beyond providing a product like manna that can satisfy physical hunger. The bread he gives is “food for the healing, transformation, and fulfillment of life rather than its mere continuation. If physical bread enables physiological life, the bread of life inspires and empowers communion life” (Wirzba, 155). It fulfills the purpose of creation.
That “communion life” takes place through the bodies of creation is made clear by this week’s installment of our continuous reading in Ephesians. This cohesion results from “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The author of Ephesians continues, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 3b-6). As Wirzba suggests, “ Bodies are the practical medium through which the faith is worked out. Nothing that God has created, therefore, is worthless or to be despised. Nothing is to be forgotten or abandoned, which is why, in the end, all things must be gathered up, and reconciled so that God can be all in all” (Wirzba, p. 219).
Of course, it is the Roman emperors who claimed to be “all in all.” The metaphor was simple: the empire was a body with the emperor as head, controlling the ‘organism.’ When the author of Ephesians employs this imagery, the focus ranges from the totality (“all in all”) to the “church” (Ephesians 5:23). What is not in doubt, however, is the intention to subvert imperial propaganda. Whether it is the individual body, the local community, the cosmopolis, or the whole creation, this early form of trinitarianism (Ephesians 4:4-6) shows the Holy three-in-one to be the authentic head (Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 97).
But here the “head” does not demand all the “royal jelly” from the “worker bees” (cf. Bill Condon’s wonderful new film, “Mr. Holmes,” with Ian McKellen). The divine energy “filling all things” (Ephesians 4:10b) generates a strong and gentle diversity of service and care that demonstrates the dance of creation. Just as some are apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers, so some do gardening, others guide public policy to build justice, while others teach the unity of this creation, all owing a debt to those prophets who have helped us see the absolute interdependence of humankind and otherkind.
That interdependent energy can be seen in the development of the Friendship Store Co-op in South Minneapolis. Planned by members of the Seward Food Co-op together with members of the Sabbathani Community Center, this new food store will offer a variety of fresh produce, bread, and the whole range of food products in this mixed resident neighborhood, easily classified a “food desert.” In addition to providing food—much of it locally-sourced to reduce calorie/miles of transportation—the Friendship Store will provide space for community meetings, support for community gardens, and education, appropriate because the site formerly was occupied by Greater Friendship Baptist Church which has moved down the street. In addition, this member-owned store will provide jobs in the neighborhood—especially crucial for new immigrants who need work that does not require complicated transportation. For both the generous members of the Seward Co-op who have spawned this store and the new members who will be part of the experience of food and community, this project just may be a rich experience of “communion life.”
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN firstname.lastname@example.org