3 August 2008
11th Sunday after Trinity
10.30 Communion – Woodchurch
Readings: Acts 13:1-13, John 6:24-35
May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Bread – it is the very stuff of life. It is a simple mixture of flour, water and yeast (or even without yeast for unleavened bread) and it is one of the most universal and versatile forms of food known to mankind. Archaeologists tell us that our Neolithic ancestors ate bread and it has been eaten in one form or another in virtually every civilisation that has ever existed. Unless you can’t eat bread for medical reasons then it is likely that you eat quite a lot of the stuff whether it is in the form of sandwiches, toast, a slice of bread and butter with your dinner, a tasteful ciabatta, a slice of pizza or in dozens of other forms.
If bread suddenly becomes unavailable or unaffordable to ordinary working folk then societies can become unstable pretty quickly – in revolutionary France Marie-Antoinette is said to have mocked the people’s cries for bread with the words: “Let them eat cake” and it was not long thereafter that her head was parted from her shoulders. In this country the introduction of the Corn Laws of 1815 caused the price of bread to rise dramatically whichled to rioting and the infamous Peterloo Massacre. As you will all appreciate this is not purely of historical interest as the impact of climate change and the production of bio-fuels is causing the price of basic food stuffs to rise dramatically around the world now and many countries have seen riots and civil unrest caused by food shortages. Much as I hope to the contrary I am not alone in suspecting that such events may become a common feature of the 21st century and as the balance of economic power shifts from America and Europe to India and China it would be foolish to imagine ourselves immune to such events.
So this basic mixture of flour and water is therefore not only capable of keeping bodies and souls together on an individual level but the availability and affordability of bread can keep societies together.
Now, as you doubtless appreciate, there are not many shops selling bread in the deserts and wildernesses (wilderni?) which means that if you put lots of people in the middle of a desert or wilderness with no food then it is going to take a miracle to stop them from either rioting, wandering off in search of food or even starving. In today’s gospel reading Jesus refers back to two such miracles of people being fed in the desert, one from the time of Moses and one from himself of only days earlier and puts them both in a new and challenging light.
Our Gospel is from John chapter 6 starting at verse 24. If you have access to a pew bible you will see, (and if you don’t you will have to take my word for it,) that this reading follows on from the feeding of the 5000 when Jesus fed a great crowd of people by blessing and breaking five small barley loaves and two fish. Then, as now, the crowd obviously liked having a free lunch and they decided that it was probably worth their while to keep hanging around this man who was handing out free food. At the beginning of today’s reading Jesus and his disciples had withdrawn from the crowd by crossing a lake but they had caught up with Jesus on the other side. Jesus challenges their reasons for following him and virtually accuses them of using him as a free meal ticket:
“I tell you the truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”
He then tells them that they should raise their spiritual sights:
“Do not work for food that spoils but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Perhaps not unnaturally they ask Jesus how they should work for this food that endures to eternal life and he gives them the simple yet endlessly profound answer:
“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
It is actually worth pausing and thinking about that for a moment. The work of God is to believe in the one he has sent. The work of God is to believe in Jesus Christ. Whatever your life situation if you believe in Jesus Christ as the one sent by God then you are already doing the work of God.
But that wasn’t enough for the crowds – they wanted Jesus to prove himself again:
“So they asked him, ‘What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the Manna in the desert.”
Although Jesus had fed this crowd in the wilderness only the previous day the crowds wanted to know whether Jesus could compete with Moses who had fed the Israelites not just for one meal but with Manna from heaven for 40 years.
It may just be worthwhile reminding ourselves that Manna was the miraculous bread from heaven that kept the Israelites alive in the desert after they had fled from Egypt – in Exdous 16 it is described as appearing with the morning dew like thin flakes of frost, that it looked like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey. In Number 11 it is also said to have tasted like something made with olive oil – the manna was gathered each day apart from the Sabbath and was ground or crushed and made into cakes.
However, Jesus reminds the crowd that the Manna did not come from Moses but was actually sent by God:
“I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to this world.”
When the people ask Jesus to give them this bread, and it is not entirely clear whether the crowd are still thinking of an everlasting supply of physical bread or whether they have really started to raise their spiritual sights a bit, he says:
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The phrase ‘never be thirsty’ of course also echoes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women at the well in John chapter 4 when they discuss drawing water from the well and Jesus said:
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
So on that occasion he spoke about himself as being the water of eternal life and in today’s passage Jesus talks about being the bread of life. What does he mean by that? Well John chapter 6 does not end where today’s gospel reading finishes and if you turn ahead to verse 53 Jesus explains his meaning further:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you can eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”
He who feeds on this bread will live forever.
If you think that all this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood sounds rather distasteful and difficult then you are certainly not alone as many of the crowd deserted Jesus at this point. But of course we need persevere as eating the body and blood of Jesus Christ under the forms of bread and wine lies at the heart of our sacramental communion with God.
So the manna in the desert was only physical food that kept the Israelites alive in the same way that the loaves and the fishes of the feeding of the 5000 was only physical food – they were both miracles sent by God but they were sent to feed the body and not the soul. Jesus says that he too is bread sent from heaven by God but that the purpose of this bread is not simply to give us physical life but to give us eternal life.
So bread may be the stuff of life but Jesus Christ is the stuff of eternal life.
So there are two things to take away from this mornings reading:
- The work of God is to believe in Jesus Christ; and
- That by consuming the body of blood of Jesus Christ we are raised with him to eternal life.
We will shortly be drawing together to celebrate communion and it is sometimes easy to take the words and actions for granted – however as we take communion today let’s raise our spiritual sights to the throne of grace and give special thanks that we are able to participate in the life of the God by consuming Christ in the form of bread and wine and may the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ keep us all in eternal life.