Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 10 Sunday 5 August 2018
TRINITY 10, 2018 HIGH MASS
Readings: Exodus 16.2-4,9-15; Psalm 78. 23-29; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6. 24-35
Last Sunday the Church began reading the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which starts with the feeding of the 5000 and continues the discourse on Bread of Life which we will hear on this and the next three Sundays.
We heard how the crowds had been so impressed that they thought Jesus must be “the prophet who is to come,” the new Moses, the Messiah who would lead them to freedom; so they sought to make him king. But Jesus had avoided being co-opted to their nationalist cause by slipping away into the hills.
But the crowds were not so easily dissuaded. They have re-crossed the lake to Capernaum and tracked him down. There follows the first section of the Discourse: a dialogue in which Jesus responds to a series of three questions. Those who asked them must have found his answers puzzling, even frustrating, because, as often in John, he does not seem to answer them directly at all. So when, they ask “Rabbi, when did you come here?” he says nothing about when or how he got there.
When people ask him questions in John’s Gospel, Jesus often does not give them a direct answer. Instead he seeks to take them to a deeper level. So now, he speaks about their motive for pursuing him:
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
They are looking for him for the wrong reason. It is not that he had ignored the physical needs of hungry people. He had just given them all they could eat and more. But life is more than eating, and until the crowds understand that, they will not grasp who Jesus really is, and what he is about: “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. For it is on him that the Father has set his seal.”
“Sign” is John’s word for miracle. Jesus’ miracles are extraordinary actions that put right the situations of people in need: the sick, the hungry, the dying; or even just those who’ve run out or wine at a wedding reception. But the results are not lasting unless the miracles are perceived as “signs” pointing to something infinitely greater: the eternal gift of God in Jesus. The crowd’s preoccupation with short-term benefits prevents them from seeing beyond that to what really matters. They are blind in seeing only food, not a sign of something more satisfying, more life-giving. They are hardly alone in doing that; they represent us all.
They ask a second question: ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?” They have grasped enough to want to find out what they can do to get beyond the continuously unsatisfactory solutions. But they still want to be in charge. It’s about what they must do.
Jesus’ replies in a way which sounds very like Paul’s relentless emphasis on faith: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Instead of doing “works,” they are to “believe” in Jesus as the one sent by God. This is heard repeatedly in John: they are to trust in God’s special agent, have faith in what he says, in what he does, and in what he shows himself to be. The “work of God” is not in the first place something they and we must do, it is something God does. It is what God gives and what we must receive.
This simple-sounding answer is not simple at all. It demands of them, and of us, a radical transformation of life: from self-reliance, trust in ourselves, being in charge or our own life and destiny, to trust and reliance on God. As the discourse and dialogue continues we will see that even his disciples find this hard to swallow.
So the miracle that really matters is that of faith, when God breaks through the misconceptions we have held about life, our pursuit of unsatisfying answers, our self-centred worlds, to reveal the radically new age embodied in and taught by Jesus.
With their third question, the crowds ask for a sign. This seems odd when they have already had the one sign which has brought them to Capernaum in pursuit of him. But they seem to want Jesus to do it again, to be their ongoing source of physical food, to provide further 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.”’
In fact, they still want to be in charge: to see and weigh the evidence, and then perhaps believe. But this is what prevents them from believing in Jesus as the bread of life. They compare the food they have had with the manna on which their ancestors were fed daily in the wilderness. So far, Jesus has fed them only once, but the manna came every day. Can he do better than that?
So Jesus leads them in a Bible study; he reinterprets the text they quote from Psalm 78.
First of all, it was not Moses who gave them bread from heaven as they seem to think, by “my Father.”
Secondly, he changes the tense of the verb from past to present. God not only “gave” but “gives,” in the present, freely and without limit: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Their response echoes that of the Samaritan woman at the well when Jesus speaks of himself as the source of the water of life: “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Thirdly, the true bread from heaven is not manna, but Jesus himself: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
When the Israelites first see the manna, they ask: “What is it?”; in Hebrew, man hu. The name “manna” is a play on the sound of the question. The manna, like all good things, is a gift. But it is also a test. When the Lord responds to their complaint with a promise to “rain bread from heaven,” it is to “test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.”
The instruction contains a promise and a test. The promise is: “Each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.” The test is whether they will do just as they are told, no more and no less. Some of them fail because they do not trust the promise that tomorrow there will be enough for that day. They try to save some of the manna, but their hoard goes off.
Deuteronomy sees the gift as teaching a fundamental point about life: “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna…in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8.3).
“Every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” has a double meaning:
It is spiritual, calling attention to the divine laws and teachings.
It refers to the creative power of the word of God, by which all good things are brought into being.
That question, “What is it?,” is one which the outsider, the newcomer, might ask of what we do in the Eucharist? How can people gathering together day by day to eat bread and drink wine make a difference in our lives, let alone the life of the world; a world in which millions go hungry while others throw food away because they have more than they can possibly eat; a world in which millions suffer physical malnutrition and millions of others what Mother Theresa of Calcutta called starvation of the soul?
Part of what makes it difficult for people to understand the answer is that we live in a culture which thinks of our world as “nature” rather than as “creation.” We may be amazed and fascinated by the natural world as brought into our living rooms by David Attenborough, We may be appalled by the mess we are making of it; but we do not see it as God’s creation, bearing the stamp of its Maker. We do not see it as gift; something to be treasured, to be thankful for.
Another difficulty is that what we think a sign is, is not what John’s means when he uses that word. We understand that a sign can point to something or somewhere but it has no necessary connection with what it points to.
Someone posted on Facebook the other day a photo of a road sign which had a picture of a squirrel with the words : “Red Squirrels Drive Safely.” There was no punctuation. Speeding past, you could read it either as a warning to drive safely to protect to an endangered species; or as a statement about the driving skills of red squirrels. As another friend commented: he was surprised to hear that they could drive at all!
That road sign speaks of squirrels but it is not a squirrel. Even if it helps save the life of a squirrel, it does not share in the life of a squirrel. A “sign” in John’s Gospel not only points to Christ but is a means of sharing in his life; of communion with him; of becoming one with him: “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus.
Another word for “sign” is “sacrament” and a sacrament is a sign which effects, makes real, that which is signifies. It communicates to us, shares with us, that true life, the eternal and divine life of which Jesus speaks.
It effects that unity which the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of; that Holy Communion which is both gift and something into which we are continually being built up and drawn into. The Church makes the Eucharist so that the Eucharist may make the Church. The Church celebrates Holy Communion in order that, step-by-step, day-by-day, little-by-little, we may become more truly a Holy Communion in the One whose gift it is.