God Disguised as Your Life
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. The bread that is life is Jesus. How is life bread? Bread, of course, is food—sustenance, nourishment—that which strengthens us. How is Jesus bread? Can we learn to meet each moment of life as bread? As sustenance? As nourishment? As Jesus?
Admittedly, it’s a tall order. I know some of you have met moments recently that have not felt like nourishment. Moments that have been painful, confusing, disorienting. But can we find, or at least look for, the bread, the nourishment, even in those moments?—the way a difficulty can strengthen us, teach us something new about ourselves, engage us more fully with life, or push us more deeply into community?
Sometimes it’s too soon; sometimes it’s years later when a difficult moment from our past suddenly becomes a morsel of bread now, becomes strength now, in the present. Sometimes it takes a long while for a moment, an experience, to be ground and milled into flour and to be baked and to rise into bread. Br. Aidan at Holy Cross Monastery recently shared a quotation with me that he’s found helpful: “Behind the bitterest medicine is always the softest hand of all.”
Can we find the gentleness behind the bitterness? How are the soft, gentle hands of God kneading the dough and the circumstances and the difficulties of our lives, and of our world, so that little by little all of it can become Communion bread? Can we more and more come to see all of life as bread, as Jesus? Paula D’Arcy says that “God comes to you disguised as your life.” I think today’s Gospel reading is somehow about that.
For the next three Sundays we’ll being hearing from John chapter 6, in which Jesus gives an extended meditation on himself as bread and life. On the surface of it, these are pretty weird texts—but the images in them are at the heart of what we do here every single week. We come forward to the altar rail and we receive Jesus as bread. What does that mean? Why do we do it? You who have been coming forward week after week for years, or you who have been coming forward only for a little while?
Nora Gallagher talks about Communion as a spiritual practice. It’s not usually how we frame it, but I think she’s spot-on—that Eucharist is a spiritual practice or discipline we participate in week after week, a practice we're being formed by. There’s a list of “You know you’re an Episcopalian if…” statements floating around the internet that some of you may have seen before. It lists 10 or 15 things, most of them intended to provoke a laugh, but I was really struck deeply by the last item on the list:
You know you’re an Episcopalian if… you reach a point when you’re not sure about anything theologically but you still feel completely at home at the altar rail and somehow know you’re meeting God there, even though you can’t begin to understand how.
We come here, again and again, to meet God, disguised as bread, disguised as our life.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. If life is bread, and that bread is Jesus, are we always willing to say yes to Jesus? If life is bread, and that bread is Jesus, do I always want to receive it? Week after week we come forward, extend our hands, receive the bread, drink the wine, and say “Amen.” We say, “Yes.” We receive and accept the gifts of God. And remember that these are broken gifts—broken bread, crushed grapes, poured out wine. And in a very real way, we’re receiving and saying yes to our own brokenness, we’re being reminded that, yeah, this messy thing called being human that we’re all doing—this is the bread of life, this is Jesus.
I think of all the weddings and funerals and baptisms and house blessings at which I’ve shared in Holy Communion, shared the bread of life. In moments of celebration, of grief, of welcome. At each of them, bread broken and given—this is what we do, to remind us. Each moment—a marriage, a death, a birth—all of it, the bread of life.
As we come forward week after week, life-event after life-event, we’re learning to say “Yes” to all of it, to receive everything as bread for the journey. To trust that somehow Christ is in all of it, and to be reminded that we don’t come forward alone, we come to the rail together. And that’s another way in which we see what this bread of life is all about. All of us up here together, embracing our brokenness and our joy and each other.
Now sometimes we come forward with someone it’s easy to kneel beside, even comforting to have them with us. But sometimes we come up here with people we maybe don’t feel that same way about... and we kneel beside them too. And that’s what it’s about—embracing the Wholeness that includes our likes and dislikes, a Wholeness that's somehow teaching us to be grateful for all of it... or, at least to be grateful in all of it. Grateful for all of it may be a stretch at times, but can we cultivate gratitude in the midst of it all?
This past Friday marked the six anniversary of my dad’s death. And I can’t really explain how it is that I’m grateful for that—maybe it’s more that in embracing and acknowledging his dying, I’m all the more grateful for the beauty of his living. But I do find, in some mysterious way, God’s “soft hand” even in this. Whatever the case may be, when I say “Amen,” when we say “Amen,” to the bread and we take it into ourselves, we’re saying Yes to all of it, Yes to the bread of life, Yes to what it has to teach us, Yes to the confusing and unwanted ways in which it nourishes and strengthen us. Yes to Jesus: manger, cross, tomb, resurrection, all of it. Yes.
The Eucharist is a mirror of your life. You, we, are the Body of Christ, coming forward to receive ourselves, to say Yes, Amen, Thank you, to the gift of our own lives. “God comes to you disguised as your life.” Admittedly, sometimes we look at our lives and feel like the Israelites in that first reading when they see manna for the first time: “When [they] saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ […] Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.’” This [motioning to include the whole congregation, the whole of life], this is the bread the Lord has given us to eat.
“…the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” Jesus says. What is life-giving for you right now? How are you giving life to the world? If you’re looking at or engaging a situation in your life in a way that is not life-giving, how might you view it or engage it differently so that it might become bread?
In her memoir Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles, who had been an atheist with little interest in Christianity, describes walking into a church for the first time (St. Gregory of Nyssa’s in San Francisco); she writes:
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. […] This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food—indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.
We’re meant to feed each other, both figuratively and literally. We’re meant to be bread of life for one another. How is life, how is Jesus, how are you, bread? We practice Communion week after week to remind ourselves—who we are, what life is. So remember that as you come to the altar rail today, and hear the words spoken at this rail as not only being about the bread that’s placed in your hands, but spoken directly to you… “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” The Bread of Life. And listen as they’re spoken to each person on either side of you… and say Amen.