On Sunday morning we focused on the third part of the Lord’s Prayer, give us today our daily bread. We thought about a couple of different ways of understanding daily bread, and we started by assuming that daily bread is exactly what it says it is. The bread that we knead and prove and bake, that we buy from the bakery or the supermarket or the corner shop, that we pop in the toaster and wrap around a hot dog and dip into hot soup. The bread that the boy shared and Jesus blessed and the disciples handed out (our first reading was John 6:5-13). The bread that fell from heaven and the Israelites gathered in the wilderness (we had just sung Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, which recalls the story of Exodus 16).
Bread may be bread, but already in those examples we can see that bread rarely comes alone. We eat things on it and in it and with it, the mass picnic on the mountain featured fish too, and God provided quail as well as manna in the wilderness. And so even while assuming that our daily bread is literal, we can also recognise that it is representative, standing not just for bread but for all our basic needs. You may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which identifies physiological needs such as food and water and shelter as foundational, with our needs for security, relationships, self-esteem and self-actualisation building on that foundation. The idea is that we need to work our way up through hierarchy, with each layer being made possible by those beneath it, but every layer being necessary for us to flourish.
The church has taken up that language of flourishing - the product of a good life which allows for the uniqueness and dignity and freedom and happiness and wellbeing of the individual within the wider society - as a way of speaking of God’s will for our lives. If the things Maslow identified are the things that are needed for us to flourish, then they must also be the things that God wants for us. And so I think we can say that all of the things in this pyramid - the food and water and shelter that keep us alive, the security that allows us to live without fear, the relationships that bring joy and comfort, the self-esteem that gives us worth, the self-actualisation that allows to reach our potential and find purpose - are included in our prayer for daily bread. They include mental and emotional meeds, but they are underpinned by physical needs, and so that is where I want to focus.
The fact that Jesus placed this prayer for daily bread at the centre of our devotional lives, and the way in which we see it answered in the feeding of the multitude and the giving of manna from heaven, demonstrate God’s very practical concern for our physical needs. He cares for us as embodied creatures. We often speak of our bodies as tents, as if they don’t matter at all, and it’s language we have picked up from Paul, but I think that either he or we have missed something. The incarnation says that bodies can reveal the glory of God. The resurrection suggests that our bodies are not discarded but transformed. When Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, God stitches them clothes, because he cares about protecting their bodies. When John experienced the apocalyptic vision he recorded in Revelation, he felt Christ place on him the hand that had held seven stars, because bodies are as precious and as worthy of touch as anything in the universe. All throughout scripture, bodies are honoured and cared for by God, and that hasn’t changed.
And so we can take everything to God in prayer, however mundane or humble it may seem. Jesus instructed us to do that in the belief that if we ask it will be given, but this is where we run into difficulty, because that doesn't always happen. I’m quite sure that sometimes it is simply that we are asking for the wrong things, for what we want rather than what we need. I don’t think we were ever meant to understand prayer as being like operating a kind of divine vending machine, where we put our prayer in and push a button and the thing we asked for simply appears. That would be so inconsistent with what we see of God elsewhere in the scriptures - remember this is the God who bargained with Abraham and ignored Jonah - that perhaps Jesus felt it was obvious that his words came with some unspoken caveats. We read elsewhere that God will give us good gifts, and Jesus says that we should pray in his name, so surely it is when we ask for the things that God deems good and that are consistent with the name of Christ that we will receive.
But if our daily bread is the will of God, then it must fall into those categories, and yet not all who ask do receive those most basic things. How then do we understand those situations, when praying for daily bread feels more like begging? I don’t have a simple answer, but I do reject the prosperity gospel which would say that when a person experiences hardship or lack, it is because their faith isn’t strong enough or their prayers aren’t righteous enough. I believe that God’s love and grace are such that he wants to give good things to all his children without condition, and so praying for our daily bread isn’t reminding him to give us our allowance, as if he would forget to care for us if we didn’t tug at his elbow every day. It is about recognising what we need and remembering that God is already seeking to bring it about. But I also believe that God’s will can be frustrated, by ignorance and by greed and by selfishness and by malevolence. It is a consequence of our free will that we can spoil things for ourselves and for others - if that wasn’t the case there would be no need for us to pray that God’s will be done.
Our world is flawed, and it is our brokenness not God’s carelessness that leaves so many without their daily bread. That’s why I think this petition is less for God’s ears and more for our own. He already knows what we need and he already wants to give it to us - we are the ones that need reminding. And so I think there are two things that we need to learn from this part of the prayer at this point, things that we need to not just pray but learn to live. Everything so far has really been leading up to these points, so even if you forget everything else, remember this.
