From People of Bread
The multiplication of bread illustrates the central mission of the disciples of Jesus in the world. The distribution of bread embodies the emphasis of the Old Testament on providing companionship and hospitality to the stranger, the outcast the poor, and the hungry. Jesus personified this task in his own life and teaching. In the Gospels we find Jesus consistently “eating with sinners and tax collectors,” (Mark 2:16). The sharing of companionship with sinners and the offer of hospitality to the poor and outcasts of society was a hallmark of his life. In fact, his ministry might be summed up in the phrase, “welcoming sinner and eating with them,” (Luke 15:1 and 2). In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself describes his ministry as an anointing addressed to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, (see Luke 4:18-19), and passes on the principles of this ministry to the disciples.
Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide. (Luke 10:3-7)
The radical companionship with people at the margins of society was clearly perceived by the people and provided a frequent ground for criticism, (see Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Hospitality to sinner marked Jesus and the disciples a “stranger” in the world, ignored, dismissed, and often actively opposed.
Jesus passed on the radical principles of his ministry without reservation to his disciples, his guests, and his critics. Luke records the following response of Jesus to a man who had invited him to dinner.
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:12-14)
In this statement, Jesus imparts to his host a mission of hospitality with the unfortunate, the unprivileged and the oppressed. He calls the world to share bread with the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed at the cost of withholding one’s bread from family, relatives, or friends who might return the favor. This task identifies the hallmark of companionship in the New Testament. Those who emulate Jesus are called to invite the unknown the unfamiliar, and unwelcome guest. Jesus identifies the true guest as the unwanted stranger, the marginalized who live at the fringes of society, the unwanted we avoid, and the poor who are not able to reward our hospitality.
In addition to the command to extend hospitality to those who cannot repay the host, Jesus connects companionship on Earth with a reward by God at the final judgment. This relationship is also evident in Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of God. Chapter 25 of Matthew contains one of Jesus’s parables on the final judgment. Separating the nations into two groups, the Son of Man pronounces a verdict of eternal life on those standing to his right, and of eternal punishment on those standing to his left. The reason for this judgment is again given in the unambiguous terminology of hospitality and companionship.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)
In his explanation of the final judgment, Jesus uses the emphasis of the Old Testament on the commission of Israel to share bread with the whole world as a framework for his own teaching. Yet he takes the notion further by relating the display of hospitality to his own person. Jesus identifies himself as the stranger who is, or is not, invited into companionship. Those who do not share food, drink, clothes, and shelter with strangers in fact neglect Jesus himself. On the other hand, those who invite the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the prisoners and strangers of the world actually receive Jesus. The sharing of companionship with the poor is not merely a ministry to those who are representatives of Christ but an interaction with those who are identical with Christ. Those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, or imprisoned do not receive food, drink, clothes, and shelter on behalf of Christ; it is Christ himself who receives these things in a concrete and real manner.
A similar identification is found in the commission of the disciples who are sent out into the world with the explanation that those who invite them actually receive Jesus, and by receiving the Son, also receive the Father: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives me receives him who sent me,” (John 13:20; see Matthew 10:40). In Jesus’s perspective, the sharing of bread and companionship is inextricably linked with the expectation that God will play a role in every display of hospitality. More important, however, in the Gospels this relationship to God can only be understood in light of the relationship between Jesus, as Son, to the Heavenly Father. The image of bread in the Gospels repeats the emphasis of the Hebrew scriptures that God is seen as both host and guest. Moreover, the Gospels show that the relationship between the Son and the Father plays a central role in understanding God’s involvement in human companionship.
The Gospel of John places particular weight on the relationship of the Son to the Father for an understanding of the disciples’ mission in the world. In his prayer to the Father, Jesus anticipates the sending of his disciples: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world,” (John 17:18). After the resurrection, Jesus uses the same words to commission his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” (John 20:21). The disciples are sent into the world by the Son who himself was sent by the Father. The purpose of this relationship is stated clearly: Those who receive the Son also reject the Father, (see John 12:45; 13:20; 15:23). In turn, those who receive or reject the disciples also receive or reject the disciples also receive or reject the Son and with this decision solidify their relationship to the Father. The affirmation of Jesus as the Son places him into a decisive position within the human relationship to God. The significance of this position is even more evident when we consider that the commission of the disciples is to Israel first, and only then to the nations. The mission of the disciples is the proclamation that companionship with the Son is companionship with God. For the disciples this also means that those who have companionship with them participate in their companionship with the Son and through the Son with the Father. This extension and realization of companionship with God forms the heart of the disciples’ mission and self-understanding. The followers of Christ are commissioned to invite the world into companionship, so that the world may have fellowship with them and through this fellowship may participate in the disciples’ companionship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ, (see 1 John 1:3).
