The Bread of Life: Receiving and Responding

Readings: I Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25–5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

A sermon preached by Rev Graham Hamborg on 18 August 2018

First of all, may I thank you for the welcome that you have all given to Ruth and me since we moved here in November last year. I know it should be perfectly normal and usual for God’s people to be welcoming, but it isn’t always the case. However we have found it to be so here in Liss, and it is thanks to many of you that we have so quickly come to feel that we belong here and that this is home. So quite simply, Thank you.

Secondly, my thanks to Chris for coping with the arrival of another retired minister in the parish, and for inviting me to begin to have a share in the ministry here. There are vicars who sadly seem to feel threatened by the presence of other ordained and lay ministers, and it’s a relief to find that he isn’t – or if he is, that he hides it very well. Thank you, Chris.

May we pray: Heavenly Father, we pray that you would open your word to our hearts, and our hearts to your word. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 6:35: Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” It’s one of the famous “I am” sayings of Jesus that characterise John’s gospel. “I am the bread of life, I am the door for the sheep, I am the good shepherd, I am the light of the world, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.” John’s gospel is full of vivid images and pictures used to describe the significance of Jesus, and who He is.

Pictures and images speak for themselves, and it’s always dangerous to start saying in words what it is that they signify, as we run the risk of reducing what they convey. But at the very least, we can say that “Bread” is something essential to life. It was part of a staple Jewish diet, as it is for many of us today too. Bread feeds and sustains us. Along with other foods it gives us the strength and energy needed to go about our daily living.

Of course, it needs to be taken and eaten, not just looked at and admired. If we don’t eat we become weak and exhausted, as Elijah was in 1 Kings 19. He had successfully challenged and beaten some 450 prophets of Baal in a contest on Mount Carmel to see whose God was able to send down fire on to a sacrifice through prayer alone – a great triumph. But immediately following his triumph had come despair as he fled for his life from angry Queen Jezebel. He hadn’t eaten for at least 24 hours, probably longer, and in consequence he’s weak. And his weakness leads him to despair of life itself: “O Lord” he prays, “take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And the Lord doesn’t answer that or seek to engage Elijah in theological debate, he simply sends him some food to eat.

And now in John 6 Jesus says “I am the bread of life.” Jesus comes to us as God’s provision to us, to be himself the nourishment and sustenance that we all need to continue our human and spiritual journey through life. Back in the days of the exodus from Egypt, the passage reminds us, God had been provider for his people in their years wandering in the wilderness, sending manna to feed them.

Now Jesus himself is given to us as God’s feeding of our souls. And he is as essential to spiritual life and growth as bread is to ordinary human growth and development.

And as ever with God, his gift is freely given. We don’t have to pay to get it, indeed we can’t, it really is something that money can’t buy. Our part is simply to come to God, open-handed and open-hearted, to receive his gift.

This service of Holy Communion in which we are sharing acts this out, of course. John’s gospel does not include an account of Jesus giving the gifts of bread and wine at the Last Supper, as the other three gospels do. But it does uniquely include in this sixth chapter the description of Jesus as the bread of life, which has clear Eucharistic overtones.

And in this Communion service, in the act of taking bread and wine, we place ourselves entirely in the position of recipients. We hold out our empty hands to receive the bread, and that act is the model for how our whole Christian living is to be. It is to be a constant receiving of the grace and gifts of God, a constant receiving of Jesus himself into our lives.

Some of us may find this constant position of being takers rather than givers quite difficult. Many of us here are articulate, educated, capable people, who can be more at ease doing things for others than we are being done to. But Jesus as the bread of life invites us to let God be the giver, and asks us simply to come and receive, receive Jesus himself, as the sustaining strength and the spiritual feeding that we need.

So there is in this gospel reading and in the act of receiving Communion the invitation to “simply come,” to see that we need do nothing else in order to be right with God. Which is wonderful news.

But of course, to leave it at that would be to give us a very passive kind of Christianity. I sometimes think that if we only had John’s gospel we would end up with a very pietistic faith, one which wouldn’t seem to be very transformative of society and the world, or even of our own attitudes and behaviours.

But we don’t just have John’s gospel, we have the whole witness of Scripture. And it seems to me that John 6 and the Ephesians reading nicely balance one another. Because if John 6 tells us how our relationship with God is sustained, the Ephesians passage sets out something of how we are to live in response.

And the things commended to us in it are in one sense very obvious and straightforward, yet also, if we were actually to live by them, profoundly transformative.

It says that we are to be people of truth and honesty: “…putting away all falsehood, let us all speak truth to our neighbours.” I was brought up with the saying that “Honesty is the best policy,” and with an assumption that all decent people would know that to be the case. But if we look at our national and indeed global political life, that long since seems to have gone out of the window. Lies are told, misleading information is given, or information is knowingly withheld. Fake news is spread, or what is true is claimed to be fake news. The touchstone is not truth, it’s expediency.

For Christian people and Christian communities to live lives based on truth and honesty is now, in this climate, to live counter-culturally.

The passage also says that we are not to let the sun go down on our anger. It doesn’t set us the nigh-impossible challenge of never getting angry – after all, we are human beings. But it does say not to hold on to our anger, and makes the very specific suggestion to get over it and apologise if need be before nightfall and bedtime. To go to bed with the argument still raging and refusing to overcome our anger is, the passage says, to “make room for the devil,” who loves to see relationships get damaged and destroyed.

We’re also told to examine our talk, to make sure that what we say is not destructive of others, but is positive and constructive. We are told to put away all bitterness and malice, and instead to cultivate being tender-hearted and forgiving.

These are big challenges. We sometimes speak of being practising Christians, and the message of this passage is “Keep practising,” because likely as not you haven’t got all these things right yet. And while it’s a work of the Holy Spirit to change us and make us new, He needs us to cooperate by our repeated attempts to live and behave in the right way. And the repeated practice of living the right way is itself part of the process of transformation of our lives.

Time was when as a driver I wasn’t one for bothering too much with speed limits, until the day a friendly camera took a photo of my number plate, and I decided that for the future I needed to change and start keeping to them. At first I found it really hard. It was excruciating to crawl along at 30 mph. I couldn’t stand it. But I did it, nevertheless. And gradually, over the coming months, it got easier and easier, until I have simply become someone who does now keep to speed limits.

I wish I could say that I felt a similar sense of accomplishment on the matters that Ephesians 4 & 5 challenge us on.

So, to recap: John 6 and Ephesians 4 & 5 balance one another. In John 6 we are invited simply to come, open-handed, to receive. We do not need to do anything to receive the Bread of life apart from coming and holding out our hands to take it. The bread of life is simply to be received.

But in response to receiving the free gift of our heavenly Father, that gift being Jesus himself, Ephesians 4 & 5 show us how we are to live in response as new people. And if we could live as that passage sets out, we would be people transformed, contributing, in turn, to the transformation of the values and culture of our society.