Readings Isaiah 60, John 6.51–69
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Two foodie passages this evening. Isaiah talks of Israel feeding off the riches of surrounding nations, and in John’s gospel Jesus says, ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven’. The background to those words is the strange stuff that floated down around the camp of the Israelites as Moses led them through the desert and which they could eat to survive. See the book of the Exodus for the story (Exodus 16.1-30). That was a puzzling experience, so they called the stuff manna, which literally means ‘What is it?’ This bread from heaven, however, was collected daily and kept the people going for twenty-four hours (with a double ration to see them through the Sabbath), whereas Jesus says he is the ‘living’ bread: whoever eats this bread will live for ever.
We can’t hear these words without thinking of the thing we do Sunday by Sunday as we break bread together in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. And surely the first readers of John’s gospel couldn’t avoid making that connection. It’s odd, then, that in John’s account of the Last Supper, there is no moment when Jesus – the bread of life – takes the bread and says ‘Take, eat…’. St Paul has the story in his letters, the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke have it, but John doesn’t. Is John, then, against this sacrament, this physical way of being close to God? Unlikely, when he gives us this whole chapter, Chapter 6, on Jesus as the bread of life, and on how eating this bread brings eternal life. On the contrary, it may be that John sees no need to spend time retelling the story of something his audience knows well, but instead gives a lot of time to deepening their appreciation of this familiar way of being close to God.
The closeness of God – not something to be glib about. How many prayers will have gone up today from the terrified, the bereaved, the agonized in Syria? Where has God been for them? And who knows what hellish predicament one of us here tonight might be in? If that person is you, how close does God feel just now? How can God be close to us if God does not stop bad things? This scene in John’s gospel suggests that the closeness of God may be less obviously dramatic than we might assume.
Jesus uses a food image – I am the bread of life. We are encouraged to be preoccupied with food. You can buy whole magazines about it, and your Sunday paper will have its favoured chef’s dishes pictured with almost pornographic voluptuosity – you are bidden to drool over it even if you never cook the dish for yourself. Food pushes our buttons because it has an immense effect on us. But its effect – aside from cases like food poisoning – is not immediately obvious: you can skip a meal and not collapse, you can have the odd binge and not wreck your health. And yet, week by week, little by little, what you eat shapes the person you are.
If Jesus, who makes God known to us, is the bread of life, then that image points to the way we are likely to know the effects of God being close to us: not, usually, in the sudden transformation, as if a drug were injected into you, but rather by a gradual yet deep changing, as when you eat.
It is the daily and weekly 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, ‘God, please help me’, the weekly gathering here to share bread and wine and hear the words of scripture – it is these things which (if we do them) will gradually ‘feed and train us up for heaven’, and help us to live a life that death can only change, not take away.
Feed and train us up for heaven A phrase from one of Charles Wesley’s Hymns on the Lord’s Supper:
Author of life divine,
who hast a table spread,
furnished with mystic wine
and everlasting bread,
preserve the life thyself hast given,
and feed and train us up for heaven.