The image of bread continues to remain a central figure in the understanding of this relationship. In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus offers a further explanation of God’s companionship with the world in light of the multiplication of bread. The day after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus voices his disappointment over the fact that the disciples failed to understand the miracle. Like Israel in the wilderness, the disciples sought him “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” (John 6:26); their focus was only on the bread itself but not on the ultimate significance of the event. The disciples continued to question their own role in the work of God epitomized in Jesus’s command, “You give them something to eat.” However, taking on Jesus’s command at the beginning of the multiplication of bread, in John 6:28, the disciples now apply it to themselves and ask the definitive question: “What must we do to perform the works of God?”
Jesus admonishes them not to look for “food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” (v. 27). The food that they are to give to the people is food that he will “give” to them. Jesus’s explanation leads to the perplexing climax of the story of the multiplication of bread:
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ (John 6:32-58)
The words of Jesus reiterate the emphasis of the Old Testament that the image of bread points beyond itself to God. Jesus places particular emphasis on the explanation of Moses in Exodus 16 that the manna “is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” (v. 15). The explanation that the manna was bread from God (not from Moses) is clearly directed at Jesus’s audience. He provides not an interpretation of an Old Testament passage but rather an application of an event in Israel’s past to his audience in the present. The reference to God’s provision of bread in the past is followed by a contrasting statement of God’s action in the present: God continues to give the bread from Heaven, (John 6:32).
At the same time, Jesus’s application of Israel’s understanding of bread to the present situation is accompanied by a number of significant qualifications. He refers to the bread not only in its Old Testament equivalent as “bread from Heaven,” but moreover designates this bread as “true bread,” (v. 32), “bread of God,” (v. 33), “bread of life,” (vv. 35, 48), and “living bread,” (v. 51). Jesus paints a clear contrast between the bread of the past and the bread of the present: the Israelites ate the bread in the wilderness and yet they died. The bread God gives in the present, on the other hand, is bread that leads to eternal life. Moreover, the bread in the wilderness was given to Israel alone. The bread God gives in the present gives life to the whole world.
Jesus continues to explain that not only the recipient of the bread has changed but also the giver of the bread. Whereas the bread of the exodus comes from the Lord (Yahweh), Jesus identifies the source of bread in the wilderness repeatedly as the “Father,” (vv. 32, 37, 44, 45, 46, 57). More precisely, the designation “Father” (pater) does not primarily refer to God’s relationship with Israel but emphasizes God’s relation to Jesus: the provision of bread for Israel in the wilderness came from the Father of Jesus Christ. In turn, Jesus applies to himself the title, “Son,” (vv. 40, 53), and thereby emphasizes again that the relationship between the Father and the Son is fundamental for a proper understanding of the image of bread in light of the mission of the disciples in the New Testament. The perplexing climax of the episode is the revelation that the Son of God is the bread of the Father.
Jesus’s explanation links the bread immediately with Israel’s experience in the wilderness. Those who receive the bread from God and acknowledge God as Father live not by bread alone but by everything the Father provides for human life and nourishment. Jesus takes this meaning one step further and clarifies that the bread that comes from the Father in fact comes through the Son. Bread has become a representation of the relationship between the Son and the Father. Jesus is the bread from the Father, and in Jesus the distinction between bread from Heaven and human need on Earth is finally bridged. Those who acknowledge Jesus as the bread from Heaven find that the bread from the Father is the bread of life and eternal nourishment for the world.
John’s Gospel portrays in great detail the perplexity of Jesus’s audience at his explanation of the bread. A theology of bread cannot avoid the shocking statement of Jesus that the bread he refers to is his flesh. John’s Gospel highlights the controversy issued by this statement. The audience began to argue and quarrel and even “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him,” (John 6:66; see v. 60). Augustine discovered unambiguous parallels to the murmuring of the Israelites in the wilderness indicating that the Jews continued to complain about the nature of God’s provision. Jesus’s statement revives the two fundamental problems with regard to God’s provision of bread in the wilderness: the failure to anticipate God’s continuing provision (“How is God going to provide?”) and the lack of understanding of God’s provision, (“What is it?). Addressing these questions, Jesus portrays the bread in stark contrast to Israel’s bread in the wilderness. Although Jesus uses the language of the Old Testament, he does so precisely to distinguish the bread of Israel’s past from the bread in the present. Both times, the provision of bread is called, “bread from Heaven.” However, despite the common origin of the bread, only the present bread is “bread of life.” Jesus makes clear that the bread from Heaven is always the bread of his Father; yet the bread of the Father is not the bread of life unless it is given by the Son. The life-giving power of the bread resides in the identification of the bread with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, (see John 6:51-55).
