Be Gentle When You Touch Bread

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Rev. Sarah Buteux
August 5, 2012
Outdoor Service at Parker’s House
John 6:1-15


Be gentle when you touch bread
Let it not lie uncared for--unwanted
So often bread is taken for granted
There is so much beauty in bread
Beauty of sun and soil, beauty of honest toil
Winds and rain have caressed it,
Christ often blessed it
Be gentle when you touch bread.


So those of you who were here last week are probably thinking, “hey, wait a minute, didn’t we just hear that passage last week? In fact, didn’t Kelly preach on that story too. And the answer is yes and yes, and you get a gold star for not only coming to church in July, but remembering what happened while you were there. Well done.

However, at least when I preached on it, I really only got through the first half of the story, so I thought we’d take a crack at it again, in large part because we are here, outside, about to take communion, just like those people in the crowd so long ago. 

Did you catch that? Have any of you ever thought about the feeding of the five thousand as a communion story? A lot of people don’t know this - I myself didn’t catch it until I was well along into my ministry - but all those words we use when we celebrate communion, all those words about Jesus sitting down at table with the 12 disciples and breaking bread with them, well, none of that actually happens in the gospel of John. 

In the fourth gospel there is a last supper, but the action centers around Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, telling them all what is about to happen, and then praying over them before it does. 

This miraculous feeding we just heard about, again, is the only time in the whole gospel of John when Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it with others. This is John’s communion text, if you will, and in many ways I have come to embrace it as mine, first and foremost because in this story, everyone is welcome to partake of the meal. 

Now this might not seem all that extraordinary to you.  After all, we celebrate open communion in our church. We invite everyone to share in this meal with us, be they a friend or a member, a believer or a seeker, a saint, a sinner, or a little bit of both. And that may well be my favorite thing about our church because you see that is not how it is in most churches. 

Most churches have standards. 

It’s true. Most churches have specific conditions or criteria that need to be met before someone can take communion. In some churches you need to be a member, in others you need to at least be a “believer.” You need to repent, confess you faith, and come to the table spiritually prepared and ready. 

I myself grew up in a church that guarded this table quite closely lest the wrong sort of person presume to take communion in an unworthy manner, and as much as I respect the desire behind all that - the desire to protect this ritual, keep it holy, make it meaningful - I’ve got to tell you that all that hullabaloo never felt right to me. 

It never seemed right to guard jealously something Jesus gave away so freely. 

In fact, the more I thought about the last supper and the lives of the men around that table, the more I came to realize that none of them broke bread that night with Jesus in any sort of worthy manner. They didn’t understand what was going on. They didn’t even fully understand, at least not yet, who Jesus really was.  Jesus broke bread that night with one who would betray him, one who would deny him, and 10 more who would abandon him before that night was over. The 12 disciples are hardly poster boys of worthiness.  

But it was this story - the feeding of the five thousand - that truly opened my eyes to what this whole ritual is really about. Because, you see, Jesus fed everyone that day: the men, the women, and the children. He fed those who believed in him and those who wanted to believe in him more. He fed the hardworking laborers in that crowd and the pickpockets who were standing right behind them. He fed his disciples who were for him and the disciples of his enemies who were there gathering evidence against him. He fed the faithful and the curious, the rich and the poor, the moral and immoral, Jews, Gentiles and anyone in-between. 

Why? Because they were hungry. 


But what is perhaps most significant, is not even that he fed them all, but that he fed them all together. In a culture where people were so very conscious not just of what they ate but with whom they ate – whether that person was of the same faith, the same class, the same race, whether that person was clean or unclean, in short whether that person was worthy - Jesus lays out a different kind of table: a table where all are welcome, a table where all are fed, a table where all are treated as not just as equals but as children of the living God.

And if you’re feeling the least bit nervous about what I’m saying, or looking at this table right now and feeling a little nervous about what we are going to be doing, please know that the people on that hillside would have been very nervous too. In the words of Sarah Miles, from her book “Jesus Freak”: 

Winding up at the shore of a lake without enough ritually pure food of their own would have made believers anxious. And eating in the company of people of unknown moral and religious character would have made everyone even more unsettled. 


