“The Bread of Freedom”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
12th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 14B)
35 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. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.”
Yesterday, we had a great time at the parish picnic. Kids were running around; bellies were full; the parish hall and parking lot were filled with music, conversation, and laughter. If you were there, you may have noticed that I arrived late to the party. Though I’m not the most timely person in the world, this was not an accident.
I planned to come here late so that I could attend a seminar yesterday morning at St. Paul the Apostle Episcopal Church. It was called “Loving our Immigrant Neighbor: Exploring the immigration crisis through the lens of faith,” and was presented by Dr. Marie Marquardt of Emory University and the Rev. Deacon Leeann Culbreath of our own Diocese.
Their presentation was, in a word, heart wrenching. It was incredibly informative, filled with research-based statistics about the realities of immigration in the United States. But, clearing up misconceptions about facts and data wasn’t the most important thing that was accomplished yesterday. As Dr. Marquardt said, (I paraphrase) We don’t need more information to change; we need softer hearts. Their lecture were heart-softeners. We need to think about migrants in our country as more than just blank statistics, but as real-life people.
So to me the most meaningful pieces of the presentation came in the form of real stories from real people who are being held in immigration detention centers while they await trial to determine their status. Most of these people are not being held due to any crime they have committed. They are simply waiting to meet with a backlogged and overworked civic judge. In rare cases, they are allowed to wait at home “on parole,” but most of the time in south Georgia, migrants are held in these detention centers.
While they wait for trial, they are forced to live in what are essentially prisons. And the conditions at the three detention centers located in south Georgia are astonishingly bad. The food is often spoiled and the water is unsafe to drink. They don’t have a balanced diet. There is nowhere near adequate medical care or mental health care, even if you come in with a diagnosed illness (or develop one due to the horrible conditions). These detainees, like anyone who is incarcerated, are forcibly separated from their families. They have very limited opportunities to see any visitors at all (and in some facilities only through plexiglass). Some of them, if they were detained with a spouse or children, don’t know where their family is or if they are safe. Again, most of these detainees are not charged with any criminal activity. Their immigration status is simply in question and they need a judge to decide whether they can stay in this country. But our nation does not presume them innocent until proven guilty. Instead, they are locked up without trial, sometimes for months or years.
It was a really overwhelming flurry of information, and I’m only sharing a small portion of it. Deacon Culbreath and Dr. Marquardt work hard to educate folks about the plight of a forgotten people in our midst. And they both actually visit these detention centers on a regular basis and meet real people there. They speak to them face to face and they write letters back and forth.
The letters from immigrant detainees that they read to us yesterday shared a common refrain: they all were begging for justice. They want to be treated fairly. They want to be honored with dignity as human beings (BCP, p. 305). Their prayers ascend to God, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1).
In much the same way, the Israelites of old were oppressed and beaten down by Pharaoh and the taskmasters of Egypt. The story of slavery and liberation was remembered and re-enacted every year in Israel in the festival of the Passover. They remembered Moses as the leader who spoke truth to Pharaoh and delivered the plagues against Egypt. They remembered that they needed to gird their loins and leave quickly, not waiting for the bread to rise, but instead taking unleavened crackers. And then they remembered the journey in the wilderness for forty years, during which God fed them manna from heaven.
It’s in this context that we have to hear Jesus’ words in John 6. Verse 4 tells us that this whole sequence of events takes place “near” Passover. Jesus tells his Israelite audience, “48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.”
He intentionally connect himself with Israel’s experience of suffering in slavery, their escape through the Red Sea, and their journey through the desert into the Promised Land. Jesus wants us to know that Moses didn’t do all of that himself. He needed to trust in the LORD, the God of Israel, to make it to freedom. And Jesus is here to assert that he isn’t just another prophet. He is YHWH in the flesh. Jesus is the Holy One who freed Israel from slavery.
The letter to the Hebrews puts it well: “3 But [Jesus] deserves greater glory than Moses in the same way that the builder of the house deserves more honor than the house itself. 4 Every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything” (Hebrews 3:3-4, CEB).
This is important because, we believe that God is always true. Everything that God does reveals something about who God is. So if God saved the Israelites from slavery and oppression, God is a Savior. God is a Liberator. God is a Revolutionary.
In Christ, God has given us freedom from our slavery to sin. God has shown the ultimate love and forgiveness. And, God has made clear that we’re not living in God’s Dream yet. The world is still broken. We’re still the kind of people who would conspire to kill Jesus. We live in the in-between time. God’s Rule and Reign (Kingdom of God) is already here but it’s not yet fully realized.
The Israelites were saved from Egypt; they were ransomed from slavery; they were freed from their chains. They were “baptized” together through the waters of the Red Sea and sealed by the Holy Spirit as God’s own forever (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-5).
But then they were in the wilderness. They complained against Moses and against God. They lost hope and they sinned by worshiping idols. It wasn’t all hunky-dory because God saved them. They still had a ways to go to get to the land of Promise.
And along the way they needed sustenance. They needed heavenly food help them make it. But they also needed the manna, the bread from heaven, the bread of freedom, to remind them of who it was that they worshiped. It wasn’t Moses or a golden calf that would save them. It was the God who split apart the seas and liberated them from slavery. That God stayed with them until the end.
Every generation in every place and culture has dealt in one way or another with oppression. No human society has escaped the sins of violent exploitation. People groups either exercise power and control over other people for their gain, or they are dominated by others. The world can be divided in one way or another between oppressors and the oppressed.
And if that’s the case, the Exodus story shows us that God is on the side of the oppressed. Jesus is that God walking among us as a human being. And now he is offering a better manna. This new manna comes down from heaven to be the bread of life and the bread of freedom. This new bread is Jesus’ flesh, given to us “for the life of the world.” In Holy Communion, Jesus the Liberator sustains us in our journey toward our promised rest. The Eucharist is a constant reminder that God is a revolutionary.
The Eucharist is a sign and a pledge of many things. But chief among them, Holy Communion is a sign that God stands with those in need. God feeds the hungry and clothes the naked and visits the sick and imprisoned. God stands with those whom empires and oppressors would reject and exploit. Jesus, whose body was broken on a device of imperial torture, chooses to side with those whose bodies and lives are ripped apart and destroyed by the greed of empire.
And so we, a people fed and formed by the Body of Jesus Christ, must wake up to the oppressions of our day. We cannot eat the bread of freedom and continue to live in or support enslavement and captivity. The United States of America is violating the dignity of thousands and thousands of undocumented immigrants each and every day. Our government doles out cruel and unusual punishment in these detention centers, and they don’t want us to know about it.
But now we do. And Christ compels us to do something with that knowledge. One small but powerful way we can do that is to support ministries of hospitality and one-to-one care like the ones that Dr. Marquardt and Deacon Culbreath helped to found. El Refugio and Casa Colibrí are ministries of hospitality to families and friends who visit detainees in Stewart County and Irwin County, Georgia. Deacon Culbreath is working to start another similar ministry in Folkston, GA, near the Georgia-Florida border, and she could use your help.
Through these charities and others like them you can pray for, write to, or visit real detainees. You can remind them that they are human and that other people care about them. They are not forgotten or alone. The Body of Christ remembers them and will do all it can to heal the ugly wounds another empire has inflicted upon it. May God soften our hearts and include us in the cure. Amen.
Davis. D. Mark. “Murmuring about Bread from Heaven.” Left Behind and Loving It. Blog. Published 5 August 2018. Accessed 9 August 2018. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/08/john-635-41-51-below-is-my-rough.html.
Image Credit: Central Processing Station in McAllen, TX (https://www.thecut.com/2018/06/inside-ursula-border-patrol-center-family-separation.html)
Casa Colibri at Irwin Detention Center:
El Refugio at Stewart Detention Center:
South Georgia Immigrant Support Network: