Monday, January 10, 2011

When the bread is broken do you see Jesus?

It's hard for us to imagine how big a deal bread was to the society that Jesus of Nazareth was born into. We have grocery stores filled with an array of culinary choices, but for the average first century Palestinian bread was what was for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If the bread gave out you were in danger of starving to death. This is one of the reasons why Jesus' claim to be the bread of life was so astounding. He wasn't claiming to be one option among many, he was claiming to be the only option.

The Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, has the account of the feeding of the 4,000. This is followed in Mark's narrative by an odd conversation between Jesus and his disciples as they made the trek back across the lake. The disciples are fretting because they're almost out of bread when Jesus turns the conversation into a "teaching moment." What's evident is that though the disciples had seen Jesus break the bread and miraculously satisfy the physical hunger of the multitudes, they hadn't yet seen Jesus for who he really was. "Do you not yet understand?" Jesus asks them.

Once they reach their destination Jesus continues the teachable moment with another miraculous demonstration that pointed to a spiritual reality -- the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. He leads the poor man outside the village; apparently to drive home the point that the primary audience for this miracle was the twelve. Rather than fully restore the man's sight in one fell swoop Jesus performs a two-stage healing involving some spit on the eyes and laying on of hands. Throughout the gospels the disciples' spiritual sight is like that of this man's before Jesus finishes the job -- "I see men, but they look like trees, walking." Rather comic, isn't it?

Certainly, for those original disciples, seeing Jesus and the reality of his kingdom was a process. Even Simon Peter's stunning flash of realization at Caesarea Philippi ("You are the Christ") was followed by an equally stunning moment of blindness to which Jesus responds: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man."

Later on, after the events foretold by Jesus had taken place, some other disciples encountered a stranger on the way to a village called Emmaus. This stranger expounded the Scriptures in a way they had never heard before. But that wasn't enough. It still hadn't dawned on them who he was. It wasn't until he blessed and broke bread that "their eyes were opened and they recognized him." (Luke 24:30-31) Once again Christ revealed himself through the breaking of bread.

Jesus still comes to his disciples in the guise of bread. Every time the bread is broken in the Lord's Supper he's present in a mysterious yet real way. Jesus knew that the teaching of the word isn't enough. Because of our weak faith we need something more tangible, and he gives it to us in the bread and wine of holy communion. (If you're part of a church where the sacrament isn't a regular frequent part of worship you might want to ask your leadership why not.) Like those first disciples, once our eyes were kept from recognizing him, but now the Spirit gives us the eyes of faith to see. . . and believe.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.

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