I’ve had a busy few weeks with a lot on my mind, and I haven’t had (haven’t made?) the brain space to write. I keep thinking I will write something post-worthy, and then … I don’t. Rather than remaining silent for another who-knows-how-long, today I’m sharing a piece I wrote as a Communion meditation a few years ago. We were in the midst of a sermon series on Exodus, and the passage for that morning was chapter 16: the bread from heaven. (Also, a brief disclaimer: I am a writer. Not a historian.)
You’ve heard the stories since you were a child. Dozens, no hundreds, of them, repeated again and again until you can – and do – tell them, verbatim, to your own children. They love the fantastic stories the most. They ask to hear of the time Yahweh made the sun stand still, or the way He demolished the city of Jericho, its walls collapsing in on themselves as the people marched.
Your favorites, though, now that you are grown, striving each day to make what’s needed to pay your taxes and still provide for your family – your favorites have more to do with deliverance, with providence. How Yahweh led the Israelites out of Egypt with a pillar of cloud and fire, how he piled the water up in a heap so the people could walk through on dry land, the chariots of the enemy crushed beneath the weight of his displeasure. You wouldn’t mind seeing the Roman chariots given a similar treatment, truth be told.
Lately, you’ve been thinking of manna in the wilderness. The daily, regular provision of it, the way the people ate their fill. The Rabbis say the promised redeemer, the One who will come to restore Israel, will perform the same signs as Moses, and, as you work your own small plot of land, you pray Messiah comes soon. You wouldn’t mind feasting on bread from heaven.
It’s a regular day, one just like any other, when the news spreads through town – the itinerant preacher, the man they say can heal the sick, is near. His name is a common one – Yeshua, you think it is – but the rumors surrounding him are anything but common. You hesitate, thinking of the work you have to do, then gather your wife, your children, and join the throngs headed to see him work wonders.
You aren’t disappointed. He spends hours with the crowd, walking among the people, teaching and healing and blessing. And then, as the day drops toward evening and your stomach begins to rumble, he motions for everyone to sit. You watch, mesmerized, as he holds up a handful of barley loaves, a few small fish, and thanks Yahweh for them. As those close to Him begin to distribute the food, the murmurs grow. Your children look at you, their eyes wide in wonder, as you and the vast number of people surrounding you eat your fill from a meal that should only have satisfied your youngest son.
This man provides bread, just as Moses did, and you feel the hope rise in your chest. You think of the satisfying weight of solid food in your stomach. Perhaps he is the one. Even if he isn’t, at least he can give you sustenance, ease the burden of your daily work. And so, the next morning, when you wake and he is no longer there, you join those piling into boats and head for Capernaum in search of him.
You stand on the edge of the crowd and listen as others question him, as they ask for signs, nodding in agreement as they speak of manna. You raise your voice along with them, clamoring for the bread of heaven this man promises. Yes. Yes! Give us this bread, you cry. Give it to us always.
But Yeshua does not give you bread. He speaks, his gaze direct, his words firm, though you can make little sense of them. He says he himself is the bread of life, that he has come down from heaven. Those around you mutter at this, knowing he came from a small village just like everyone else. They know his parents, his brothers, his sisters. They’re common folk, ordinary men and women just like all of you. He responds, repeating his claims about his relationship to Yahweh, calling Yahweh his Father. He mentions your ancestors, the way they ate manna, and you strain to hear.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” he says, “you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Those around you mutter all the louder at this, and you join their grumbling, disgusted and abhorred by the things this man is proposing. You came hoping for wonders, longing for bread, and instead were given incomprehensible ravings about eating flesh, about drinking blood. Such things are an affront, a direct contradiction of the Law of Yahweh. Everyone knows life is in the blood.
Disappointed, you return home. You’re not surprised when, in the course of time, you learn this Yeshua was executed by the Romans, delivered over by the high priests for his blasphemous sayings.
It is only much later, years later, in fact – when the way of Yeshua begins to spread – that you, tentative at first but then with growing conviction, listen to the things his followers have to say and you start to understand. You join the others on the Sabbath as you meet to sing and to pray and to share in the agape feast. Tonight’s leader holds the bread up, giving thanks for it, then tells the story of Yeshua’s last meal.
“This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” he says, quoting Yeshua. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Together, with your new brothers and sisters, you eat and you drink and you proclaim the Lord’s death. You think of your fathers in the desert, of the manna that gave them life, and you think of Yeshua, the true bread of heaven. Humbled, and awed, you bow your head in thanks, praising Yahweh, the giver of all good things.