Jesus, the source and substance of true life, divine life, available to all
Liz Stuart, 2 October 2022
Philippians 4: 4–9; John 6: 25–35
Sermon at St Matthew’s
I sometimes wonder, rather heretically, whether evangelism would be a lot easier if Jesus had taken up chocolate at the Last Supper. I know that the historic Jesus never knew the delights of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, but the ancient Middle Eastern people like the Egyptians certainly had a sweet tooth, so there must have been an equivalent. Instead, he took bread.
It is an interesting choice for someone who consistently used the image of a feast as an evocative image of the kingdom of God. Feasts were the only time most people in Jesus’ day would have eaten meat, usually roasted. So it is fascinating that the one who was so quickly to become ‘the lamb of God’, and whose death would so easily be interpreted as a sacrifice, did not identify his body with meat. Unlike meat, fish was regularly eaten by the less wealthy, and bread with fish was a very common meal. The fish was, of course, to become a secret symbol of Christ in the early Church, but Jesus does not use that image of himself. The image he uses is of bread.
He takes bread and says, ‘This is my body’, and in our gospel reading today he declares, ‘I am the bread of life’. In Jesus’ day bread was the essential food, equivalent, I suppose, to rice in Japan. So essential was it to the diet that ‘to eat bread’ meant ‘to have a meal’. The poor ate barley bread and the wealthy wheat bread.
Bread – ordinary, boring, everyday but essential bread. What exactly is Jesus saying here? Pretty clearly, he is saying that he is the source, foundation and substance of true life, divine life; but in choosing the image of bread I think he is also saying something else. The feast of the kingdom may be coming, but as the bread of life he is available before that meal is ready and is available to everyone. Bread is not a culturally specific food – every culture has bread. Unlike manna, which was sent only to Israelites, Jesus is bread ‘for the world’. Prisoners in their cells, pilgrims on their journeys, those who betray and sin, everyone eats bread. By declaring himself the bread of life, Jesus declares that he is available to all.
Jesus is bread ‘for the world’. Prisoners in their cells, pilgrims on their journeys, those who betray and sin, everyone eats bread.
And he offers to fill us up as bread does, so that we are never hungry, we are no longer consumed by our desires, ambitions and worries but full of him, of God’s love for us, and therefore ready and free for the coming of the kingdom – the sort of person described by St Paul in our epistle today. Thankful, joyful, full of God’s peace, such are those who consume and live off the bread of life, in theory at least. The problem is that we allow other things to consume and be consumed by us, which is why we need to come regularly to receive the bread of life.
The Church of England in its theological generosity allows for various interpretations of what happens when we celebrate Holy Communion, and there will be different views among us today. But what will unite all of us is the belief that in some mysterious way Christ is present when we eat the bread and drink the wine of Holy Communion. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread because he is the bread of life.
That is why we come to this table – people limping towards the kingdom of God, two steps forward, fifteen steps back – to be fed and filled to carry on, fuelled for the journey towards the kingdom and away from our self-obsession, fed by Christ and with Christ himself. But we must be careful to remind ourselves that this is not the table of a clubhouse, a buffet for members only. It is more like a soup kitchen in which Christ makes himself available to all in that most basic of foodstuffs, bread.
In a sermon given at his enthronement, Archbishop Rowan Williams made the point that the really hungry can smell fresh bread cooking from a mile away. That is why we are here, but where are the others those who hunger and thirst for true, everlasting life? Our job is to find them and point them to the one in whom all their hungers will be satisfied.
Talk after the Green Harvest Festival starfish drama at St Paul’s
Thank you very much for your drama. It was powerful.
Have any of your learned how to swim? And have you learned the starfish position? Apparently, if you ever find yourself in trouble in water you should float on your back like a starfish until you are rescued!
I wonder what you think the starfish would have thought lying on that beach in our story, needing to get back into the sea but unable to move to get back in. Afraid and hopeless, perhaps? And getting more so as the mayor has meetings about meetings while it becomes more and more difficult to breathe outside the water. Thank goodness for Mary’s character. The mayor needs to feel important and in control and wants recognition. Mary doesn’t care about any of those things; all she cares about is saving the starfish.
Jesus is like that; he doesn’t care about anything except loving us. He tells us that he is the bread of life. If you eat a lot of bread, how do you feel? Full, probably. Jesus makes us feel full because he makes us feel completely loved by God. Do the starfish shape because that is what Jesus is like, opening his arms to us.
So, we don’t need to be like the mayor and need to be important and bossy and everyone saying how great we are, because we know that because of Jesus we are full of the love of God. We could not be loved or valued more. That knowledge frees us to be like Mary’s character and just get on and focus on other people and what they need – to be really grateful for all that God has given us, which is what Harvest Festival is about. To put into practice the love that we have received from Jesus and to make a big difference in and to the world by small acts of kindness, and doing things that make a small difference to our planet that, when you add them all up, make a big difference. So, let’s do a starfish to remind us how much God loves us, and let’s pat our tummies to remind us how full we are of God’s love.