When the price of wheat on the global market doubles in the course of six months, as it has over the last six months; in a world where perhaps as many as 3 billion people (or almost half the world population) live on less than $2 a day, you have to be careful about what you say about a piece of bread. You and I may be worrying about how we will fill our gas tanks this Memorial Day weekend, but many millions of people in the world must seriously wonder how they will fill their bellies and the bellies of the children.
It has been easy for us to more or less ignore the food crisis around the globe since, as Time magazine put it a few months ago, “no one is starving in rich countries.” Even here in Philadelphia, where we have an appallingly high level of poverty, there is much to eat.
On this feast of Corpus Christi – the Body of Christ – we find it easy to think of Jesus’ language as ‘just symbolic’ when he says “I am the bread of life,” because it is also easy for us to think of bread as ‘just symbolic.’ But to so many in the world, a dry little disc of bread is much more than a symbol; it could be the difference between life and death.
And this morning the church invites us to snap out of our easy complacency about both things: about the ready availability of a piece of bread, and the cheap symbolism of the Body of Christ. This morning the church reminds us that both things are of immensely more value than we generally recognize: that as symbols go, a piece of bread actually has a very high value indeed, since it could be the difference between life and death.
We easily forget that most of the people who listened to Jesus and who followed him lived closer to poverty than we do. His followers were not the well-to-do, well-heeled, or well-educated. They were more or less poor, simple men and women who would have noticed if the price of wheat had doubled in six months. It would have mattered to them. And it mattered to them when Jesus told them he is the bread of life. They remembered what the Scriptures said: that “man does not live by bread alone.” But they also remembered that God, nevertheless, fed his people in the wilderness with manna – he sent them bread from heaven.
So we are treading on dangerous ground when we try to say anything about what Jesus might have meant when he said, “I am the bread of life.” And we are treading on yet more dangerous ground when we take a piece of bread and call it the Body of Christ without truly considering the possibility that this Bread could be the difference between life and death. We take so much for granted in America that we find it as easy to take Jesus for granted as it is to take a loaf of bread for granted.
The Feast of Corpus Christi is actually uncomfortable for many because it seems a little weird to make such a fuss over these scraps of bread. It is hard for us to see the value of God’s gift in a little wafer of bread. But this is a failure of our imaginations, and a distinct lack of empathy for much of the world, who could easily recognize that there is nothing ‘just symbolic’ about piece of bread. It is nothing to be taken for granted. It could be the difference between life and death.
More than once in the gospels are we told that when facing a hungry crowd Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and shares it with those who are hungry. More than once are we assured that in Jesus’ hands a few insufficient loaves become enough to feed a crowd of many thousands. More than once does Jesus satisfy real hunger with what we might have dismissed as a ‘merely symbolic’ gesture: asking for bread, taking it, blessing it, breaking it, and sharing it.
And so in the church it is never ‘just a symbol’ when we talk about bread, when it is carried in its silver container from you to this altar, when it is placed here on clean linen, when – on your behalf – I take bread, bless it, break it, and share it with everyone here. It is a hopeful thing to take a piece of bread and ask God to bless it. It is a bold thing to break it with the intention of sharing it. It is a dangerous thing to put it in a monstrance and look at it, if it is indeed the Bread of Life.
For this morsel of bread is the measure of every other mouthful. This Bread deman ds to know whether or not we are content to parade around inside our beautiful church; whether our conviction that it brings new life stops at the doors to Locust Street; whether our commitment to the Bread of Life will end when it is locked up behind a golden door; whether we have begun to see how slender is the margin of difference in this world between life and death.
People in this world are clamoring to be fed. In the past six months – just the past six months – it has become measurably harder for millions of people to come by a loaf of bread, and the margin of difference between life and death has become more slender still. Have we any bread to give them?
We share the bread of life here every single day – most days at 7:30 in the morning and 12:10 in the afternoon – when we offer our prayers to God for a hungry world.
We share the Bread of Life every Saturday morning when we feed the homeless and hungry of our city.
We share the Bread of life four days a week in the Food Cupboard that provides staples to 200 families a month.
We share the bread of life when we ship hundreds of pounds of medical supplies to Honduras, as PJ Prest did earlier this week.
We share the bread of life when PJ leads a group of 13 people from Saint Mark’s and the Pennsylvania College of Osteopathic Medicine on a medical mission to Honduras in two weeks.
We can share the Bread of Life without even leaving home. By going to the parish website where you will find a link to the ONE campaign – which shares the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty in the world – those who live on less than $1 a day. There you will find ways of contributing or otherwise getting involved.
The Bread of Life is not ‘just’ a symbol. In the church we know that symbols have more meaning, deeper meaning than ordinary words, that they point us beyond ourselves to the places God would lead us. And because the Bread we share today is a symbol of the margin of difference between life and death, we are challenged to see if in sharing it we are changed by this Bread, by this Body.
And we are challenged to decide if we believe this Bread, this Body of Christ, was broken only for us, who feast so richly. For if Christ gave his Body for the salvation of the whole world, to feed us all, to give the whole world the holy food that is the difference between life and death, then who is going to carry it – in one of its several forms - to those in need if not you and me?
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
25 May 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia