Sermon - 12th August 2018
I am the bread of life
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
We have each come here today with different experiences from the past week. As you may have read in our Newsletter, today, after the service, we will be celebrating together with four people who have had news that their claims for asylum in the UK have been successful. Those people have had a good week. For others, their week has not been good: coping with personal illness, sickness of loved-ones, and other difficulties which have made each day a struggle. And for many of us, the week will have had both its high and low points.
Our first reading today is about Elijah. He was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BCE, around 100 years since the time of King David. You have probably heard the name Elijah before: his name is mentioned frequently in the Gospels, as he was considered to be a great prophet, and by the people living in Jesus’ time, he was expected to return.
So, as we listen to our first reading, I would like you to keep the following question in your mind: what kind of week do you think Elijah had?
<1st Reading: 1 Kings 19:4-8>
In answer to my question: what kind of week do you think Elijah had just gone through?
Now, let me give you some clues which might trigger your memory: drought, Mount Carmel, Jezebel, rain.
In the 9th century BCE, Israel was a divided kingdom – Israel and Judah. Their Jewish faith was literally under attack from the Canaanite religions of Baal and Asherah. Ahab, the king, was married under political alliance to Jezebel, a Phoenician woman. The Bible describes her as a wicked woman, determined to wipe out the Jewish faith and replace it with the worship of Baal and Asherah. Her name, Jezebel, remains even today synonymous with evil.
The chapter before today’s reading (1 King 18) tells of how Elijah has a major triumph. He challenges the priests of Baal and Asherah to a contest, to prove whose ‘god’ is ‘God’. It is a wonderful, descriptive account, and make very effective use of sarcasm! The story ends with Elijah proving that God is ‘God’. The nasty bit of the story is that hundreds of the priests of Baal and Asherah are slaughtered. It ends with God sending rain and the drought ends.
Back to the question… what kind of week did Elijah have? Surely, it had been a great week! He had been able to demonstrate the power of God! Yet, here is Elijah, sat under a tree, praying for death.
What caused Elijah to crash and burn like he did? Well, news of what had happened on Mount Carmel got back to queen Jezebel, and she was furious and vowed to have Elijah killed. Elijah ran for his life and went into exile in the neighbouring kingdom of Judah. Elijah was a seeker of asylum!
Many of us will be able to understand how Elijah felt. We, too, have hit rock-bottom, wished – even prayed - for death. Elijah said to God: “I have had enough, Lord.”
Let us look at how God blessed Elijah in his desperation. God provided a place of shelter under the tree. In dark times, many people find that they cannot sleep. God blessed Elijah with sleep. Then, very practically, God provided Elijah with two simple meals of bread and water.
Our reading ended with Elijah feeling rested and strengthened for the journey ahead. The next part of Elijah’s story is a spiritual one, where he has a very real and personal encounter with God.
God knows us for who we are: after all, God is our Creator. The Psalmist wrote: “You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother's womb.” (Psalm 139:13)
God knows that we are both physical and spiritual beings: they are not separate. In order to receive spiritual wholeness, our physical needs also need to be met. Before Elijah journeyed to encounter God on Mount Sinai, God met his physical needs of shelter, rest, food and drink.
It is, therefore, no surprise that at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, we find a call to social justice. We are familiar with Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35-36 “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Here, in this church, we seek to live out those Gospel values. Today’s account of Elijah emphasises the importance of individuals’ physical needs and inseparability from the spiritual.
We are now going to hear our second reading, and again, I would like to put a question in your minds, as you listen. What huge miracle had Jesus just done?
<2nd Reading: John 6:32-40>
What miracle was it? The feeding of the 5,000.
There is a parallel between our two readings. Just as God took care of Elijah’s physical needs, Jesus took care of the crowd’s physical needs when He fed them through the miracle with five loaves and two fish.
