Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bread for the Journey: A Communion Message

Has anyone here ever read any of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, or seen the movie adaptations? If you have, then you might remember how they tell the story of the Fellowship of the Ring – that's the title of the first book – and the journey that this diverse band of volunteers takes on a quest to protect Middle-Earth from the threat posed by the One Ring. And you might even remember that, late in the first part of the trilogy, the members of the Fellowship receive a rare gift from the Elves of food for the journey. Not just any food, but a thin wafer called lembas, “waybread,” “journey-bread,” a single cake of which “will keep a traveler on his feet for a day of long labor,” a “long day's march” through the hostile wilderness. No need for hunting, no need for foraging, this is the daily bread intended to get the Fellowship through their task. Because Tolkien, as a committed Christian, knew a biblical truth: you need bread for the journey.

The Israelites learned that lesson the hard way. As the children of Israel came through the wilderness, they fell into the habit of that most common human pastime: complaining. In Egyptian slavery, they remembered, they were fed. In Egyptian slavery, they “sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread” (Exodus 16:3). Scratch out the hardships of labor and the constant abuse, and slavery looks like a nice and easy deal. It promises security and sufficiency: as kept people, you get your rations of food and water, you get taken care of, you don't have to worry about it, because all the thinking's been done for you. That's what the Israelites want. Freedom is a hard thing, because it requires faith to receive food from above.

But that's exactly what God offers the whining Israelites: “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day,” or two days' worth, if it's before the Sabbath (Exodus 16:4-5). And just so, every morning “there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance,” the “grain of heaven” and “bread of angels” that the LORD gave them to eat (Exodus 16:14-15; Psalm 78:24-25). And a jar of manna was saved to be stored in the Ark of the Covenant, reminding Israel forever about how God had given them bread for the journey (Exodus 16:32-34). They ate it until they reached the border of the promised land; for forty years of nomadic life, this was what got them through each day (Exodus 16:35).

The Israelites really did get a daily supply of bread for the journey. Six mornings a week, it appeared, and they just had to pick it up. Between that and a regular diet of quail, they were set! This was real freedom: active trust in God, going forth to gather on the days he said it'd be there, and staying home to rest on the seventh day. Yet the story of Israel in the wilderness stands as a warning. As a generation, they did not have enough faith to make it to the promised land after all: “I was angry with that generation,” God says, and in that anger, he swore that the unfaithful of even this elect nation wouldn't enter his rest (Hebrews 3:10-11). They heard the good news, they got the gospel of their day, but they “failed to enter because of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:6). “They had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power” (Psalm 78:22). He fed them for the desert, but there they would stay, their journey unfinished.

But we too are on a journey. In this life, all our days are a wandering in the wilderness, roaming through the desert of a world that's not our home. Like the patriarchs, we're “strangers and foreigners on the earth,” desiring “a better country” (Hebrews 11:13, 16). The promise that was set before Israel then “is still open” for us (Hebrews 4:1). Only those who live by faith can enter God's holy rest, the true and greater promised land that fills the whole world in the age to come (Hebrews 4:3). “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs” (Hebrews 4:11). But as we journey as strangers through this strange land, pressing onward for a hope of something greater, we need bread for the journey.

Two thousand years ago, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a crowd tried following Jesus for all the wrong reasons. Hungry in body and denying the hunger of their souls, they'd stick with anyone who would put bread in their stomachs. So after Jesus fed five thousand men, not even counting the women and children, they were ready to join his retinue. Like the Israelites longing for Egypt, their allegiance was for sale. The price would just be a free lunch.

Jesus challenged their self-serving quest to be satisfied with a free lunch: “Don't work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). They protest: they want manna, the same thing Moses gave them in the desert (John 6:31). Jesus corrects them: in their devotion to Moses, they've forgotten that it came from the God whom Jesus calls “Father,” a God who gives “true bread from heaven” to “give life to the world” (John 6:32-33). They say they want it, not getting what he means.

Jesus explains: he himself is the Bread of Heaven, the True Manna, the Life-Giver. Jesus is the Bread who satisfies every hunger: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” (John 6:35). But the trouble with this crowd of fairweather followers is that, even having seen Jesus and the sign he already worked, they aren't ready to trust him unless bare physical nourishment without work is a daily occurrence (John 6:36). They care nothing for the Signified, only for the sign. They won't believe him unless he keeps things simple, as simple as food on a plate they can touch and taste with their tongues. They dismiss his claim to be from heaven, not realizing who he really is. In their shallow presumption, they think they know Jesus (John 6:42). They couldn't be more wrong.

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, and they died” (John 6:48-49). The Israelites in the wilderness lacked faith, so even though they ate the manna daily, it didn't get them to the end of their quest. Their journey fell short, even with daily bread. Daily bread isn't enough apart from faith. But with faith, the real manna lasts: “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. … Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:51, 53). To feed faithfully on Jesus is to abide in him, and have his life abide in you, “so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:56-57).

Jesus is the solution. As we journey through the wilderness, we know what it means to hunger. We know what it means to come up short. We have so many cravings. God made us with a God-shaped hole that only he can fill. No fleeting pleasures can fill that gap. Not even angel's food cake shipped down from the clouds will do the trick. Jesus is the only one who satisfies. You can't be satisfied, not in the depths of your soul, without the meal that he gives, where the Lord is at once Host and Feast, offering himself to keep our world in motion as we trek daily onward toward the true land of promise, the new creation. And he invites us to his table, not for any ordinary food, but for overcomers to taste their share of “the hidden manna,” the real deal (Revelation 2:17). We don't seek him for what he can do for us. We seek him because he's Jesus. He isn't the means to an end; he is the end, he is the goal, he is the fullness, he is pure satisfaction and perfect joy. And this perfect joy sanctifies the stuff of daily life – a loaf of bread, a cup of the fruit of the vine – and makes it grace, a gift from Jesus of Jesus.

Every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we dine with him, and we dine on him, as he gives himself in the eucharist as the viaticum, the “way-bread,” the lembas to sustain our fellowship all this life's journey through and to strengthen us for a Christ-sized task. If you're feeling drained and depleted, seeing the long and hard road ahead, come to this table. If you're feeling distracted and dismayed, unsure of your purpose, wavering in your resolve, come to this table. If you're feeling sorrowed and in doubt, wondering why the road is so dangerous, come to this table. If you're feeling strong, so strong you could almost delude yourself into thinking that you can gain all the sustenance you need by sucking your own soul like a baby sucks his thumb, come to this table. “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” he says, and those who eat and drink at this table, by grace and through faith receiving it as a sacred sharing in Jesus Christ himself, “have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:54-55). Eat this food in faith, and this fellowship, this Communion of the Saints, will endure beyond death, and in the true undying lands, we'll feast again with all our fellows whose journey has closed – and with our Host himself, knowing as we're known, seeing face-to-face at last. So come in faith, come to life, come to this table.

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