Preached at All Saints, Easton
9th August 2015: 10th Sunday after Trinity
1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35-51
Almighty and everlasting God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you that you are a God who fills the hungry with good things, and who in your Son has given us a living bread from heaven to eternally satisfy the needs and longings of the whole world. Stir up within us an appetite for the life that it truly life, and send your Holy Spirit among us now that we may feed on Jesus Christ, your living Word, in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. Amen.
“Go!” said Pharaoh. So they went. Their bread hadn’t yet had time to rise, but they couldn’t wait. They wrapped their kneading bowls in their cloaks, tossed them over their shoulders together with all the belongings they could carry, and headed off out of Egypt and into freedom. And when Pharaoh changed his mind and sent all the chariots he could muster thundering after them, God opened a way in the sea, lead them to safety and closed the waters behind them to sweep away the entire Egyptian army in one fell swoop. Moses led the singing, Miriam led the dancing, and a great party erupted in the desert.
Just three days later, and the people were already grumbling. “We can’t find anything to drink,” they complained. “The water here tastes funny—it’s too bitter.” So God showed Moses a log. He threw it into the water and the bitter water became sweet. After that they came to an oasis called Elim where there were not one, not two, but twelve freshwater springs, and seventy—yes, seventy—palm trees laden with fat, juicy dates. “Satisfied?” God must have felt like asking. But apparently not, because a little while later after leaving Elim that disorgansised gaggle of grumblers have now formed a Back to Egypt Committee (you’ll find one in every church).
“What have you brought us out here for, Moses?” they muttered. “It would have been better if God had killed us in Egypt than for us to starve to death out here. Back in Egypt, we had plenty to eat and drink. We sat by pots stuffed with meat and ate as much bread as we wanted. Now we’re going to die of hunger in some God-forsaken desert. Thanks a lot.” (Yes, there is in every congregation a group of people who would rather the grim predictability of decline and slavery to the arduous uncertainty change and freedom.) And God responded by telling Moses, “Quit it! I’m sick of all your complaining!” No. He said, “I’m going to show you my glory. I’m going to give you so much to eat, it’s going to rain bread from heaven.”
So Moses got the word out: “Get ready, folks—I’ve spoken to the Chef, He says the food’s on its way.” And no sooner had the message been conveyed than the radiant glory of the Lord appeared in a cloud out in the wilderness, and God told Moses, “Soon you’re going to eat your fill of food and then you’ll know that I am the Lord your God.” The morning came. Dew covered the dry desert ground all around the camp and as it evaporated, it left behind a fine, mysterious, flaky substance, almost like frost. The people looked at it, then they looked at one another, and then they asked, “What is it?”
“What is it? What’s this?” Man hu, they ask in Hebrew. That’s where we get the word ‘manna’. And isn’t that just like us? God lays-on a feast in the desert and we turn our noses up and go, “What’s this? I’m not too sure about foreign food.” The bread God provides is bread like they’ve never seen or known before. It wasn’t what they expected, and in all likelihood, it wasn’t what they wanted either. “We only wanted some Kingsmill,” they insisted. But it’s not Kingsmill. It’s not Hovis either. Manna is God’s miraculous provision that we don’t get and don’t understand. It’s miracle-bread we can’t control, we can’t hoard and we can’t possess for ourselves. Those who tried to control it, to hoard it and to possess it found that it rotted under their noses. You simply have to receive it fresh every day as a gift.
Manna is the bread that teaches us that we don’t need bread as much as we need the God who provides it. We don’t trust in the bread. We trust in God. And after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, when the people of God are finally ready to cross over into the Promised Land, that is precisely what Moses reminds them: “[God] fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). The point of the manna was to teach the people that it’s God who gives people life, not Kingsmill. God alone gives us the strength we need. God alone satisfies our every longing. God alone will last forever.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says; “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Do you understand what it is that Jesus is saying? He’s saying, “I am the flesh and blood embodiment of the God that you need to live.” He’s saying, “If you want to live, you’re going to need me.” He’s saying, “If you feed on me and take me into the very depths of your being, I will nourish you with the life of the age to come, eternal life, the life of God Himself.” Is it any surprise, therefore, that the people who heard Him didn’t get it? They didn’t understand what He was on about. They looked at Jesus and, like the Israelites in the desert, they asked, “Man hu? What’s this?” Like the manna, Jesus was not the bread they knew, not the kind of bread they wanted or were looking for.
