Reading John 6.41-51
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
For the Baptism of Autumn Williams
Well, another great night. Mo Farah’s 5k and 10k triumph is being compared to that of the great Emil Zátopek in 1952 and Lasse Viren in 1976; and in the past two weeks we’ve had comparisons with 2008, 1948 and even 1908. So see if you can work out what Olympic year this is. Feel free to shout out. It was the year when Rosa Parkes refused to ride in the back of a bus in segregated Alabama – any ideas? – when Devon Loch collapsed at the Grand National, and Jim Laker took 19 wickets against Australia – do you know what it is yet? – 1956, also the year when the Soviet army crushed the Hungarian uprising, Britain tried to get the Suez canal back from President Nasser, and Melbourne hosted the Games. It was also the year I was born. I don’t remember anything of those events, but some of them shaped the world I lived in and so shaped me.
Now Autumn was born late last year. By the time she’s a year old she will have lived through the Leveson phone hacking enquiry, the Arab Spring turning bloodier and bloodier in Syria, and of course London 2012, which reaches its climax at the closing ceremony tonight with a rumoured reunion of the Spice Girls. Some events of her first year will shape her life but, again, she will remember none of them. She won’t remember being baptised either. Will that shape her life? Let’s look at the gospel reading.
John’s gospel describes Jesus making one of his more provocative claims. It certainly provokes some of his hearers. ‘How,’ they fume, ‘can he say, “I came down from heaven”? He comes from No. 29 Jericho Street (or whatever address it was in Nazareth where Jesus grew up). We know his dad. As if God would speak to us through this local, two-bit upstart.’
Jesus actually says, ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven’, and bread is interesting stuff, like any food. I can’t remember a single meal I had before I was five, but what I ate (or didn’t eat) in those years has had an effect on my whole life. The effect that food has on us (aside from, say, food poisoning) is not immediately obvious: you can skip a meal and not collapse, you can have a binge and not wreck your health. But little by little, what you eat shapes your life. And Jesus, who shows us the human face of God, Jesus says that he is the bread of life. So that is how God works with us. Like food. I guess that is why he had a meal with his disciples the night before he died, and told them to keep on doing it, as we do, today and every Sunday, as we break bread together. Here we have a weekly reminder of the way God most often works with us: it won’t usually be in a sudden transformation, as if a drug were injected into you; rather, it will tend to be gradual, yet deep, like the food you take in day by day.
It is the regular diet of feeding on God – the snatched moment to pray or read, the times when you have failed yet again but once more open your heart and say ‘O God, please help me’, the decision (which you have all made) to join others in being close to God for one hour out of the 168 which fill each week – it is these things, summed up in what we do here with the breaking of bread, which (if we do them) will gradually change us, and for good.
Feeding on God is not quite like eating physical food. In a news piece this week about malnourished children in India, the reporter said it was already too late to undo some of the harm done, even though they a were only three years old or so, whereas it’s never too late to look to God to nourish you. On the other hand, it’s never too early, and that brings us back to Autumn, whom Jack and Janna, Laura, Elizabeth and Ned bring to be baptized today, in the morning of her life. What we are about to do for Autumn will shape her life, if this once-in-lifetime gift of living water can flow into habits that will nourish her with what Jesus calls ‘living bread’, which is all that God wants to give to her and to each of us. And what does God want to give? One writer describes the gift of Christian faith as
a liberation into true humanity; the power to love, to belong to one another, to start again when things go wrong, to adore.
So it is that little by little God feeds and trains us up for heaven, and helps us to live a life that death can only change, not take away. It is the gift of this life that we act out now as Autumn comes to be baptized.
The power to love Eamon Duffy, ‘Encountering God: When Belief Fails’ in Encounters: Exploring Christian Faith, edited by Michael Mayne, SPCK 1986, page 32.
Feed and train up for heaven From Charles Wesley’s hymn, ‘Author of life divine’.