The day after this, Jesus is talking to the same crowd. They had followed Him. He says to them, “you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (John 6:26)
For us in the UK in the 21st century, the effort of food preparation is nothing like it was back in ancient times. Indeed, there are many today who do not have enough food; most of us have more than enough. Sometimes, it may seem an effort to get the supermarket, or put up with the hassle of the crowds and the long queues at the check-out.
Compared with the agrarian, subsistence life-style, we have it easy. We do not know what it is like to catch, kill, gut and prepare the fish or animal; or to sow the grain, water the field, harvest the wheat, separate it from the chaff, grind it into flour, make and bake the bread. Growing a few vegetables in our garden is a hobby not a necessity.
The significance of the gift of the free meal which Jesus gave the crowd is lost on us. As also is the importance of bread. For many, bread is no longer seen as a necessity of life, but as unwelcome carbohydrate and cutting out bread is a feature of so many diet plans!
If we miss out on our understanding of the importance of bread, then we also run the risk of missing out what Jesus was speaking about in this reading.
Jesus’ listeners would have understood the reference about bread from heaven: it was the manna that the Israelites ate during their time in the desert. Jesus was seeking to move on their thinking, not to just think of their physical needs, but to consider the spiritual realm, their souls.
Martin Luther, one of the prime-movers in the Protestant Reformation, once said in a sermon: "I wish I could get you to pray the way that my dog goes after meat." Think about the enthusiasm for food that a hungry person or animals has: that is the longing, hunger and thirst for God that Jesus is speaking about.
Having got their attention and whetted the crowd’s spiritual appetite, Jesus says these amazing words: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Almost thirty years ago, as a young man, I visited the Taizé Community in France, a place to which every year many thousands of young people go. Each day, the monastic brothers there provide insight and Bible study. I will always remember one day, when speaking about this passage, spoke of how we mistakenly think we have a spiritual fuel tank. We don’t.
We cannot ‘top-up’ on God on Sunday and hope it lasts us through the week. We saw this with the spiritual high Elijah was on, only to come crashing down hours later.
Some of you may have seen the film “Dogma” by writer and director Kevin Smith. In it, the lead character, Bethany, is a Catholic woman struggling with her faith. In a conversation with a friend, she says:
“I sit there every Sunday and I feel nothing. I can remember sitting in church when I was a kid and being moved - like everything meant something, like I was important. And the stories of all these holy people were so inspiring. Now I sit there and think about my [bank account], and what I'm going to wear to work the next day… I don't think I have any faith left.”
Her friend says the following in reply:
“I had a girl in here once - 'bout fifteen. She told me that faith is like a glass of water. When you're young, the glass is full, and it's easy to fill up. But the older you get, the bigger the glass gets, and the same amount of water doesn't fill the glass anymore.”
In the ancient world, and even today for many, bread is a necessity, eaten at every meal. Jesus’ audience would have understood that.
The spiritual bread that is Jesus is something we should take on daily and continually… for breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper. If we feel that our spiritual lives are dying, maybe they are dying from spiritual hunger; maybe we are not eating enough.
In more words from Martin Luther: “It is the honour and glory of our God … that, giving himself for our sake in deepest condescension, he passes into the flesh, the bread, our hearts, mouths, entrails, and suffers also for our sake that he be dishonourably handled, on the altar as on the cross.”
In finishing, I’d like to give food for thought to Jesus’ words in the reading in our specific context, as an LGBT community of faith. Many of us will have been rejected by churches because of who we are.
But, Jesus said: “I will never turn away anyone who comes to me.”
And, Jesus’ promise to us also has no exclusions: “For what my Father wants is that all who see the Son and believe in him should have eternal life. And I will raise them to life on the last day.”
Thank you, Lord, that even in the darkest days, you are our shield, our fortress and our refuge.
Thank you, Lord, that in your service, you turn every circumstance to your advantage.
Forgive us when we doubt your power to deliver and protect us.
Forgive us when we doubt your wisdom and power to bring peace out of chaos.
Teach our hearts to sing your praises when life is dark and bleak.
Teach us afresh to hunger for you, that we may be filled with the Living Bread, who is Jesus.