The full significance of Jesus’s statement will be examined in the next chapter and can only be disclosed in light of the disciples’ experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the practice of faith of the first Christians, the church began to interpret Jesus’s equation of the bread with his flesh in a different light and placed particular emphasis on the events of the Last Supper. Nonetheless, the commission of the disciples to give food and companionship to the world emerges from the life and ministry of Jesus and is given to the disciples before the experience of the Last Supper. John’s portrayal of the multiplication of bread suggests that Jesus began to identify the sharing of bread with the giving of his own body long before the last meal of Jesus with his disciples. This insight bears great consequences for the understanding of the circumstances that brought about Jesus’s execution. On the other hand, it also speaks about the importance of understanding the disciples’ mission before turning to the significance of the Last Supper.
The mission of the disciples is set in motion by questions of hunger, thirst, poverty, and alienation. The command to give bread to the world is as much a call for action as it is a statute of self-examination. The emerging Christian community is confronted with the human struggle for freedom and liberation from poverty, hunger, oppression, persecution, and indifference. The sharing of bread challenges the disciples to examine not only their own resources but also their own motivation. Before the disciples can give bread to the world there needs to be bread among the disciples. Before the bread of the disciples can reach the world the principles and means of distribution need to be firmly established.
The bread is not a mere symbol of freedom, equality, and solidarity; it is the primary means to establish these virtues in the reality of human life and suffering. Jesus challenged his disciples to consider their own role in the feeding of the world with what the first-century bishop Ignatius called, “the medicine of immortality.'” The followers of Jesus are not asked to provide the bread themselves but to distribute the bread that is given to them by the Son of God. This understanding has profound implications for the life and mission of the church. Companionship is an act of the community of faith made possible only in union with Christ. It remains a challenge to the followers of Christ to assume their own position as agents in the work of God in light of the mission of the Son. The provision of the bread by the Father invites those who believe in the Son to distribute the bread of life to the world. The repeated emphasis in the Gospels on the role of the disciples to share the bread, and the lack of understanding for this challenge, catapults the image of bread beyond the realm of the first disciples into the faith and praxis of the church in history.
The challenge of bread as it is presented in the Gospels remains with the church even after the departure of Jesus. In the New Testament and beyond, the image of bread is forever connected with the life and mission of the church int he world. Companionship is a representation of the redemptive work of God in Christ. Yet the mission of the church goes beyond the mere proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ by demanding the actualization of the good news in a suffering world. At the heart of the church’s continuing mission stands the command to give tot he world not just bread for food but the bread of life. This commission is qualified by the exclamation that “man does not live by bread alone.” In the twenty-first century, the concern of an engaging ecclesiology is not merely the lack of bread in many parts of the world but the challenge of the distribution of bread in a life of companionship and hospitality to all. A contemporary ecclesiology based on the image of bread must therefore speak of the church as a community of responsible discipleship that knows both the resources that are available to it and the manes of distribution of those resources.
Christian history witnesses to the fact that the church has often failed in its task to extend companionship and hospitality to the persecuted and oppressed, the poor and hungry, the social outcasts and marginalized. Yet, this failure to distribute the bread of God to the world is as severe as the failure to communicate the nature of what is being distributed and the purpose of its distribution. The absence of bread in the church is a failure to execute the mission of God’s people; the lack of communication is a failure to connect that mission with the nature and purpose of the Christian community. The former is a missiological crisis; the latter an ecclesiological disaster.
The image of the church as “people of bread” speaks to the church’s mission by calling the people of God to acknowledge their responsibility to address the hunger in the world. Among other things, the spiritual challenges to the mission of the church consist of a cultivation of the practices of inclusion, solidarity, patience, gratitude, and humility. The church is asked to distribute bread to still the physical hunger and thirst of those who continue to live below the bread line and outside the stable social networks. The church as koinonia, in this sense, exhibits a form of material sharing of physical resources. At the same time, the church is called to distribute bread also as a means to address the poverty, oppression, and injustice occurring as the origin or the result of the hunger. The church as a community of responsible discipleship is called to distribute not only a bread made of flour and water but a bread that invites the world into a sharing of the divine companionship.