But actually sharing food, breaking bread and passing it from person to person, from noble to peasant, from unwashed hand to unwashed hand, would have put this whole experience right over the top. Not because there was no Purell in the 1st century, but because no one would have been able to perform the ritual of hand washing before the meal began. No one knew where this food had come from. No one knew where half of these people had come from. All anyone really knew was that eating this food with these people in this way was against the rules. Which is precisely why, in Sarah Mile’s words, that:

Jesus consistently chose unconventional table fellowship as (a) sign of God’s kingdom (because Jesus wants us to understand that people are always more important than rules) ….Faced with a crowd of 5000, he drives home the message he has been preaching – about the spiritual unimportance of religious and social barriers – by inviting everyone to share a meal on the spot. The point is not food. It is hands-on learning. Do this, Jesus says, and you’ll taste what life in the kingdom of God is like.

She continues: 

The kingdom of heaven is not privatized. It is not… about (getting or) buying what you need for yourself, (its about receiving something life giving that you can then give to others). 

(The kingdom of heaven) is not passive… “you give the people something to eat” says Jesus. (He) enjoins his disciples to participate in (what God is doing)….

(Jesus) takes the bread and gives thanks to God, to show them that bread doesn’t belong to them. Like everything we have, he says, bread comes from (on high)…your job is just to break it up and give it away. 

Give it to the wrong people, to the ones who haven’t washed their hands correctly, to the latecomers and the women, (the people who know how to keep it all together and the ones who let it all hang out, give) to anyone who’s hungry. 

Jesus shows the disciples and the crowd that there is always enough to go around: that God’s economy is one of abundance not scarcity. By giving away the things God has given us, by giving as profligately and unconditionally as God does, we receive everything we need.

Miles concludes:

We’ll stay hungry if we eat alone. We’ll be lonely if we think we can only share fellowship with the right people. We’ll starve if we believe that community is a supernatural kind of miracle…(rather than – and this is my favorite part) something we create by offering ourselves recklessly to others (p 25,26).

So that is what we are going to do this morning. We’re going to give ourselves a little bit recklessly to one another. And yes, it’s going to get a little messy and no it’s not really all that hygienic, nor even entirely comfortable.  What we are about to do today involves sharing and human contact and maybe even getting up out of your chair. To wit, I need 12 unworthy volunteers. You don’t need to be a deacon, a member, or even a Christian. 

Friends, I have baskets here full of bread and grapes. I’m going to bless these elements, hand them to these folks, send them back into the crowd and then we’re going to gather around them in little circles and break bread together. The only rule is that you can’t take bread for yourself out of the basket. We’re going to break bread and give it to each other. 

As you break off a piece to offer it to the person next to you, simply say: “Nathan, Tom, Lucy, (use their name – if you don’t know their name, ask what it is) Julie, this is the Bread of Life,” to which I invite you to respond “Thanks be to God.” And then you take the basket, break off a piece of bread and give it to the person next to you. And feel free to help yourself to the grapes as the basket goes around. 

But first, let us pray: O Lord, we are not worthy to be fed at your table, but worthiness was never really the point, was it? The point is grace, the point is love, the point is that we are your children, dearly loved no matter what, and as our loving parent, you long to feed us. O Lord, we are not worthy and yet you feed us with the bread of life. Thank you God, and be with us now, O God as we feed one another. Bless this bread and bless us we pray. Fill us with love and compassion for each other and for ourselves. Help us to love as you loved, to welcome as you welcomed, to feed as you fed, to share as you shared, that here we might catch a glimpse of your kingdom and be strengthened to work together till your will for our world is realized here on earth as it is in heaven. Amen

Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, blessed them, and broke them, and broke them and broke them…. until 12 baskets were full and the 12 distributed the bread to all those who were seated… 

The Bread of Life
Thanks be to God
Ministering in his name let us offer this bread to one another.

Friends, all who ate that day were satisfied. May your spirits be filled, as were theirs.