— Andrew McKearney’s Sermon for Sunday 2nd August, 2015 —
“God is a beckoning word.” It was Gerard Hughes who said that. He was a profoundly influential spiritual writer who wrote the famous book “God of Surprises” that some of us may have read and been inspired by: “God is a beckoning word.” What did he mean by that?
In the Christian faith, in the use of the word “God” there is always a sense of invitation. “God” is not a neutral, take-it-or-leave-it word, a word to be looked at objectively, walked round and observed, prodded and pocked! The Bible knows nothing of that God. Instead, on just about every page, there is an invitation, an invitation to enter into a relationship with God and put your trust there.
Rowan Williams, in the introduction to his little book “Tokens of Trust”, wrote: “Christian belief is really about knowing who or what to trust.” And he went on to say: “Christianity asks you to trust the God it talks about before it asks you to sign up to a complete system.” (p.viii)
In other words, the system, the metaphysics, the beliefs are secondary – they find their place; primary is the relationship; and as at the heart of any relationship so too with God – there has to be trust.
It seems to me that’s what the two stories this morning about bread are trying to say.
Our Old Testament reading was from the Book of Exodus chapter 16. The context is important to understand the passage that has just been read to us from that chapter. The Israelites have been freed from their slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. In chapter 14 of the Book of Exodus the story is told of the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites; and when they get on dry ground on the other side they break into song. The prophet Miriam takes up a tambourine and starts to dance and sing.
In the next verse, immediately after Miriam’s song of triumph, Moses orders the people to set out from the Red Sea, and they go into the wilderness.
Then follow three stories, one after the other, in which the Israelites are tested. They quarrel amongst themselves and complain to Moses. The first and third stories concern water, that they have none, and then that the waters are bitter. In the first, Moses throws a piece of wood into the water and the water becomes sweet; and in the third Moses strikes a rock and the water gushes out for the people to drink.
The second story is the one that we heard this morning in which the people are hungry. Again we heard them complaining to Moses; they looked back with longing to their time in Egypt – now they are faced with starvation.
And once again God is patient with his people, despite their quarrelsome nature, and provides for their needs. At the end of chapter 16 of the Book of Exodus it says: “The Israelites ate manna for 40 years, until they came to a habitable land.” (16.35)
The invitation that God extends to his people is to put their trust in him. It’s a lesson that they have to learn in the hostile environment of the wilderness – and they’re there for 40 years learning it!
The other story about bread that we heard this morning was in our gospel reading. Again, the context of the reading is important and is referred to in the opening verse: “When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were at the place where Jesus had given bread….”
‘The place where Jesus had given bread’ had been to a great crowd in the wilderness who were hungry. It’s a story told by all four gospel writers and in two of them, Matthew and Mark, it’s even told twice!
There are variations in the way the story is told which may or may not be significant. Was the crowd 4 or 5 thousand? Were there 5 or 7 loaves? 7 or 12 baskets of scraps? 2 or just a few small fish? These details are not important when compared to the central features of the story.
Jesus finds himself in the wilderness with a great crowd of followers, and taking bread, he gives thanks, breaks the bread and gives it to his followers. They eat and are satisfied.
We’ve just been thinking about the story in the Old Testament that has strikingly similar features, set too in the wilderness, where the people are hungry and are fed. We heard some of Jesus’ followers refer to this story when they ask Jesus for a sign: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness,” they say to him.
The writer of John’s gospel is always inviting us to go deeper, to plumb the theological and spiritual depths, to dig for the treasure implicit in the earlier gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. So the story of the feeding of the 5,000 at his hands takes us to Jesus saying, as we heard: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
There’s the invitation! To come to him, to enter into relationship with him, and for that there has to be trust.
The manna in the wilderness had to be collected up on a daily basis; if they tried to keep it for longer it bred worms and became foul; so they had to gather it morning by morning except on the Sabbath when miraculously it did last for two days.
So in that very subtle dialogue that John’s gospel gives us about the bread from heaven that gives life to the world, the people say: “Sir, give us this bread always.” They don’t want to have to be collecting it on a daily basis as their ancestors did for all those years!
“Sir, give us this bread always.”
To which Jesus invites them to put their trust in him: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Both these stories about bread take us to that other moment of great significance in Jesus’ ministry, when he takes the bread, and after giving thanks, he breaks the bread and gives it to his disciples.
The actions of Jesus at the last supper are described in just the same way as at the feeding of the 5,000. Some have suggested that this action of taking, blessing, breaking and giving bread was a characteristic gesture of Jesus; it was one of the ways the first Christians recognised Christ’s continuing presence with them even after his death; that whenever they gathered and did as Jesus had commanded, they knew he was present amongst them and their trust was renewed.
In a moment bread will be taken here, and in Christ’s name blessed, broken and given. We shall be invited to come, to come and kneel with empty hands stretched out – to enter into relationship with Christ and put our trust there.
“I am the bread of life,” he says. “Come to me and you will never be hungry. Come to me and you will never be thirsty.”
Not only is “God” a beckoning word – Christ too is a beckoning presence.