Sunday, August 9, 2015

More Than Bread: Taking it to the next level (August 9, 2015)

Homily.  Yr B P19, August 9 2015, St. Albans
Readings:  2 Sam 18.5-9,15,31-33; Ps 130; Eph 4.25-5.2; John 6.35,41-51

“I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In the gospel of John, Jesus never does miracles.  The great acts of power that he performs are called signs, not miracles.  And like any sign, they are meant to point us to something beyond the sign itself, to point us to a greater reality, a bigger truth.  A truth so big in fact that it may take us a long time to get there. 

And that will raise questions.  Indeed, we see in John’s gospel that whenever Jesus performs a sign, the sign provokes questions on the part of the disciples and the crowds, questions which Jesus sometimes answers, but more often he uses as a spring-board to get to the next level, to point us to the greater truth.

We have spent the last few Sundays in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, which begins with Jesus going up the mountain, followed by a large crowd.  And there he takes five loaves and two fish, and he feeds the hungry crowd of more than 5000 people.  It is a sign – but to what is it pointing?

We know what it means to be hungry.  Perhaps not as well as the crowds of poor peasants who were fed by Jesus, but we know what it feels like to crave food, the gnawing in the stomach, the need to be fed.  And we know what it is like to satisfy that hunger, the relief, the pleasure, even sometimes the urgency of eating.

And so it’s not surprising that the people who have been fed search for Jesus the next day, hoping to once more receive their fill of bread.  And this is where Jesus takes it to the next level.  Because the sign which has been done with ordinary bread is not about ordinary bread.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

Sure, eating bread will keep your heart beating.  Maybe even for many years.  But there’s more than that to life.   Jesus points to a bigger understanding of what we mean by life.  We hunger for much more than bread.  We want much more than beating hearts.  We were made for more than that.  The crowd gets it.  And we get it too.  When we read Psalm 130 together this morning, when we heard that plaintive voice calling “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” we know instinctively, we know from experience, that this is a cry which hungers for more than loaves of bread.

But what do we do about that sort of hunger?  When our stomach groans, we know how to feed ourselves.  When there is a groaning in the depth of our soul, how then do we go about getting the food we need?  Or do we simply try to pretend that this deeper groaning isn’t really there?

Earlier this week I met with a university student who was wrestling with this very question.  If I want to deal with my physical health, she told me, I know what to do.  I can go to a doctor or a health professional who can assess my physical health, and can tell me what I need to do to improve my health, what to eat, how to exercise, how to treat any illness that I have. 

And it’s much the same for mental health, there are people who can analyze my mental health, and diagnose any illness or other concerns and then prescribe a variety of things I can do to be healthier mentally.  But it’s just not the same for my spiritual health.  I don’t know who can help me understand where I am spiritually and what I need to do to be healthy.

The crowd asks Jesus the same question.  “What must we do to have this food that endures for eternal life?”

Perhaps the crowd was expecting the same sort of answer that I gave the university student.  Practice spiritual disciplines.  Pray.  Meditate.  Engage in reflection.  Serve others.  Practice generosity.  Study the scriptures.  Be part of a community of compassion, love and forgiveness. Open yourself up to what the Spirit of God is doing in your life.

That’s how I answered.  But that’s not how Jesus answers.

Jesus takes it up another level.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”

“And who has he sent?  Are you claiming to be the one?  Are you claiming to be greater than Moses, who gave us manna to eat in the wilderness?  How are you going to prove that?”

“I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.  I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

This is, first of all, a huge promise.  It is the promise of abundant life, of eternal life.  It is the promise that all of our deepest desires will be fulfilled, that all our spiritual hunger will be satisfied the same way that a piece of bread can calm the churning in our stomachs.

But it is also an audacious claim.  For Jesus is claiming for himself the name of God, claiming for himself a divine origin, and he’s promising us that by trusting him, by following him, by entering into relationship with him, by believing in him, we will receive life in its fullest, a life so full that even the bonds of death, time and space cannot contain it.

Are you surprised that the crowd is offended by this?  I’m not.  It’s too much.  It goes beyond their understanding of who God is.  It certainly doesn’t square with their knowledge of who Jesus is, Mary’s son, raised in Nazareth.

I mean, imagine if my response to the spiritual yearning of the student I met this week had been to say that all she had to do to satisfy her spiritual hunger was to believe in me, because I am the one sent from heaven.  I hope that if I ever make a claim like that to any one of you that you’ll turn and run from me as fast as you can!

C.S. Lewis once made the point that it is impossible to be lukewarm about Jesus, to simply regard him as a good man, or even a great teacher.  And it is claims like this one in the gospel of John that he uses to make his point.  When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven,” we are faced with a choice:   either profess him as the Son of God or run away from him as fast as we can.

Jesus’ claim to be the answer to their deepest longings and needs offends the crowd.  It is an audacious claim, an offensive claim.  It still has the power to offend today.  And I suppose it only gets worse when Jesus carries on and claims that “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”.

Now we’ve gone up another level.  Here is the claim that the answer to our deepest spiritual needs and longings, the need to love and to be loved, for belonging, for hope, for dignity, for meaning and purpose in our lives, for joy and hope, the way to all of these passes through the cross of Jesus.

And at this point, I am quite willing to admit that it’s all a bit beyond me.  Despite my work, despite my theological education, I have not got this all figured out. 

But there is something about Jesus that I can’t let go of.  Despite the audacity of the claims, they seem to have a ring of truth about them.  I like what all this is pointing to.  Jesus too seems to have a ring of truth about him.  And just as I don’t need to understand everything about how bread works to satisfy my physical hunger in order to eat, I don’t need to have everything all figured out in order to follow Jesus.   And so, I follow.  I trust.  I have faith.  And on that journey of faith, I experience life, that abundant life that Jesus talks about, not always, but often enough to keep me going.

Many in the crowd leave however.  So Jesus asks the twelve, his closest friends, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Simon Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Today Nathan will stand with Simon Peter and countless others throughout the ages who have made the decision to follow Jesus.  We haven’t got it all figured out.  We recognize the immensity and audacity of what we profess.  But we come to Jesus.  We trust.  We follow.  And we believe.

“I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”


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