All Saints Margaret Street | Trinity 10 Sunday 12 August 2012

Sermon for Trinity 10 Sunday 12 August 2012

Jesus is in the synagogue in Capernaum and he is preaching a sermon. So what he and his listeners are doing is like what we are doing here in church this morning.

We have listened to readings from Scripture:

  • Elijah being fed beside the brook before being sent on his way to the mountain of God;
  • Paul, or one of his disciples, instructing the Ephesians in the quality of their common moral life which should follow from their reconciliation with God;
  • Part of Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life which follows on from the Feeding of the 5,000.

Scholars tell us that John portrays Jesus preaching the kind of sermon which you might have heard from a rabbi in a synagogue of the time. He takes a text, as preachers have done ever since, from Psalm 78  “He gave them bread from heaven to eat” and expounds it.  Some have even suggested that at Passover time, this text would have accompanied readings on the feeding with manna in the wilderness.

Jesus is called, “Rabbi,” and this title shows that the discussion is now about his teaching as well as with the miraculous feeding. In fact these two themes of teaching and feeding, hearing and eating, word and sacrament,  –  are woven together in the dialogue which follows.

He has begun to point them to the true meaning of these words. It is not Moses but God who gives them bread from heaven. Only God who is in heaven can give the bread of heaven.

And what is this bread which gives life?  He reminds them that the bread given in the wilderness was a sign designed to test those who received it. It was to teach them that it is not by bread alone but by the word of God that life is given; “Man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  (Deuteronomy 8.3)  It was widely held that the real manna which gives life is the living word of instruction in the Torah:

“Thou gavest thy good Spirit to instruct them, and didst not withhold thy manna from their mouth”. (Neh. 9.20)

But it was not the Law  which gave life. Only God can do that.  Only if he who is in heaven comes down from heaven can the true life be made available to the world. But that inconceivable happening is what is confronting them now. “My Father is now giving you the true bread from heaven.” Only now is the true meaning of the text being revealed.

Eagerly, but without understanding, the people reach out for what they think is being offered: satisfaction on their own terms.  They are ready to believe that Jesus can give what they seek. Now they have to learn that he is what they need. 

Jesus now sets out to teach them jt that.  He, in his own person, this man of flesh and blood, is the presence of the one who alone can give life.  His invitation is without limit. For all who come, he is the secret of eternal satisfaction: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat.” (Isaiah 55.1)

All the gospels show us that Jesus’ contemporaries were scandalized by the mismatch, between the vast claims implied by his words and deeds and that fact that he was just a village carpenter: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

The people who ask this question are identified as “the Jews,” John’s term for the religious leadership who will reject Jesus.  (In the light of subsequent history, we might wish that he had chosen another term; but we have to live with it.)  Theologians and thinkers ever since have found Jesus’ claims just as scandalous.  How can what happens in a particular time and place determine the future of all times and places?  How can someone whose origins we know say, “I came down from heaven?” Theologians have even given this problem a name: “the scandal of particularity.”

To find the answer we must ask where we get our understanding of the word God from. Virtually all human cultures have some word for and understanding of what we call “God”.  From these we could move to assess Jesus, and his claim: “I have come down from heaven.”  The results may vary according to our religious and cultural background f the investigator, but none will lead to the conclusion that Jesus is what  he says he is in these verse.

But John does not start out there.  He is one of those the Father has drawn and given to Jesus and who has believed.  He is bearing witness to what he has seen.   From his point of view, the general religious experience of the human race is not the right starting point because it is affected by sin.  It is shown to be in the rejection and condemnation of Jesus by its representatives. 

For John, we have to understand “God” by coming to Jesus and learning from him on the one he calls “my Father.” The knowledge of God does not come by reasoning from the religious experience of the human race. It could only come by the presence, in flesh and blood, in the world of ordinary human experience, of one who confronts us in the concrete particularity of a man with a known name and address.

When we are confident of our intellectual abilities, we find this troubling, even belittling; we think we are perfectly well-equipped to come to the right conclusion. But when we are realistic and penitent, we know that we are not.  

How do we choose between these two approaches?  In fact we don’t choose: we are chosen. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”   No method of demonstration or persuasion can produce this.  It is strictly the work of God.

