5/8/18 10th after Trinity 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
(Exodus 16.2-4,9-15) Ephesians 4.1-16 John 6.24-35
‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life’, says Jesus. It’s nice if you have the choice, you may think. For many of us, if we don’t work, we don’t eat. And if we don’t eat we don’t have any life, let alone eternal life.
Does this passage confirm the cynics’ assessment of Christianity down the centuries? That it is all about keeping people in poverty in this life through creating fear of what may happen in the next?
The day before, the people had witnessed Jesus feeding over 5000 people. They had seen the loaves and the fishes spinning endlessly from his fingers. They had been fed as much as they wanted, with basketfuls to spare.
It’s hardly surprising that the crowds were around him again. Jesus had retreated to the other side of the lake, but they soon followed. Can you blame them? We all need the kind of bread that spoils, and for some it’s a struggle to provide.
Is Jesus saying we are getting it wrong as a church by supporting the Foodbank? Or running the Soup Lunch? Or organising a CAP money course or job club? Or supporting Christian Aid? Is the Nantwich Churchwardens’ Merged Charity misconceived in its support for the relief of persons in need or hardship? Is the good news all about the next life and how to get to heaven?
Jesus is very blunt with the crowd. He says, you only came looking for me because yesterday you ate the loaves and had your fill. What you should be interested in is me and my teaching. I am the bread of life.
There are many who would be very happy for the church to retreat from any social or political involvement. Whenever an archbishop or a synod report comments on the political arena, there’s a predictable response from those criticised. They ask the church to stick to its business of ‘saving souls’.
To be fair, the church sometimes doesn’t help itself. It can appear just to take one side in an argument rather than bringing the gospel to bear in a way that gives fresh insight.
Take for example the matter of our daily bread. Political parties have arguments about whether the primary focus should be on making the economic loaf bigger, or whether it should be on dividing the loaf more equally. And there are different political solutions proposed and many technical arguments made about what would best help the poor.
If the Church only contributes at that level, it can’t easily do so with the authority of Jesus. Its voice becomes just one opinion among others. On the other hand, is Jesus really saying that the Church should have no interest in the business of people’s material welfare?
Let’s listen more carefully to his words. ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever has faith in me will never thirst.’
The bread of life. Not some particular period of life – such as after death. Not some particular part of life – the spiritual or God part, as if that’s separate from our bodily life. Not just the kind of life you have after becoming a Christian. Not just human life actually. Not just biological life, but the vitality, the energy, the fire present at the heart of anything in creation.
Jesus says – to all that, I am bread. I am that most basic of resources without which it could not be. I am the sustenance of the whole world.
Jesus is challenging us about how deep our faith goes. Does your faith stop with yourself and your own abilities and the abilities of human society to provide for itself? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with providing for yourself or working for a living. Jesus isn’t speaking against human ingenuity in the provision of food or the creative use of the earth’s resources or the application of scientific knowledge.
He is asking where the bedrock of our faith lies. If it doesn’t go deeper than ourselves, then we’re in the business of trying to get control of the world or get control of our homes and lives, with nothing to trust beyond ourselves. It’s a path that’s likely to leave us anxious, never satisfied, always fearful, because even when everything seems in order, we know deep down that there’s so much that we can’t control. This is a world where the unpredictable can happen. We can’t insure against everything. No amount of wealth brings ultimate guarantees.
So this is a path that can set us in competition with each other, or lead us to exploit the world’s resources, because it becomes my job to try to establish my family’s ultimate security. It’s us against the world.
Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life. If you have faith in me you’ll never be hungry’. Did you see the miracle of the feeding of the 5000? That’s what God is like, endlessly resourceful. Not that he is a free lunch we can raid at will, but when we’re at the end of our resources, when we’re clearly not in control, we are never defeated. We don’t live in a world which is fundamentally against us, a recalcitrant order which is to be overcome.
This is God’s world, and Jesus is the bread of its energy and life. You don’t have to grasp at the stuff of this world out of fear for survival. We are freed to see the world as gift, as a place of wonder. We can of course try to understand, do the science, probe the mysteries of how things tick. But we never get to the bedrock that way. Because that bedrock is Christ.
We will never control nature, because it is as deep a mystery as God himself. And that is a glorious truth which sets us free and takes away that panicked hunger for survival. The pure gift we see in Jesus is exactly who God is and he is present to all things.
We stop seeing ourselves as the centre, but Jesus as the centre of each part. And we therefore approach the stuff of this world and each other, not with fear or a hunger to possess, but with reverence. With a trust that this is a world whose depth and logic is in God. It’s a world where, if we learn God’s tune, and live with the grain of creation, there’s no limit to the bread, to the life, which Christ can provide.
At Morning Prayer we sometimes use the Benedicite or Song of the Three. It’s a litany of creation’s praise. O ye stars of heaven, bless ye the Lord. O ye beasts and cattle, bless ye the Lord. O all ye green things upon the earth, bless ye the Lord. It goes on and on, acknowledging that nothing is mere stuff, to be controlled or exploited or possessed. Wherever we look we see that which has the dignity of being able to glorify God.
That’s why St Francis used to look around and see everything as his family. He would speak of Brother Fire, Mother Earth, Sister Water. He saw everything in relationship with the other. He even spoke of Sister Death. He learnt that the way to make a difference in this world, the way to allow this to become a place where people and plants and animals live more in harmony with each other, is to give up the idea that we’re in control, and relinquish our acquisitiveness, and our thirst for power.
In other words we must trust that Christ’s generosity is the way. As he offers himself to us, so he gives us the gift of being able to give in return. In all the practical ways I mentioned earlier. In the stewardship of our money and time and talents. And in our daily work – which it’s possible to do, not just to put bread on our tables, but as service for others, as work for food that endures to eternal life.