Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 2nd August
John 6: 25-35. Jesus – the Bread of Life
Now let’s try and imagine the scene from our gospel reading if you will. This is right after the astonishing event where 5,000 people were fed out of practically nothing (although let’s remember that it is precisely ‘the practically nothing’ that is the most any of us have to offer that gets transformed in the hands of Jesus if we give it over to him!). Jesus is at the height of his popularity - the crowds are wanting to compel him - by force if necessary – and make him their king, their political messiah. He even tries to get away from all the people’s demands by crossing the lake – only to be followed the next day when they’d figured out where he might be, and you can imagine a flotilla of little boats follows him across Galilee.
And it’s at this very point – to a huge crowd of people that Jesus says these amazing words – one of his great ‘I am’ sayings: "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35)
The gospel writer John then goes on to tell us about the people’s reactions to Jesus’ attempt to get them off their physical and political preoccupations and onto spiritual matters – as he tries to get them to think in new ways – which actually is the root meaning of the much misunderstood term ‘repentance’ – metanoia – which isn’t about reading depressing messages of doom on a sandwich board and feeling guilty & bad about how awful we are – but about thinking in a totally different way – and as a result going in a different direction. Some of the people at the time, I’m sure, would have found what Jesus had to say to them – well – “interesting” (like some of the polite responses I had to a sermon a couple of weeks back at A Mothers’ Union Festival!). I well remember that ‘interesting’ was a useful response to some of the opinions expressed by my university students over the years in seminars – where they seemed sometimes to come from another planet. “Well that’s an interesting viewpoint – what do others think?” (!)
So you’ve got that group which found it all rather mildly diverting – like the stereotypical English Anglican congregation probably – anticipating a glass of sherry after a ‘nice’ sermon – and before watching cricket on the village green. But there were others around (we’re told by John a little later) who grumbled, complained, argued, whined, and ultimately left - apparently in droves. You would have heard them saying things like: “Jesus none of what you’re saying has anything to do with God” – and how this must’ve cut him to the quick. “This man” they called him dismissively – this man which carries with it the clear implication of ‘this nobody’. Suddenly many of Jesus’ followers weren’t buying it any longer – they couldn’t fit the miracles and the message into the unimpressive form of “this man” they were looking at. “Who can accept it?”...”.not us”..!
So what on earth might be going on that would account for such reactions? And what might this say about our own responses in our churches today – because if we look closely there’s no doubt that we can see a bit of ourselves in John’s account.
(Well) for one thing, it was the MATERIALISTIC folks who just couldn’t stomach it when Jesus shifted from physical food to all this spiritual talk. Many of the people who were ‘kind of’ following Jesus up to this point were hoping for pragmatic solutions - a political Saviour – someone who fitted into their own agenda. Not surprisingly, they would have wanted free handouts, material benefits – because under Roman oppression there were a lot of hungry, jobless, homeless people - and Herod’s puppet government had tried to avoid riots by buying the locals off with handouts. But the plan had backfired, and the demands of the people simply grew and grew (as they have always done – with selective memories and romantic notions of the past – as we had in our Old Testament reading..)
Jesus knew very well that he faced a similar problem the day after he’d fed the masses with the little boy’s cheap barley cakes and pickled fish – there was an endless, infinite demand. In fact, when the crowd arrived, he called them on that didn’t he?:"I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood anything..” (John 6:26)
Apparently Christian missionaries in developing countries often talked about “Rice Christians.” - people who would quickly convert to Christianity in exchange for food or some other benefit. And I don’t think we’re so very different in the West: people are not averse to an instrumental use of church for business contacts or community status (you should see some of the messages we get on our church website telling us that for a fee they can exploit St Barnabas’s impact for profit! – ha!). People only look to God for what they can get out of him. And boy, aren’t we quick to turn our backs the first time he fails to deliver on our terms.
But the materially-minded folks weren’t the only ones to turn away from Jesus message. Did you notice a second group? They said: “We want to perform the works of God, too. What should we do – what’s the secret formula? “ (John 6:28). We might perhaps call them the LEGALISTS – these are the rule-followers. We live in a managerialist, performance-obsessed culture that assesses and measures us. We’re in the middle of that season where the anticipation of exam results, stars, grades, the award of degree classes – all apparently indicate how valued we are. Perhaps that was behind these folks’ response too – they wanted to feel important. And even if there was nothing people could actually do, they at least wanted a list of procedures they could hang on to – to somehow prove their worth. But the good news – NO! - make that ‘great’ and ‘amazing’ news of what Christ is trying to say - is that we’re loved not because of what we do – and certainly not because of who we are, or what we look like – like we get to deserve any of this amazing grace – but because God simply loves us, unconditionally – he’s besotted with his creation – us - that’s the nature of the life of the Trinity into which he always wants to draw us – and as the Dean of Monmouth, Lister Tonge said recently at the Ordination Service in Brecon – “we are loved beyond our wildest dreams..”