But this does not mean that the Lord is ungenerous in his action of drawing people to Jesus. As Isaiah said, he has promised that “all shall be taught of God” (Isa. 54.13). And this does not take away the responsibility that rests upon each to hear and learn from the Father: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”

This hearing and learning does not mean that the believer “sees the Father.”   Only the Son can say without reserve that he sees the Father. The direct immediate vision of the Father could only dazzle and shatter the vision of sinners. But because Jesus has come “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8.3), it is possible for sinful men and women to believe and so to share in the life of God, the life which has come down from heaven and is present in Jesus (v.46).

In Jesus’ sermon, in this discourse, this exposition of the text “He gave them bread from heaven to eat,” he has taught us that:

  • the giver is the Father,
  • the bread is Jesus,
  • and that the one who “gave” is “giving.”

Jesus now moves to the last two words of the text: “to eat.”

Jesus is himself “the bread of life”: not merely the one who lives, but the giver of life. Those who ate the manna had their hunger satisfied for a while but eventually died, those who “eat” Jesus will not because Jesus is the life-giving power of God, “come down” into the life of the world.

And if we ask: “What is the bread that must be eaten?”. Jesus answers: “My flesh.”  Because we are so used to hearing this, we perhaps miss how deliberately crude and shocking this is. This word forces us to look beyond the hearing and believing, beyond the language of teaching and instruction, and to ask what more is meant here.

How do we eat this bread? Up to now, the language has mainly suggested that is by learning, hearing, and believing that we receive Jesus. This follows from the strand of Old Testament teaching which identifies the manna with Torah, the Law.

For Christians it should be clear. We share every week in the reading and expounding of the scriptures, hearing and believing.  But we are also accustomed to an action which goes beyond this, to an eating and drinking of bread and wine, identified by the words of Jesus with “my flesh” and “my blood.” 

There have already been hints which pointed in this direction. In moving from the Law and teaching, to sacramental action, Christians are not departing from the pattern found in the Old Testament when the reading of the law is followed and sealed by the sprinkling of the blood (Exodus 24.7f).

We should not think that this movement to eating means that the hearing and learning from the word is abandoned.  The Church continued to think, as the Jews had, of bring fed by the Word. So in the monastic practice of Lectio Divina or Sacred Reading; we find a slow reflection on scripture which has been likened to rumination: chewing the cud. In our liturgy, a collect speaks of the word which we are to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.”

Jesus’ words may be rooted in the tradition, but they provoke a still sharper debate, with not only the religious authorities but his disciples too. The word “flesh” makes clear and sharp the materialism of what Jesus is saying.   It shifts the content of what it means to receive Jesus as the bread of life away from a purely mental and spiritual hearing and believing, in the direction of a physical chewing and swallowing.

We have learned that “the bread” is Jesus. We now learn that the bread is his flesh given for the life of the world – in order that the world may have life. This life-giving work is accomplished by the death of Jesus; only so can he give life.  But this life is received only by eating this bread which is the flesh of Jesus, this is John’s version of the word spoken at the support when Jesus gave the bread to the disciples and said to them, “Take and eat: this is my body  (my flesh) given for you.” By eating this bread they become participants in his dying and so in his risen life.  This is how Jesus gives life to the world.

Just as we can only learn about God through God’s presence in a material human being, so we can only share in God’s life through a relationship which involves the physical. God has not made us angels or disembodied spirits.

He gives life to the world, not escape from the world. Elijah has to go on from his hiding place, first to the mountain of God to receive God’s command, and then back into the maelstrom of Israelite politics. But he needs the bread, lest the journey be too much for him.

The Christians in Ephesus have been given a portrayal of God’s reconciling love on a cosmic scale. Now, Paul or one of his disciples, spells out its implications for them in the life of their community: in relationships and work; in the body, the flesh  –  ”we are members one of another.”

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

But to be “imitators of God”, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, would be too much for us on our own. Just as we need the real presence of Christ to show us what God is like, so we need his bread,  the communion in his body  and blood, his real presence in the sacrament to make possible that relationship in which we are re-united God, in which our lives re-directed and made “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”.

And so we will pray, when we have received Holy Communion, “we thank thee for feeding us with body and blood of thy Son Jesus Christ. Through him we offer thee our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of thy Spirit to live and work to thy praise and glory.”

We are not liberated from the mess of this world into some spiritual nirvana, some other-worldly bliss, but transformed within this world by our incorporation into Christ and his offering of himself to the Father.  

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses