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The Problem with Bread

July 31, 2015

sliced bread John 6:24-35                            Ephesians 4:1-16


There’s a great TED talk on addiction I would recommend to anyone who’s interested. It’s by Johann Hari entitled “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong”. (


He talks about an experiment in which a rat was put in an empty cage with two feeding containers. One has water in it and the other has water laced with heroin. Faced with this choice the rat prefers the heroin and dies fairly quickly. This seems to confirm the traditional story we tell ourselves about addiction. It is caused by ‘chemical hooks’ in a substance so if you take it enough you get caught. But a scientist called Bruce Alexander decided to see if that was the full story. So he created a different cage. A rat heaven with tunnels and cheese and coloured balls and other rats (i.e. lots of sex), and the same two feeding containers in the middle with water and heroin. Result: the rats were fine. They didn’t get addicted. They didn’t die.


It’s more to do with the cage than the chemistry of heroin. Hari talked about evidence from human life that confirm this thesis (based on the 20% of heroin users in the US services during Vietnam and research about their reintegration into society). His conclusion is clear: When the environment people live in is one of connectedness and purpose the chemicals don’t have the power over them. It’s about the way we bond. When we bond with one another in certain ways we thrive. When our ‘cage’ is such that we can’t bear to be present in our life for various reasons, boredom, pain, emptiness (like a rat in an empty cage) we find something else to bond to… And whatever it is, the alcohol, the computer games, the drugs,… it substitutes for the real relationships and captures us.


The opposite of addiction is not sobriety it’s connectedness … human connectedness, says Hari.


We say we’re the most connected generation… as if fb friends counted as real connectedness. No the connectedness Hari is talking about is our deep, nuanced, textured, face-to-face relationships – the people you can call on in times of need.


Bill McKibben cites research that shows that since the 1950s the number of friends that people say they can call on on in a time of need (i.e. real connectedness) has steadily decreased. Over the same period of time the floorspace per person in our homes has steadily increased (parable of our time)


The alternative to connectedness is a modern kind of captivity.


I want us to hold that thought, that word ‘captivity’, for a moment while we look at our gospel reading today…


Jesus has just fed 5000 people bread and fish as a sign that God is with them … and the people are on the chase for more. They want another sign, more fish and chips. The miraculous sign is quickly replacing the thing that the sign points to.


And in a sense I can understand this desperate desire for a sign of God’s presence and action in the world. There’s a Lutheran Hymn that goes

“Across the world, across the street,

the victims of injustice cry

for shelter and for bread to eat,

and never live before they die” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #729)


That’s a powerful line: “and never live before they die”. In this kind of a world we cry out to God. We complain. We want some kind of indication that God really is present… especially when it’s the children who ‘never live before they die’. Give us this day our daily bread. For many people that is the basic prayer. Enough for today. One helping of loaves and fishes will be enough.


But interestingly Jesus says to the crowd: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal”.


Craig Satterlee says: “I do not think Jesus was scolding the crowd for seeking bread because they were hungry. I think Jesus was disappointed that the crowd did not expect more, not more bread but something more. Perhaps Jesus was thinking more about ending hunger than serving up more bread.”


We may need our daily bread. But if we think that’s all we need and we forget about what Jesus calls (in modern terms) ‘the sustainable food of the life of the age to come’, if our work is simply to “earn a living”, to provide bread to eat. Then, no matter how poor or rich we are, we may ‘never live before we die’. We can find ourselves trapped in a rat-cage of consumption.


That’s the first point. We can kill ourselves spiritually simply because we don’t want more than ‘bread that perishes’.


But perhaps the second point is just as important. We can kill the world, and perhaps we are, because of our addiction to ‘bread that perishes’. Craig Satterlee hints in that direction when he wonders: “Perhaps Jesus was thinking more about ending hunger than serving up more bread.”


The problem with the world is not that there is not enough bread for all. The problem is that the world is structured for competition and not sharing. The bread of life – Jesus Christ – inserts into our inner life this script: “What I have is God’s gift to me to give for the life of the world”. That’s the bread of life that we feed on. The alternative is a captivity to ‘bread that perishes’. It has its script too: “What I have is my private property, my sacred rights to private property”. Or “This is our national right to seek our national advantage over other nations”.


If we go back to the rat-cage metaphor, Jesus is saying that the bread of life creates a new ‘cage’, a new environment in which we can live. You only solve the captivity/addiction if you change the world. I want to conclude, as I did last week, by reading part of the Epistle reading for today. Because Ephesians describes the new environment that Jesus creates. It describes a new economy. And it brings us back to the beginning, to the question of captivity and addiction.


Ephesians 4:1-8

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive.


In short there is an alternative to addiction. There is an alternative to late capitalism. It is Jesus Christ and his body.


Thanks be to God


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