When was the last time you were hungry? I don’t mean peckish. I mean hungry—tummy rumbling, arm-gnawing, could-eat-a-horse, hungry. Even with the use of foodbanks on the rise, most of us in this country are so comfortable we don’t know what it means to be truly hungry, and therefore we don’t get how big a deal it is for Jesus to say that if we come to Him we’ll never go hungry again. The World Food Programme estimates that there are some 795 million people in the world who do not have enough food to live a normal, active, healthy life. That’s one in nine of the world’s population. I bet if we asked them whether it was a big deal for someone to say they could forever satisfy the appetites of the whole world, they’d say yes.
Most of us don’t get that. When we hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life,” we want to ask Him what kind of bread—plain white sliced bread from the supermarket or a hand-crafted artisan sourdough from the local organic bakery? And yet, just because we’re not hungry for bread doesn’t mean we’re not hungry. As Mother Teresa said, “Even the rich are hungry for love, for being cared for, for being wanted, for having someone to call their own.” And again, “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” Our hungers are more than physical. We are hungry emotionally. We are hungry spiritually. Ultimately, we are hungry for God. And Jesus promises to meet our hunger.
“I am the bread of life.” What a claim that is! As C.S. Lewis said, to say something like this puts Him “on the level of the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” In other words, He’s either mad, bad, or God. And some have suggested that what Jesus means by saying He is the bread of life is that He meets our spiritual hunger, that He is our true and lasting spiritual nourishment. And while that’s true, that also makes Jesus’ claim too small. For Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the bread of spiritual life”; rather He says, “I am the bread of life,” and life includes the physical and emotional; this is life in all its fullness, embodied human life restored to the way it is meant to be. Take note: Jesus Himself is what need to live—not what He can teach us, not what He can do for us, not what He can show us. “I am the bread of life,” He says. We need Him.
Jesus is the source of a new way of life. Where all feed on Jesus, no one will go hungry—whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually. That is a picture of the life of the world to come. And we catch a glimpse of it in the book of Acts in the life of the first Christian community. Acts 4:34-35 says this: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” It is in the Church that we see the hungry feeding on Christ and being satisfied, for Jesus is the bread who nourishes us with a life that makes us open our hand to the poor and the needy, who makes us share our bread with others (whether that bread be physical, emotional or spiritual).
When Moses told the people of Israel that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” he was telling them that the Law God gave them revealed the life He wanted them to have. Jesus, here, by saying that He is the bread of life claims to be God’s Law incarnate—the living, skin and bones personification of the life God wants for us. To see Jesus is to see what it means to live. And what does it mean to live? Paradoxically, it means to die. It means to die to ourselves: our need to get our own way, our need to be right all the time, our need to be the centre of our own little universe. This is what Jesus does. And glorious, impossible, new life emerges—resurrection. That is the meaning of the meal we are about to share.
Rob Bell writes: “When we say yes to God, when we open ourselves to Jesus’ living, giving act on the cross, we enter in to a way of life. He is the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires.” To feed on Jesus means feeding on the One who emptied Himself of all but love on our behalf. To feed on Jesus means feeding on the One who brought us life by giving Himself over to death. To feed on Jesus means feeding on the One who would bring us into the pattern of His life-giving death and resurrection. “Lose your life and find it,” Jesus says.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says; “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. … And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:35, 51). The flesh and blood Word of God will give His physical life to feed a world hungry for God. As a result of Jesus’ self-giving death, a world that at present does not know the life of God will be enabled to experience it. Jesus would feed us with His flesh and make us partakers of the kind of life He has—resurrection life, death-defeating life, the life of the world to come. The bread and wine that will be put into your open, empty hands is a sign of that life. But will you make it your own?
Before Jesus declared Himself the bread of life, He fed the five thousand. When the people saw this display of power, they wanted to make Him king there and then. But Jesus wouldn’t let them. He evaded their grasp and withdrew to the mountain by himself. Later, as He was crucified an inscription in Aramaic, Greek and Latin was placed above His head reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” This is the kind of King Jesus is. But the people didn’t get it. That was not what they wanted or expected their king to look like. Jesus was unlike any king they’d seen or known before. They looked at Him and asked, “Man hu? What’s this?” They failed to see God’s miraculous provision right before their eyes. As we come to the Lord’s Table in just a moment, let us not do the same.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.