Picture an immense cathedral. There was a gathering of sojourners, eagerly listening to the quiet words of preparation for the “living bread” of the Lord’s Supper. Imagine the expectation, the longing. Some awaiting the cup and bread know each other; some, until recently, were strangers. The bread was simple. The cup, filled to the brim, enough for everyone.
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. [John 6:35, 41-51]
But don’t imagine fresh bread. And please, don’t figuratively sample my memory and start tasting the sweetness of grape juice or the spirited sip of wine. Before my first official communion as a United Methodist minister, which occurred mere days after ordination, I had to ask a critical question:
Anybody got any bread? Crackers? Chips? Anything?
Shortly after ordination I headed for the place where I would be a student intern pastor for a year. The youth group there immediately roped me into becoming the token adult leader on their annual backpack to the High Sierra. Into what naturalist and writer John Muir called the “Range of Light,” into the granite cathedral of wind-scoured peaks, alpine meadows, blazing blue skies, and sudden afternoon thunderstorms.
At the start I barely knew those kids. But, no surprise, I hiked with an assortment of high school stereotypes: the cheerleader, the jock, the brain, the smartypants, the quiet guy, the shy girl. There was also the kid who sleepwalked and the boy who refused to eat unless he caught his own fish and the girl who never once used a “toilet paper and trowel” because, well, the dirt she’d have to dig a hole into looked dirty. Not clean, ya know.
In the course of a week, I watched them bicker, support each other, share trail snacks, whine, and rejoice. During the night, they snored. In the dawn, they critiqued the food and grumbled about the early morning cold.
By the last night, several youth wondered about serving communion. Why not? Weary and carrying an assortment of blisters, sore feet, and aching muscles . . . we had survived. Thrived, even. Most of the archetypes had transfigured, gone the way an afternoon mountain storm roars in and then leaves a clear, bright sky. The jock and the smartypants bonded. The shy kid spoke. The cheerleader let others talk.
Did I have bread? No. Did I have juice or wine? No again. Had I brought my brand new blessed-by-the-bishop Book of Worship that provided ordained pastors with the proper words to say for the celebration of Holy Communion? No times three.
And yet, my question—Anybody got any bread? Crackers? Chips? Anything?—was asked and answered. Someone, at the end of the week-long trek of freeze-dried food, granola bars, and beef jerky, had . . . oyster crackers.
They brought me a zip-lock bag full of the oval morsels. Ah, the bread of life! Plop ‘em in your hot soup; they don’t sink, they swim! Keep ‘em in your cupboard. Even if you lose them for a year, shuffled to the back of the pantry, lurking behind last year’s Christmas fruitcake, oyster crackers remain edible. Toss ‘em in your backpack and they’re still crunchy days later.
So, we had one of the elements. And the cup? Filled with mountain water. Pure from snow. We humans are 70% water, give or take a percentage point. We slog around this good earth—headed for school or work or over a mountain pass—and water’s the most of what we need. It can taste, with a bubbling brook nearby, better than the finest wine.
I don’t remember the words I said. But I do remember how the kids looked. They looked together. They looked at, for, with, and into each other. They held hands. They knew they mattered. They knew the person next to them and across from them mattered. They handed out and received those crackers, drank from that cup.
What is living bread? Jesus in John’s Gospel wondered about it being a invitation and promise to live forever. Living forever is at least a little about living today. About holding hands with the one next to you and both holding Holy hands with the present and future.
I have preached thousands of sermons. Please, in one or two of them, have I helped people sense the stunning truth of Jesus’ good news? I hope. I have taught thousands of Bible study classes. Please, on a few occasions, have I led another to an ah-ha moment? I hope.
So many of the communions I’ve led as celebrant, I’ve forgotten. But there was that first one where I blessed and shared the living bread of oyster crackers accompanied by the cold, sweet liquid of water born from mountain snow. Those children gathered shoulder to shoulder, together, and fed on the mystery of God’s abundance.
I was barely ordained and already learning that the living bread is not only what I give, but what I receive.