The Bread of Life
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
August 13, 2006
Scriptures: Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35;42-51
“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.'” –John 6:35
Much has happened in the larger world since last we met five weeks ago: Iraq has fallen into civil war, and Israel has been provoked into war with a Muslim militia. These are very serious developments, not only because of the loss of human life they entail, but also because of the dire trend in current history they confirm. There can be no doubt now that a dominant element in worldwide Islam has declared war on the Judeo-Christian West. The Hizbollah attack on Israel was commanded from Teheran to draw attention temporarily away from Iran’s international difficulty over nuclear weapons, and what shall we say when nuclear tipped rockets come down the pipeline from Teheran to Beirut to be fired into Israel? It may shock you to hear that after my severe criticism of Israel’s conduct in the past, I support Israel wholeheartedly at present. To put the matter cynically, Israel has cost us much over the years and now is the time for her to repay us somewhat by doing as much damage as possible to our common enemy in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, that is, to the Shiite branch of our Muslim assailants. The Sunni branch is, of course, Al Quaida, and we thank the British security services for saving us from them last week.
As for the issue if civilian casualties and collateral damage; it seems to me that we settled the ethics of that to the detriment of civilians when we participated heartily in the carpet bombing of civilian Germany and Japan during WW2, especially the fire bombing of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, and the Atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Destruction of civilians was endemic to aerial bombardment then, and it still is. In the present situation precision not carpet bombing is used but enemy tactics make heavy civilian casualties certain because they locate military assets in schools, hospitals and apartment houses, just as the tactics and ordnance we used and are still prepared to use made our air war in WW2 lethal for bystanders. Since WW2 the ethics of warfare states that as long as one does not intend to harm civilians one is morally justified. I do not believe that Israel intends to harm civilians, indeed, with warning pamphlets beforehand and the use of precision guided ordnance they are taking every possible means short of surrendering their right to self-defense to wage war morally. On the matter of collateral damage Just War Theory has been out of date for 70 years at least.
This Muslim anti-Western trend, now accelerating, is not only a temporary reaction to the larger force of globalization that is everywhere Westernizing the world and eroding Islamic culture, but also a resurgence of Muslim religious zeal against its Jewish and Christian rivals, who are so much more successful by worldly standards. Why, they ask, if our religion is superior and our culture supreme, are we everywhere so ludicrously ignominious? There is now a settled trend of Muslim hostility to Jews and Christians that no mealy-mouthing can whiten.
How shall we think about this and what shall we do? Since Shiite and Sunni Muslims are hereditary enemies, temporarily united in Lebanon and Gaza by their common hostility to Israel and to us, but at each other’s throats in Iraq, one strategy might be to try hard to exacerbate that hostility by cultivating one side. A Sunni leader recently described the Shia as “a bone in the throat of Islam.” That tactic is too cynical you will say; but it is ancient wisdom that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If that diplomacy is fanciful there must be and are other kinds we can pursue, because military force alone cannot do the job. It may be that the job of achieving a steady peace with Islam is an impossible one, chiefly because of Islam’s theology, and therefore force is endemic to the relation. Force, in any case, is always needed somewhere in the picture, but can only be used with much wisdom, a commodity in short supply among our current leadership, who are using force to make enemies and proliferate danger, not to cement peace.
Well, what has this to do with Jesus, “the Bread of Life,” and what has Jesus to do with global violence? Perhaps nothing; and if nothing then we are wasting our time paying attention to him. I note with interest that evangelical Christian circles are currently saying nothing in support of their darling Israel, as if Jesus becomes irrelevant when the matter finally hits the fan. I don’t know if Jesus is relevant to war and peace. Let’s see if our Gospel passage can inform us.
The frame of reference begins in 6:15, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” We are, therefore, in a political frame of reference, and the Gospel intends us to read the passage as a commentary on politics. One side of the argument goes: Jesus has multiplied the loaves and fishes, that is, he has shown he can provide food! At last a competent leader! Quick, give him political power, make him king! Jesus leaves the scene.
When he returns from the mountain he tells them that the bread he gives is not material food, despite the miracle. The miracle was a sign and symbol of the spiritual reality that the grace of God received through faith in Jesus satisfies the hunger of the soul forever. Material bread sustains the body spiritual bread sustains the soul. Therefore, he is greater than Moses whose Mannah from heaven kept merely the bodies of their ancestors alive in the wilderness those 40 years. Jesus gives spiritual food that keeps our souls alive forever. The symbology of the Gospel is very compact; Jesus says that this bread is he himself. So they ask him whether he is telling them to eat his very body; that’s what in Congress is called a “poison pill” requirement, something so extreme as to render the whole bill non-viable.
Jesus answers yes and no. Yes we must not only ingest his flesh but we must also chew it slowly and deliberately (6:53-57). Ugh, they say. Then he says the opposite, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (6:63).” A Christian reading this would know immediately that the bread of the Eucharist is in mind, that the way we enter and stay in fellowship with Jesus is by heeding his words, opening our spirits to his spirit , and sharing the bread and wine of the Eucharist which are symbols of his bodily presence to our bodies.
So what, you may say, does all this have to do with the challenge of massive violence in our world today? Let me try an answer. You remember how in the narratives of his temptation, in Matthew and Luke, Satan offers Jesus the Kingship over the entire world in return for the betrayal of his Father, and how Jesus refused. He rejected the offer of a crown, because he knows like we know that political power is less valuable than spiritual power, that on the highest seat of power in this world sits a human being upon the same bodily surface as sit all human beings, and that all to soon he or she is carried off feet first and never seen again. Jesus is spiritual nourishment and spiritual life force and that life force is everything to us, forever. “What shall it profit if we gain the whole world and lose our soul (Mark 8:36)? ”
If Jesus is Spirit then the Christian moral life is Spirit too, and that means that in situations like the one discussed above there is no Christian moral or political position, no this-worldly laws of conduct, types of polity, ways of acting. There are only prudent, wise and flexible ways, to be taken in the Spirit of Jesus. Hence my own volte-face with reference to Israel and its enemies. Then I believed Israel was acting unduly harshly towards its Arab subjects, now I believe the Arabs are explicitly denying Israel’s right to exist, and palpably threatening Israel’s existence. My judgment has changed accordingly, and I believe it is a Christian judgment, made in the Spirit of Christ. I do not ever wish to be heard saying “x right or wrong.” It depends on what x does.
I do, however, hope always to be heard saying, “Jesus, my Lord, show me what you would have me do.” And since he is the food my soul lives on, I trust that while my judgment shall certainly not be infallible in this world my soul shall be spiritually robust forever. Thanks be to Thee, Lord Christ, for you are the life-giving bread and the living water!