Jesus wants to make his home in the heart of every believer; calling each one of us to know him for ourselves – to enjoy his companionship, study his ways, listen to him, learn from him. As his beloved people we want to be teaching and hearing and living what’s on God’s heart. We don’t want to be publishing lists of dos and don’ts; and we don’t want to be excluding anybody either, because in God’s upside-down kingdom everybody’s welcome. I remember one of my Oxford tutors saying “the Gospel is always subversive”. Blessed are...?...” the poor, or poor in spirit” – those who know they have nothing with which to commend themselves – and they are the ones who get to the front of the line.
But... (now as then)... some people simply don’t want the kind of relationship with God that actually changes them inside - they’d almost prefer to memorize a set of rules, because it keeps God nicely at arms length – and allows them to focus attention on others who might not be as correct as they think themselves to be. Jesus made it quite clear that he came to build relationships, not establish yet another bunch of rules and procedures that tie people up – and he tended to get really cross at the religious leaders of his day who did just that. So when the crowd demanded such a list, here’s his rather surprising answer: "This is the only work God wants from you. Believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29). And this is no different from what they’d always known in their own scriptures...What does the Lord require of you? (Micah 6:8) “To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God...”
As astonishing as it sounds, Jesus wants a genuine love relationship with every single one of us; the kind of relationship that can’t be bought (or earned), and isn’t dependent on rule-keeping. (So we’ve had the materialistically-minded, and the rule-bound folks. And then there’s just one more group that walked out on Jesus that day if you noticed – and in them we see another aspect of our human nature represented.. "Show us a miraculous sign if you want us to believe in you. What can you do? (John 6:30). Aha the SENSATIONALISTS!
(Oh boy) Just think about it! Jesus had just fed over 5,000 people with a couple of sardines and few tiny rolls – and here they are, the very next day, asking him for another SIGN?! Yesterday’s miracle wasn’t enough to last until the next morning. It may be hard to believe but there are incredible pressures on all those involved in Christian ministry these days to keep their congregations entertained or “wowed” (as my American friends might say). Do this and you’ll keep them around; bore them, challenge them and they’re gone. We’re part of what sociologists call a ‘post-institutional’ world – a consumer society, where people easily shift their loyalties and are used to shopping around for spiritual entertainment. Isn’t it a sad truth that as Christians we can be so very fickle – that if our church or those leading it doesn’t suit – we’ll hop from one to another? Or not go at all? I think you’ve probably heard this before, but there’s a wonderful response to that old chestnut – “I’m not going there, they’re a bunch of hypocrites” Some wag responded by saying – “Yes – and there’s always room for one more!“ Isn’t that ingenious!!
And Jesus’ response to all this?
“The true bread is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Not surprisingly his audience wanted some of this. "Sir, give us that bread every day." And then Jesus points to himself (as if saying do you not get it?!). "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”
Are you in there somewhere? I certainly am. So often the very thing we need most is the last thing we look for – and if you read on in this chapter you can see some more about the desperately sad responses of the crowd.
In his 2005 book ‘Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places’ Eugene Peterson who gave us the Message translation of the Bible says this:
“The perpetual threat to living a real life, an authentic and true and honest life, is to evade or dump ‘this man’, this Jesus, this ordinary way he comes to us and this inglorious company he keeps, and pretentiously attempt to be our own god or to fashion a glamorous god or gods that appeal to our vanity...Jesus blocks the way. Jesus is not a god of our own making and he is certainly not a god designed to win popularity contests”
So let’s make sure we come to Jesus – just as we are – no self-deception, to fix (or feast) our eyes on him; to place our trust in him, once more; to believe on him, feed on his Word & in Holy Communion with him and with one other. And let’s discover more of the love of God in Jesus Christ as we enter into the joy of a closer relationship of dependence on him, so that he becomes for us the bread of eternal life. And let’s take to heart from the Apostle Paul’s encouragement at the end of our Epistle reading – this time from the Message:We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love Amen