Saturday, August 11, 2012

Wonder Bread

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. (John 6.48-50)

More than “Bigger, Stronger”

It’s funny what sticks with us as we age. I grew up during the golden age of advertising, when copywriters worked overtime to condense a product’s appeal into an indelible tagline. If memory were a canister, I could unscrew its lid and dozens of product slogans would pour out. The tagline for Wonder Bread—“Helps build strong bodies 12 ways”—ranks among the most memorable. Yet I didn’t fully appreciate how ingenious it was until researching its origins.

With sly cunning, Wonder Bread deployed a two-pronged strategy. It spent most of its ad dollars on children’s TV, securing brand loyalty among young consumers who never bought a loaf of bread in their lives, yet nonetheless influenced their parents’ buying decisions. As kids, we were constantly told to eat our vegetables, take our vitamins, and get plenty of sleep and exercise so we would “grow up to be big and strong.” The ad’s claim made Wonder Bread an easy purchase for us. But the campaign's real genius rested in its resonance with adults. What made this bread so wonderful to them was its being unlike any bread they’d ever known. It was packed with nutrients—12 in all—that staved off a raft of vitamin-deficiency diseases prevalent in their youth. What’s more, Wonder Bread was more durable than old-fashioned bread. Its preservatives allowed it to be pre-sliced without going stale. So while we heard, “Wonder Bread makes you big and strong,” our parents heard, “Wonder Bread keeps your family healthy and saves you needless expense on bread that doesn’t last.”

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus tells us in Sunday’s Gospel (John 6.35,41-51) Though everything within me resists comparing that glorious declaration to an advertising slogan, I can’t escape its parallels with Wonder Bread’s claims. Jesus is speaking to traditional Jews who’ve taken umbrage at His claim that He’s “bread that came down from heaven.” (v41) He’s calling Himself living manna—a bold move any way one slices it—and appealing to His listeners’ inherent desire to grow bigger and stronger. Remember, this is a crushed people subsisting on deficient hopes and stale ideas. They’re longing for a decisive deliverer to end their spiritual famine, not something so ordinary as heaven-sent bread to fortify their souls. They’re looking for a messiah to champion their cause, not a Prophet Who echoes Psalm 34.8’s challenge: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in God.” Yet the more astute of Jesus’s listeners—and we, if we’re equally astute—hear much more than “bigger, stronger” in His message. We hear, “I, the Bread of Life, will keep you healthy and save you needless expense on bread that doesn’t last.”

A Supernatural Phenomenon

While Wonder Bread quietly hinted at the inferiority of older brands, Jesus’s comparison is baldly overt: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” (v49) It turns out the manna miracle recorded in Exodus 16 probably wasn’t the supernatural manifestation many envision. It’s more probable the foodstuff from heaven was a honey-like secretion of plant lice common to the Sinai. (To this day, it’s gathered and sold as a Middle Eastern delicacy.) The arid conditions caused it to dry into resinous flakes that could be baked into sweet cakes rich in carbohydrates, with protein provided by quails flocking to snatch up what was left at day's end. But there were also drawbacks. First, manna alone didn’t make for a healthy diet. The saturated carbs boosted the Israelites’ energy; without protein, however, their stamina would fail. Second, it decayed rapidly and attracted flies that laid eggs in its resin. This made stockpiling manna impossible and discouraged the Israelites from settling for a high-carb diet that put them at high risk of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease—the worst imaginable health crisis to befall a nomadic nation. Consequently, manna was the natural phenomenon by which God sustained Israel during its wilderness journey. That is a miracle of provision all by itself.

Manna kept Israel healthy because it didn’t last. In its place, Jesus offers something infinitely superior, a supernatural phenomenon that transcends physical hunger and survival. He answers those who deride His self-proclamation as living bread with an even more outrageous claim: He has come “down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” (v50) This bread is unlike any the world has ever known. It goes beyond sustaining life; it gives birth to new life that defeats death and the myriad fears associated with it. As long as we feast on Christ’s living bread, we will continue to grow bigger and stronger, because this bread is life-giving, life-changing, and life-affirming bread. By its supernatural power over death and fear, it endows us with unparalleled health that outlasts life as we know it.

Made to Last

This bread is wonder bread. It is eternal life lived in a realm impervious to time and space. It is life that can only come from God and only be experienced as God’s expressed presence moving and shaping our lives. It builds our strength more ways than we can count. It helps us grow into bigger, sturdier people than we could possibly become on any other diet, no matter how phenomenal it may look or sound. It keeps us healthy and alive, even when physical health fails and mortality calls. And it’s replete with sound promises that replace hollow hopes, vibrant principles that replace stale ideas. It is bread made to last. In verse 51, Jesus stresses what differentiates Him from soft-focused spirituality and faddish philosophies and other flaky, sweet-tasting—yet ultimately perishable—treats that appear to fall from the sky. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” He says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Unlike manna, the Bread of Life falls from heaven to be twice-raised, first on a criminal's cross, then from the bowels of a borrowed tomb. And out of its brokenness flows the nectar of triumphant life.

We are right to wonder at this living bread capable of supplying everything we need to experience healthy, eternal life. If you’ve not yet discovered it—or if you’ve yet to make it the mainstay of your soul’s diet—I invite you to join billions who, for nearly two millennia, have attested to its life-giving, life-changing, and life-affirming power.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

The Bread of Life supplies everything we need to experience healthy, eternal life.