Dear Working Preacher,
Thanks for all that you do to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. The proclaimed Word of God bears God’s very self to a world that is dead in sin and needs the new life that the gospel brings into being.
Bread and life
For ancient Israel, bread was the most important food staple. In Hebrew, the word lechem means both “bread” and “food.” Or rather the specific Hebrew word for “bread” (lechem) also served as the general word of “food.” That is how important bread was to the Israelites. One might even go so far as to say that for the Israelites, bread was so important that bread was life.
In the Revised Common Lectionary’s thematic Old Testament option, key stories of bread are paired with the five readings from John 6. Those readings include passages such as manna in the wilderness, the bread that sustained Elijah, and Woman Wisdom’s invitation, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Proverbs 9:6). These stories highlight that basic connection: bread is life. And life comes from God. As Psalm 34 says, “O taste and see that the Lord is good … those who revere him do not lack” (verses 8a, 9b).
Bread is food. Food is life. Bread is life. For the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, for Elijah on his journey to Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai), and for those who seek the wisdom of the Lord.
The bread of life
All of this is in the background of the bread of life discourse in John 6, where Jesus flips the “bread is life” concept on its head when he says, “I am the living bread.”
What, what? How can bread be living? As his disciples said then they heard it, “This is a difficult teaching, who can accept it?” (John 6:60). (Or, in the brilliant turn of phrase in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, “This is a tough teaching, too tough to swallow.”)
In essence, Jesus is saying, “Bread is life—eating bread sustains life … mortal life. For eternal life, for abundant life, you are going to need something beyond mortal bread. You are going to need living bread. I am that living bread come down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
Proclaim not explain
The elegance of Jesus’ promise presents a problem for the working preacher. How do you preach this difficult teaching, this tough-to-swallow good news. As some of those who heard Jesus said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
A great deal of theological ink has been spilled in disputation over exactly how it is possible for the bread of Holy Communion to be Jesus’ body. How is Jesus truly and really present in the bread and the wine. I heard more than a few lectures on that topic back in my seminary days—transubstantiation, real bodily presence, real spiritual presence, metaphorical symbol, and so on. There is important theological work done in these discussions, but they don’t make much of a sermon. The more one attempts to explain the mystery of the Lord’s presence in the bread and the wine, the less mystical the experience. It is like describing a kiss, rather than experiencing a kiss. It is like analyzing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony rather than hearing it. Like dissecting van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” rather than beholding it.
The challenge, it seems to me, is to help people taste and see the goodness of the Lord, to hear Jesus’ promise as the good news it truly is.
Preaching that meets this challenge will need to speak in the register of poetry more than prose. Poetry evokes at the same time as it conceals. It offers an experience rather than an explanation. As Walter Brueggemann has written in a different context: “[T]he future is on the lips of the poet … I suggest that truth-telling and hope-telling may be less didactic, less instructional, but more imaginative about the world we often refuse to notice, either in denial or despair. That world permits a people to find ‘grace in the wilderness’ (Jeremiah 31:2), bouncy even in the abyss.”1
Poetry allows the preacher to speak the impossible. To evoke streams of water flowing in the desert, trees that clap their hands, rocks that utter testimony, graves that pour out life.
Perhaps the only way to convey what that looks like is to turn back to scripture again, to hear a poet preach:
Let me hear what God the LORD will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The LORD will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps (Psalm 85:8-13).
Thank you for what you do, Working Preacher, preaching poet.
- Preaching Jeremiah. Working Preacher Books (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2020), p. 161.