SERMON: I am the bread of life

SERMON: I am the bread of life

We apologise for the failure of the live stream at yesterday’s morning service. This was due to a failure on the network beyond our control. Please enjoy the sermon from yesterday below.

A sermon preached by David Barton on Sunday 1 August 2021.

I want to think about that Gospel narrative, because it is really about what we share together this morning: this Eucharist.   That passage is the second part of a long chapter, Chapter 6, in John’s Gospel that begins with the Feeding of the Five Thousand.   The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the best attested miracle in the bible.  All four gospel writers tell us about it.  And we know the early church  returned to this miracle again and again as they thought about the meaning of this service.  And you can see why.   Five loaves and two fish are so little to offer.  In Jesus’ hands a fragment of human offering becomes food for thousands.  God takes our poor intentions, the prayers we never think we are good at, and uses them to give hope for so many people beyond ourselves.  And this Gospel has no account of the last supper.  Everything the writer of this gospel wants to say about that is said here, in chapter 6.

It starts with hunger.  Real hunger.   Roman rule in Palestine had broken the subsistence economy.   Their taxation system created great gaps between rich and poor.  The poor were constantly hungry.  Jesus does what he does out of compassion for the crowd that comes surging towards him in a desert place.  They needed food.    Jesus was never a political figure, but that did not mean he did not rage against the injustices of his day.  And this hunger was one of them.  Jesus feeds the hungry and Christians have been doing so ever since.

But then, the crowd, now fed and filled with hope because of what Jesus has done, immediately reach for the wrong conclusion.  Here is another Moses, who gave Manna in the wilderness!  A new Messiah to liberate them from the Romans.  Jesus was no doubt ready for that.  There was no room for any other idea about the Messiah than that of a military leader.  So he simply slips away unnoticed and goes to the other side of the lake.  And that is where our reading begins.

The crowd have followed him, round the lake and across it, and now he challenges them.  Look beyond your hunger.  It matters you should have food.  But go deeper.  Look for the food that lasts, the food of eternal life.  And if, like them, you and I wonder how we might do that, then, perhaps we might simply ask for it, as Jesus always suggests.

I remember reading the diaries of Etty Hillesum, and being very moved by her account of coming to faith in God.   She was a young woman, Jewish but  from a secular family, living in Holland in the 1930s.  She didn’t think much of religion, but people talked about God and Jesus.  And she records in her diary that she thought to herself, “Well.  If there is a God I’d like to know about him to see if its all true.”  And there, standing in her father’s yard she, as it were, invited God in.  And from then on her life changed, slowly but surely.  She found herself wanting to go into churches and pray – actually feeling compelled to kneel.  She found compassion and forgiveness growing deep within her, and it needed expression. 

The war came, and she was Jewish and the inevitable happened.  But even then she never lost profound awareness of the God she had discovered.  God never ceased to be the source of compassion and forgiveness for her, even when she faced the horrors of a prison camp.   And she became the source of comfort for her fellow prisoners: they thought of her as the “beating heart of the camp” – their lives cheered when she talked with them.  When Jesus talks about being the bread of life he means just that.  In Etty he was that to her fellow prisoners.

And he is that to us.  He is the bread of life to us in those people we all know who give us hope.    And he is the bread of life because to read in the gospels about what he said and what he did is always to find ourselves deeply stirred, “our hearts kindling within us” like the disciples at Emmaus.    And Jesus is the bread of life because if we dare commit ourselves to prayer; if we dare to trust him as a person we will find – in ways we can never fully define or understand – the reality of his presence.

And Jesus is the bread of life to us here, in this Eucharist, this breaking of bread, here, this morning.  The point about this service is that we are Jesus’ guests: Jesus invited his disciples to this meal in the Upper Room: we are invited here.  In a few minutes we will remember that, at this meal, Jesus identified himself with the broken bread and the spilled wine. This is my body, this is my blood.  In doing that he anticipated the broken flesh and spilled blood of the cross the next day.  And as he does so he gives thanks to God.   In doing this he is giving us a sign of hope.  He connects even the dark place of the cross and death with God the Giver – even there, in the darkness, God continues to give.  This means life for us.  Hope in a place where we never expected to find hope.  

“The night before he died he took bread and gave you thanks, and he broke it.” 

And you will remember how many of the Resurrection experiences in the bible are around a meal.  “Aren’t you going to give me something to eat?” Jesus says in one early appearance.  And there is that memorable final chapter of this fourth Gospel when the disciples share breakfast at Galilee prepared by the risen Jesus.  So in this moment, as we share this meal with him, we not only recall the cross, we have a glimpse of resurrection life.   And in doing all this we experience the pouring out of what we call Grace – which is the life and energy of God, God’s self shared with us.  That is what this meal is to us.  I am the Bread of Life Jesus says.  And indeed he is.  Quite rightly we call this The Eucharist, which is a simple, everyday Greek word meaning thank you.

I don’t think you and I do anything more important than this: this regular coming together, being here, opening ourselves to the grace and love of God.  Literally taking it in in a fragment of bread.  It may not seem very much.  But remember the loaves and fishes: “What is that among so many?” the disciples asked. In the hands of God, there, on the hillside, thousands found hope.  In the hands of God we too can find hope.    But not just us.    Because we do this in remembrance of him, in the hands of God many thousands we will never know about, will find hope too.