A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson
John 6:35, 41-51
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said.
This liturgical year we are spending time with the Gospel of Matthew, following the stories of Jesus and his encounters there. But the writers of the lectionary, the book that tells us what bible passages to read each day and particularly each Sunday, have chosen to pause our study of Matthew to spend five weeks with another gospel instead. For five weeks we are reading just one chapter of the Gospel according to St John. We are reading Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to St John, a chapter whose focus is on one thing, bread. We are to spend five weeks exploring John’s account of Jesus as the “bread of life”. This Sunday we are in week three.
John’s Gospel has us encounter Jesus in miracles – what the gospel writer calls “signs” – and in healings, and in teaching, and in conversations. John’s Gospel tells of Jesus speaking of himself as closely connected with God, using a series of sayings that begin with the words “I am”. This chapter is no different. It opens with the story of the feeding of the five thousand. We encounter Jesus feeding a large crowd of hungry people with bread. It sets the theme for the chapter with Jesus taking a few small loaves and a few fish, giving thanks and feeding the crowd. We know the story. There are twelve baskets of leftovers. After feeding the crowd abundantly with the bread, Jesus withdraws to be alone, only to find his disciples in trouble in a boat on a stormy sea. He walks on the water towards them, frightening them even more, saying ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Jesus in the presence of physical threat brings calm and addresses their fear.
The crowd follow him to the other side of the lake, but for the wrong reasons. Jesus speaks to them about this. ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” He is beginning to hint to them that his presence is not about physical bread, physical nourishment. His presence is about something altogether different. His presence is about eternal life. And Jesus speaks with the crowd about faith, about believing in him. But the crowd don’t understand. Struggling, they ask for a sign, for some proof. ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’ This crowd have been given a sign but they cannot see it. They know that bread matters in their story of faith, that God gave manna when their ancestors were journeying in the wilderness, but they don’t see what is before their eyes. Jesus says to them, ‘My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They say to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
It is then that Jesus says to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This brings us to the portion of John Chapter 6 that we heard read this morning. The struggling goes on. The people only understand the physical world. Jesus is talking about something altogether other. “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” He says.
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Jesus is taking for himself words from the story of faith fundamental to his very being. Bread means God is present nourishing the needs of the people. The words “I am” send echoes of the words God said to Moses before he led the people out of slavery in Egypt into freedom in the Promised Land. Who shall I say sent me? Moses said. “I am who I am,” God replied. Jesus is using all in his literary and biblical power to get across to the puzzled crowd that he is the one sent by God to bring them deeply into relationship with God. Only they don’t get it.
And, often, of course, neither do we.
We know the words of Jesus, Jesus as “bread of life”, as well as the crowd that day knew the words of their scriptures. And often we don’t get it. We want to be physically fed, instead. Or we find ourselves terrified in some situation as the disciples did at sea, and we want to be rescued. Or we ask in some way, as the crowd did, for a sign, some proof, some dramatic reality that will break through the hard truth that we live in a physical world that often, as in a time of pandemic, or in times of bushfires, or in times of the illness of a loved one, threatens to overwhelm us.
Often we don’t get what Jesus is saying, either.
So, let us be still for a moment and wonder, wonder when we glimpsed the truth. That Jesus, …God, …faith, …the praying life, …the reflective life,… whatever words we might struggle to find for this truth, is for us, too, the source of life, the gentle love in our life, the place where we find forgiveness for our life, the creating presence in our life. What Jesus calls eternal life. Let us be still for a moment and wonder where we glimpsed this truth. For the fact that we are here, called here, by the rhythm of coming each week, or the love of the community, our companions (did you know that word means “those we eat bread with”) or the music, or the reading of the scriptures, or the fact that each week we reach out are hands in utter vulnerability, really, for the bread of the Eucharist… the fact that we are here means God has called to us and something in us has, tentatively, perhaps, said “Yes”.
Where did we glimpse this truth?
For many of us, we have grown up in it. For me it was singing in a church choir for fifteen years though my childhood and my university years. Every week, practice on Thursday nights, two services on Sundays, and we weren’t allowed to sing on Sunday if we hadn’t attended the practice, of course! I couldn’t name a day, or a year, even. But that choir made me who I am, formed me into a priest in the end. For many of us it will be slow work of liturgy lived week by week, day by day, perhaps, that has helped us glimpse eternal life.
It may have been a person, a relative, or a spiritual guide, or a friend. It may have been a particular conversation, or even a book. I have been greatly helped by a number of books, as you know, for I quote them often. But the first book that blew the clouds apart for a time in my twenties was “God of Surprises” by the Jesuit writer and priest, Gerard Hughes. Gerard Hughes writes so gently and beautifully about the love of God, God who longs to teach us to pray, God who reaches us through our feelings and our memories, God who speaks to our hearts through what it is we long to do, God who is found, in a place that might surprise us, in our desires. Gerard Hughes introduced me to Saint Ignatius and his way of praying, where we reflect on scripture passages using our imaginations, where we pray the Examen or “Review of the Day”, looking back over each day for signs of God in what we have enjoyed and what we have found difficult. This way of praying is what helps me most in knowing Jesus as the “bread of life”. But for each of us it will be a different way. We might know, though, what Gerard Hughes taught me, that God longs to teach us to pray.
There is one other thing that we might ponder and that is the matter of sin and forgiveness. Gerard Hughes describes sin as failing to “Let God be God” in our lives. I think one of the most difficult things about the praying life is that of asking for God’s forgiveness, knowing God’s forgiveness. For there is only one place to know God’s forgiveness and that is sitting in the uncomfortable place where we have done wrong, the place of sin, where we have not let God be God. It is an uncomfortable place. And we would rather not be there. For we often think, underneath, that God will be so appalled at us, whatever our sin or our frailty, that God will not be able to forgive us. But we can only know Jesus as the bread of life, can only be gathered into eternal life, when we have experienced the forgiveness of God, known only in the place where we honestly name our sins.
I am the bread of life. Jesus says. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
We have spoken our words of confession and heard pronounced the words of God’s forgiveness. As we walk forward and reach out our hands for the bread of Holy Communion, symbolizing our great need of God, may we know in our lives that loving presence, that life giving presence, that forgiving presence of God who we know in Jesus as the one who gives eternal life.