The image of the “people of bread” speaks to the nature and purpose of the church by revitalizing Jesus’s commission to his disciples to feed the people with the bread of the Father. Since Jesus identifies himself as the bread, his followers are effectively commissioned to share and distribute to the world the flesh and blood of the Son of God. The murmuring of both Jews and disciples in the Gospels shows the difficulty of comprehending and executing this task. Jesus criticized his followers for seeking only the “food that perishes” and not the “the food that endures for eternal life,” (John 6:26-27). The christological essence of the church is summarized in the command not to live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The distinction between Earthly bread and God’s eternal word is bridged in the person of Jesus who is the Word that became flesh. The now incarnate Son has not ceased to be the eternal Word; on the contrary, the bread, in the real sense, is the continuing presence of the incarnate Word in the church. The sharing of this bread in companionship with the world is therefore a sharing of the divine companionship. The church is placed between the world and the provision of the bread of God as an agent of God’s companionship and representative of God’s hospitality.
The sharing of the bread of God is a witness to the world of God’s sovereignty and provision. Eating bread with one another allows us to acknowledge together the sovereignty of God as the Father of all creation. It is a witness of gratitude to God for the provision of life, hospitality, and nourishment. The sharing of bread is an invitation to the world to join the table of the bread of God and to listen to the story of the faithful. Jesus calls attention to the fact that those who listen to the gospel should also be fed with bread. Conversely, this suggests that those who eat the bread of life will also listen to the story of Christ as it is lived out by his followers. In this way, the Christian mission becomes a declaration to both the world and the church that God cares for the weak, the lost, the oppressed, and the dying. Bread is an image of the solidarity of God with all humanity; a tangible and sensible challenge to the church to become an instrument of solidarity, unity, and equality in a world if discord, division, and discrimination. In the sharing of bread, the church becomes immersed in the struggles of the world. Distributing bread without restraint becomes an outcry against prejudice and injustice, a tangible expression of active opposition to indifference, suppression, and persecution, and an instrument of encouragement, reconciliation, and liberation. The church’s mission of bread demands more than an idea; it is a concrete challenge to every disciple to share the responsibility of seating the people, distributing the bread, and carrying the baskets. This insight echoes in much of the literature of the first Christian centuries. Companionship requires discipleship and partnership in the form of active cooperation, the mutual exchange of resources and the overcoming of obstacles inside and outside of the church. This understanding of mission is both centrifugal (“God ye therefore. . .”) and centripetal (“. . . and invite the world”); it is a call to turn strangers into neighbors, lepers into partners, outcasts into followers, enemies into allies, addicts into friends, and homeless into brothers and sisters at the table of bread. Mission as companionship exists wherever the church invites the world to the table of God.
At the table of the Lord, mission carried out as companionship becomes a sacred action in the presence of God. Bread shared with the world allows for an encounter with God in the tasks of ordinary life – family, friends, work, conversation, entertainment, rest. A genuine companionship draws its strength from the liturgy of life, from a celebration of concrete life in a world of real hardship, adversity, and suffering but also of love, passion, and joy. Companionship with God and discipleship to the world mutually depend on each other. Feeding the world with the bread of God is possible only in companionship with God. More precisely, feeding the world with the bread of the Father is possible only with the bread of the Son. The essential character of the Christian mission is a display of hospitality that invites the world into companionship with God by offering the world the Son as the bread of the Father.
This important role of bread in the mission of the church stands at the center of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In this respect, the Greek church fathers emphasized the importance of the bread as a representation of the redemptive work of God in Christ; the Latin church fathers called attention to the sharing of bread as an act of the church made in union with Christ. Yet, the mission of the church to feed the people with the bread of life, in a real sense, precedes the sacramental tradition of the Lord’s Supper and should be distinguished from the celebration of the Eucharist before it can be reintegrated into it. A theology of the Eucharist can only be a confirmation of a theology of mission, and not its origin. The actualization of the gospel is not a consequence of but a presupposition for the Eucharistic fellowship of the church. The church can fulfill its commission as agent of the divine companionship only if it takes seriously its social nature as a fellowship of bread and responds to the moral challenge of hospitality by distributing to the world bread that does not perish but gives everlasting life.
The social nature and the moral responsibility of God’s people merge in the concrete mission of the church to a fragmented, alienated, and hostile world that Christians encounter every day in the hungry and poor, the homeless, the strangers, the outcasts, and the sick. The justice and the righteousness of God is established wherever the church feeds hunger and offers those who are being fed the gift of recognition, acceptance, dignity, and healing. The church has been entrusted with a mission of bread that breaks the boundaries of brokenness, isolation, sorrow, pain, sin, and death. The nature and purpose of the church is to be a community that shares freely and unreservedly the bread of life.