Last Sunday was Communion Sunday for many United Methodists, and we sang one of my favorite hymns to come out of the 1970s: One Bread, One Body. What’s remarkable about this hymn is that it doesn’t sound all that dated to me. Sure, it definitely has a 1970s feel to it, but it’s not obnoxious and tacky like so many of its contemporaries are. I was thinking about why that could be– what is it about this hymn that’s given it staying power and relevance, compared to others from the 70s and 80s that usually cause uncontrollable eyerolling and cringing these days?
As I was looking into this hymn, I discovered that most of the text comes almost verbatim from scripture, which is really cool! And maybe that’s part of the explanation. See what I mean:
Here’s the refrain of the song:
One bread, one body, one Lord of all,
one cup of blessing which we bless.
And we, though many throughout the earth,
we are one body in this one Lord.
And here’s 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Here’s the first verse:
Gentile or Jew, servant or free,
woman or man, no more.
And Galatians 3:28:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
The second verse:
Many the gifts, many the works,
one in the Lord of all.
And 1 Corinthians 12:4-5 (though there are several other passages that talk about spiritual gifts):
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord.
The third verse is the outlier:
Grain for the fields, scattered and grown,
gathered to one, for all.
As best I can tell, it alludes to the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4, but the imagery of faith and of God’s people being a grain to be gathered is a common one throughout scripture. Without talking to the author, and with no explanation that I’ve been able to track down, your guess as to which scripture he used is as good as mine. But it definitely fits with the other verses, because even if we can’t pinpoint an exact passage, it still clearly comes from scripture.
Scripture adaptation is a common hymn writing technique; in fact, I’ve written before about the different adaptations of the Psalms that were the songs of the church in the days before hymns. In some ways it’s easier: you don’t have to think up a text, you start with a one already and you work with it to fit it to music. But in other ways, starting with scripture can be harder. You might have to change a word to make something fit, but you don’t want to distort the meaning of the passage, or you might get everything to fit except one thing and have to start over.
But the biggest benefit of setting scripture to music is that scripture is timeless. It can speak to the church for generations to come. Hymns that are written about personal faith experiences can have the same kind of staying power, but it’s sometimes harder. For example, they may be more connected to a cultural perspective that speaks to the church of the day– such as many of the hymns written around WWII– but that the church future might have difficulty relating to. By contrast, One Bread, One Body still speaks to the church nearly 30 years later, because the text is still culturally relevant.