First, God cares about our needs, and so we should too. Many of us are terrible at self care. We rush out of the house without breakfast, we work ourselves to exhaustion, we eat food we know is bad for us because it’s convenient, we torture ourselves over mistakes when everyone else has long since forgotten them. There are many reasons why we fall into those patterns, but we need to be kinder to ourselves. I know I am preaching to myself here, but I suspect I’m not the only person who needs to hear this, so below you will find some advice I have found and am trying to live by (use the arrows to move throught the images). Self care is important. There’s no point in praying for our daily bread if we won’t take it when it is offered.
Second, God cares about our siblings’ needs, and so we should too. This is not just a prayer for ourselves as individuals, but rather we pray on behalf of all God’s children. When Pope Francis talked about this line of the prayer, he talked about the importance of demonstrating an attitude of empathy and solidarity. We pray for our own daily bread and then we give others their daily bread. That might be directly, through providing for our own families or helping out friends and neighbours or supporting charities working with the most vulnerable. Or it might be in ways that are aimed at systems and structures, perhaps shopping ethically or campaigning against the gradual dismantling of our welfare system or seeking to protect and care for our planet. When the multitude was fed, it may have been Jesus that blessed the food and multiplied it, but it was the disciples who carried it to the people, and without them no one would have eaten anything that day. We have the same part to play, making sure that all God has provided is shared among his children, so that all have their daily bread.
We started by thinking about daily bread as literal, or at least representative of our basic needs, but we also sang that “man does not live by bread alone” and heard that Jesus is the bread of life (our second reading was John 6:48-51), and so we moved on to think about daily bread as metaphorical, or representative of our spiritual needs. By that I mean something like our instinct for connection with the divine or the ineffable, and so here we need to go beyond the physical and mental and emotional needs that are identified by Maslow’s hierarchy, or at least suggest that there is another dimension to them that a purely biological or psychological approach does not fully appreciate.
Clearly we can't give up on our basic needs and look only to our spiritual needs, but if we live not only by bread but also by the word of God, and if Jesus is the bread that brings life, then we need to account for our spiritual needs as part of the fulfilment of our basic needs. Maslow’s pyramid is missing something, but it’s not as simple as adding another layer. I think what we need to do is see how God is at work in every layer that is already there. Our basic needs are met when the world works according to God’s will. Our security comes from knowing that we are held in God’s hand and our names are written on his heart. Our most fundamental relationship is the one we have with God. Our self-esteem should be based on nothing more or less than the knowledge that we are made in the image of God. And our self-actualisation comes when we recognise and use our God-given gifts.
One of the notes I made when preparing for this sermon said “there is the stuff that keeps us alive and then there is the stuff that brings us eternal life”. I was quite pleased with it as a phrase, but as I keep writing I realised that I had got it wrong. That seems to say that the stuff that keeps us alive is over here and the stuff that gives us eternal life is over there, but that’s a little too neat. I said last week that the kingdom is coming and the kingdom is here, and eternal life is really just another way of speaking of the kingdom, so it must also be true that eternal life is coming and eternal life is now. What we are talking about is not only a future life but a quality of life, and that quality can be brought into our present life. The mundane becomes holy when we recognise that it is suffused with God, and the things that keep us alive can become the things that bring us eternal life as they reveal God to us. That is nowhere clearer than at the communion table, where the bare necessities of food and drink become for us the body and blood of Christ - bread and word together, answering physical and spiritual needs alike.
The bread of life passage is significant in this respect, because it is the only place in the fourth gospel that we find the imagery we associate with communion (there is a final meal that Jesus shares before his death, but no account of the last supper in the sense of the sharing of bread and wine as body and blood) and so we lingered with the connection between the bread we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer and the bread we share in communion. It is a connection my toddler has already made, as he calls communion the “daily bread”, and it is a connection suggested by the proximity of our readings, which remind us that Jesus is both bread giver and bread itself.
So what does it mean to understand communion as our daily bread, or at least as one of the ways in which that prayer is answered? To go back to the framework that Maslow’s hierarchy gave us, it reminds us that communion holds something of everything we need, and all of it as an expression of the word of God. It meets our physiological needs because it is food and drink given and blessed by Christ. It gives us security because it reminds us that we have a sure and certain hope in the one who gave his life for us. It not only deepens our relationship with God but it also binds us closer to those we share it with. It should give us self-esteem because it is says we are worthy of the greatest love and ultimate sacrifice. And it can lead to our self-actualisation as it draws all these things together to embolden and equip us to realise our God-given potential.
I said in the first half that I really wanted you to remember two things - God cares about your needs and so should you, God cares about your siblings’ needs and so should you. I want to add one more thing to that list now - Jesus not only called us to pray for our daily bread, but left us with a meal that promises our prayer will be answered more generously than we could ever have imagined, with bread for our bodies and our minds and our hearts and our souls. So let us celebrate that meal every time we eat and drink, just as Jesus commanded, remembering that he is the bread of life and it is in him that our needs our most fully met.