I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)
For many months a small group of parishioners from Saint Mark’s, working with a cohort of Christians from communities in various other denominations, has spent time talking, thinking, praying, and imagining what a new ministry would look like that could gather for a holy cause young adults in our day and age in this city. They were led on a journey to stimulate their imaginations. They were challenged to think through difficult questions about funding and sustainability. They were asked to consider what it takes to capture the attention of young adults these days. This has been the Zoe Project, organized through the Princeton Theological Seminary, and funded by the Lilly Endowments. Mother Takacs led our team with care and thoughtfulness. But all those questions were not easy to answer. Occasionally the team met with me to review ideas, and I think they mostly left those meetings feeling frustrated, since I heaped more hard questions on them, and provided no answers.
One day, Erika told me they had a new idea about gathering people that had to do with baking bread. She told me that there is sort of baking sub-culture to be found around professional and amateur ovens in the city, and that artisanal baking has grasped the interest and gripped the imaginations of a certain kind of young adult, who might or might not be a hipster. Speaking to me of hipsters will get you nowhere. But speaking to me of bread is a different story. This concept, I thought, was exactly the idea they had been looking for. Go with it, was my advice!
The inner machinations of how the project has thus far unfolded are not of much homiletical interest. But, we have been hearing, and will continue to hear, about bread, as we read through much of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel this summer. Bread is and ought to be of interest to Christians - be they hipsters or not - since Jesus tells us over and over in this famous discourse, that has been forever preserved in one of the worst hymns ever written, that “I am the bread of life.”
Earlier this summer, the Zoe Project team gathered with me around the kitchen counters in the Rectory with four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. We gathered to bake bread. As we proved our yeast, and watched for the little bubbles to form, showing that the single-cell organisms that had been dormant in their dried form, were, in fact, alive, we talked about the three transformational processes that take place when you bake a loaf of bread.
When you combine the activated yeast with the flour and water and salt, the first transformation begins as “the yeast in the dough metabolizes the starches and sugars in the flour, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas,” as a knowledgeable source reports. “This gas inflates the network of air bubbles, causing the bread to rise. During rising, the yeast divides and multiplies, producing more carbon dioxide. As long as there is ample air and food (carbohydrates) in the dough, the yeast will multiply until its activity is stopped by the oven’s heat.” (finecooking.com). More generally, this process of the conversion of sugars into gas by yeast is known as fermentation.
The second transformation that takes place is my favorite one, since we can be most intimately and directly involved with it, as we were in the Rectory kitchen. This second transformation is the result of kneading the dough, which we did the old fashioned way - with our hands. “Wheat flour,” I am told, “contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, which combine to form gluten. When bread dough is first mixed together, these proteins are mangled and knotted together in no particular order. As bread dough is kneaded, these proteins line up and strands of gluten form to create a matrix within the bread dough. This matrix creates strength and structure, which traps gasses and allows the dough to rise.” (thespruceeats.com) It’s a marvelous thing to feel a ball of dough become pliable, smooth, and elastic beneath the heel of your hand. This process of transformation is what leads to light and airy bread.
The last transformation that takes place happens in the oven where the ball of dough becomes a loaf of bread. First, the heat of the oven increases the rate of expansion of the yeast, causing the dough to rise and expand further. Next, as the heat intensifies, the yeast dies, and its expansion ceases. But as the heat increases further, the starches and glutens in the dough begin to set and gelatinize, forming the crumb of the loaf. Meanwhile the outer part of the dough dries and caramelizes under the rising heat, to form the crust.
Flour, water, salt, and yeast are transformed in three distinct processes to produce a loaf of bread.
Many Christians, I fear, have forgotten that to follow Jesus is to enter into a process of transformation. Jesus did not call people to follow him who were already the right sort of people, who had achieved a high level of spiritual insight and sophistication. He called people who needed to be transformed: who needed yeast, and kneading, and heat to transform the ingredients of their lives in to something more than they dreamed they could be. He called them; he sent them; he challenged them; always in order to bring about their transformation: to change them.
And today, Jesus still calls us, and sends us, and challenges us, because, like every Christian soul before us, we need to be changed. We need to be transformed. Our lives become something so much more than we ever dream of, if we accept the yeast, and the kneading, and the heat of the Gospel of Jesus’ love to make of us something new.
It should probably not surprise us that in a world in which most people have forgotten how to make their own bread, and have, by and large, lost interest in it, so many people have also forgotten that the Christian faith is meant to be a process of transformation that makes more of your life, not less. And in a world that is largely distracted by its countless screens - which can do almost nothing to change our lives for the better - it should not surprise us that so many people have lost interest in the possibility of transformation, which, after all, takes time, and effort, and is a process that can certainly fail if you don’t stick with it, and if you are not willing to try more than once.
We have to remember that the Christian life is a life of transformation, that the Gospel is yeast, and kneading, and heat for our lives, to bring about change, and make us into something new. And we have to be willing and able to tell the world about this transformation in our own lives. If we can’t, then we are kidding ourselves about what we are doing here. If we don’t see change in our lives by the power of Christ, then our yeast is not activated, our dough has not been kneaded, and our bread is not baked. And what can we tell the world if our own lives are little more than a lump of wet flour that hasn’t risen, can’t grow, and won’t be placed in the hearth?
At the end of our baking session in the Rectory kitchen earlier this summer, we had 12 loaves of light, white bread on the counter. The crumb could have been lighter, and the crust could have been crisper. But it was our fist time out, and I expect we will get better with time. We let the loaves cool and wrapped them tight to keep them fresh. And the next morning, one of our Ministry Residents and I put the loaves into a bag and we walked over to Broad Street Ministries with our bread to share them with whatever hungry months might need to be fed at that fine place, where so many come for food.
When Jesus tells us that he is the living bread, he is not just using a metaphor. He is telling us that he is our yeast, that he will knead the dough of our lives, and that the fire of his love transforms us in its heat. The transformation that comes by the gift of his life is every bit as real as the transformation of flour, water, salt, and yeast when they become a loaf of bread.
One reason to make bread together is to remind ourselves, and to teach others, of the transforming power of God’s love. For if God can take simple ingredients like flour, water, salt, and yeast, and make of them a delicious loaf of bread, just imagine what God can do with the likes of you and me, if we will allow it!
The Zoe Project team and I are still experimenting, still learning, still plotting. What’s more, we are still asking God to be our flour, our water, our salt, and our yeast. We are asking God to help us learn to ferment, to develop structure, and to transform us with the fire of his love. We are asking God to show us how to share the Bread of Life with others who have not yet tasted it, and to keep feeding it to those who have.
And God keeps feeding us with the flesh of his Son, who is among us and with us every time we take bread, and bless it, and break it, and share it in his Name. Praise be to God that we can always make more bread, and consecrate it in Christ’s Name to share with more people, and to bring life to this dying world!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
12 August 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia