Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Trinity 11
August 19, 2012, 4:56 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday August 19th, 2012

For the fourth Sunday in a row the Gospel reading concerns bread: Jesus the Bread of Life. Is there any more to say on this subject? Well of course, one can never exhaust the richness of the Gospel. But I shall try to offer some kind of over-view of this whole episode, which began with the miracle of the loaves and the pursuit of the crowd as far as the synagogue in Capernaum where, John tells us, Jesus gave this discourse on the Bread of Life.

Jesus said to them, “You haven’t come looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because I gave you bread to eat.” What he meant by ‘not seeing the signs’ was that they had not seen the significance of what he had done. They were just glad to have been given food. So Jesus told them that they must not strive for merely earthly food, but for eternal food.

At his temptation, he had told Satan, “Man does not live on bread alone”, and in Samaria he had told his followers “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” His food, his sustenance, was God’s word, the manifestation of the Divine will. That is the food he was now offering to the crowds. “How do we work for that?” they asked. “You must believe in the one God has sent,” he replied.

They understood very well that he meant himself, so they asked, “What sign will you give? What work will you do? Our fathers had manna in the desert; as scripture says: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Their reaction is interesting- they obviously had not seen any significance in the events across the lake. It is a reminder to us that miracles can happen right under our noses, and we do not perceive them. Jesus’s companions brought round baskets of bread- so what? Show us a real sign, like Moses. It was at this point that Jesus said that the real bread from heaven was not the material manna that Moses gave, but the life-giving spiritual bread that comes from the Father. “Give us that, then,” they rather ungraciously demanded, and at that point Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”

Many in the crowd did not like Jesus saying “I am the bread that has come down from heaven.” It was the phrase about ‘coming down from heaven’ that they jibbed at. ‘Coming down from heaven’ suggested fiery chariots, angelic visitations, and so on. Jesus was clearly an ordinary human being, whose parents were known. Having been born in the usual way, how could he be said to have ‘come down from heaven’? Jesus made no attempt to answer this question. Rather, he simply said that coming to him (so as never to hunger again) is not a matter of human attraction or human judgement. It is a matter of responding to the inner working of God himself. Rather than arguing and complaining, his hearers should be listening for the still, small voice of God. We might say that in order to hear that voice, we ourselves must be still, and we must be small- that is, conscious of our littleness.

Jesus is the unique messenger (and indeed message) from God. Last Sunday’s Gospel contained the words, “No one has seen the Father except the one who comes from God: he has seen the Father.” It is always difficult, when reading John, to know when he is quoting the words of Jesus, and when he is interjecting an aside of his own. The sudden change from “I” and “me” to “the one” and “he” suggests that those words are John’s. In any case, we are being told about a profound unity between the Jesus we can see (or could have seen, if we had been alive two thousand years ago in Palestine) and the God we cannot see. Eternal life comes from believing– and ‘belief’ here means much more than ‘thinking’, or ‘having an opinion’. Jesus is asking us to trust him, even when we cannot understand him. If we do, if by our trust we unite our hearts and minds with his, then we have eternal life.

The manna that Moses gave in the desert was only a foreshadow and analogy of what we may call the ‘true’ Bread of Life. The life it sustained was a physical thing, and coming to an end. The Life we aspire to is something else, eternal and timeless. Then the real shock. We might still think that he is talking about something intellectual, accepting his teaching, trying to live ‘better lives’. Having told us that material bread is only a sign of the spiritual bread, he pulls the rug from under us again. “The bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

I will leave you with just this one point: the Jesus we must believe in, trust and follow if we are to have eternal life, is not an abstraction. We are not being told to accept a ‘code of life’, however exalted, that would be true whether or not there was a Jesus, regardless of who he was. We are being asked to put our faith in a real and concrete Person, who lived on earth two thousand years ago, and who also lives now. Not in some ‘airy-fairy’ way as when we speak of someone ‘living on’ in their ideals, followers etc. (of course Jesus does live on in those ways too);  but as someone we can speak to, someone who sees us and listens to us, someone we hope to meet and see one day. Meanwhile, our Holy Communion is the real but hidden way in which we meet him now. Let us remember that when we approach the altar.


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