July 16, 2023
Our Daily Bread
Rev. Dr. Patrick Johnson
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do 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.’ 28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which* comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
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.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
This summer we’re in a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught. This prayer is short enough that we can simply say it word for word, especially if we have little time to pray or we’re unsure of what to say. And if we have time, the prayer can serve as a guide for contemplation, and each petition and phrase of the prayer can become a prompt for longer conversation with God.
Early in the year 1535, a man named Peter Beskendorf, who was a barber and an old friend of Martin Luther’s, asked Dr. Luther for suggestions concerning prayer. Luther responded to his barber with an open letter entitled, How One Should Pray, for Master Peter the Barber. The letter Luther wrote fills twenty-typewritten pages, and the advice Luther gave can be boiled down to this: pray the catechism. By that, Luther meant pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments, and let each line be a prompt for conversation with God. So, in that spirit we are working our way through each line of the Lord’s Prayer, and today we come to “Give us this day our daily bread.”
What do we mean when we pray for our daily bread? The idea sounds simple enough on the surface, but it turns out that the Greek wording here uses a word that never occurs in the Greek language before this usage. It has been translated in recent centuries as “daily,” but that’s only part of the meaning, because there is an ordinary Greek word for daily, and that word is not here. The unique word used here is the word epiousian. The proper translation of this unique word has perplexed scholars for eighteen hundred years. The root meaning is super-essential, epi (super) and ousian (the word for being). What is most essential for our being. As one scholar put it, it is not simply daily food, but it is whatever life-giving sustenance we need right away – today – to survive.
Now, my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer (and probably yours) are usually stocked with food, and my prayer for daily bread is rarely a prayer for actual bread to survive. Yet for many people, and for many of our neighbors, a prayer for daily bread is a prayer for that day’s food. In Buncombe County, 12% of our neighbors, and 17% of children under age 18, are food insecure. That means they do not have ready access to the food they need for a healthy and active life, and they are at risk for the health problems that arise from poor nutrition.
When those of us who live with good and healthy food pray for our daily bread, the emphasis must fall on the word “our.” Not my bread, but our bread. We are praying for what our neighbors need right now, and as we have said many times, when we pray we must also act. In our church budget this year, we have directed at least $14,000 of our mission giving toward organizations that provide food for our local neighbors. These agencies are helping to answer this prayer. Manna Food Bank, ABCCM, Haywood Street Congregation, Beloved Asheville, and Asheville Poverty Initiative are all organizations supported through the giving of this congregation who help provide daily bread.
Also in our county, you may have read recently that next school year all Buncombe County School students will receive a free breakfast and lunch. That is because the county participates in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Under those programs of the federal government, if more than 40% of students in the school district are certified for free and reduced lunch, then all students may receive free meals. Currently 55% of students in Buncombe County Schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. Our neighbors are praying for daily bread, and our presbyterian theology teaches us that sometimes God uses good government, compassionate leaders and wise laws to answer prayers.
When we pray for “our daily bread,” we are praying for our neighbors in need, and this line of the prayer Jesus taught calls us to examine the ‘bread’ that we have, and to offer our lives to meet the needs of others. Give us this day our daily bread.
Now, when we pray for our daily bread we are praying for what we need to sustain our lives right now – and even when our pantry or refrigerator is full, daily bread has a meaning for us too. In our reading today from Exodus, we recalled the time when the Israelites were in the wilderness after being delivered from slavery in Egypt. They were complaining against Moses and Aaron because they didn’t have what they needed to survive. They even wished they could go back to slavery because, “There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eating our fill of bread.” They were starving, and how did God respond?
God responded to their hunger by giving them manna, but the way God gave it was as important as what was given. God said to Moses, “I’m going to rain down bread from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction.” The problem the people of Israel faced in the wilderness, you see, was not simply that they were hungry. The deeper problem was a matter of faith. God gave them food to eat and required them to gather it daily so that they would, day-by-day, build their faith and reliance on God.
When we pray for “our daily bread,” we are praying for a relationship of faith and reliance on God. We’re praying that we will be conscious of God’s giving in our lives – the accent now falls on “give us.” We are praying that God will help us be aware that our lives, our happiness, our health, our security, our prosperity, and our fruitfulness are dependent on God’s generous and daily gifts.
Another way of saying this would be to pray, “Lord, preserve us from the illusion of self-sufficiency. Preserve us from the poisonous idea that we did it on our own. Preserve us from believing that we will earn enough, or save enough, or do enough to ever make it without your help.” In the language of the Heidelberg Catechism that we will read together in a moment, when we pray this line, we ask God to “help us come to know that neither our work and worry, nor your gifts, can do us any good without your blessing.”
A group of college students once went to stay and work at a Trappist Monastery, and during the week they helped to make fresh bread for the evening meal. At one of their first meals, after the time of silence was over, one of the students asked the monk, “Hey, did we make this bread, or did somebody give it to us?” The answer was yes. When we learn to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are learning what the Israelites learned in the wilderness with the manna: how to see God’s blessing in every good thing.
Now, in our New Testament reading, the crowds that were following Jesus were convinced that he was the source of many good things. They had seen him feed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, and so they followed him looking for more. When Jesus saw them following, he reminded them of the story of God giving manna to their ancestors in the wilderness, and he used that moment to teach them about the deepest meaning of daily bread. Jesus said, “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven.” And, not understanding of course, they asked Jesus for this bread, thinking he might once more conjure a meal out of thin air. Instead, he pointed to himself. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Here, we come to the ultimate epiousian bread. When Jesus taught us to pray for our epiousian bread – our super-essential bread, the bread that will never run out – he was inviting us to ask for and receive the bread that satisfies our souls. Jesus knew that we could have all the bread we want, and yet be spiritually starved – just as we could have all the wealth we could hope for, and yet still be impoverished.
When we pray for “our daily bread,” we are praying for the spiritual food we need to sustain our lives. We cannot live by bread alone – our spirits need nourishment. We are praying for forgiveness and reconciliation. We are praying for peace. We are praying for patience and endurance. We are praying for joy. We are praying for righteousness. We are praying for a generous spirit. We are praying for wisdom. We are praying for courage. We are praying for contentment. We are praying for mercy. We are praying for love.
If you want to follow Martin Luther’s advice to his barber this week and use these words as a conversation starter with God, you could try it this way. At the beginning of the day, before you’ve taken in the news or gotten onto email or looked at the calendar, ask yourself, “What do I most need to sustain my life today? What does my soul need this day?” Then pray this line of the prayer Jesus taught, give us this day our daily bread, and share with God the most pressing need in your life for that day.
When we pray for “our daily bread,” we are ultimately praying for Jesus himself. We are praying for him to be present with us and in us, to fill our lives so that we can share his life. We are praying for oneness with God through him. We are praying for connection with others through him. We are praying for God’s kingdom to come, accomplished through him. When we ask for epiousian bread, we are praying for the bread that gives life, the life-sustaining and life-saving bread of heaven.
Jesus teaches us to pray “give us this day our daily bread,” and in that phrase he invites the poor to pray for physical bread, he invites the rich to pray for and share with those who do not have bread, he’s inviting all of us to learn to rely on God’s blessings in everyday life, and he invites each of us to trust in him as the bread of life who satisfies the hungry heart.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 See The Lord’s Prayer by Clifton Black, p. 259. Black explores the various option and settles at this as the best consensus, and common sense understanding.
 Willimon and Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us to Pray.
 See Adam Hamilton, The Lord’s Prayer: The Meaning and Power of the Prayer Jesus Taught