Sermon - 7th July 2019
Bread of life
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Today’s reading only really makes sense if we link it to an earlier text in which Jesus feeds the multitude on the hillsides with bread and fish. The theme of Jesus trying to avoid the crowds but being constantly hounded by them is significant in both readings and is especially significant for a very specific comment which is attributed to him in today’s reading.
While trying to give some sense of the frustration that Jesus must have been feeling when he and his disciples could get no rest from the demands of the crowds, the gospel writer John attributes these words to Jesus:
“...you are looking for me because you ate the bread and had all you wanted, not because you understood my miracles.”
In other words, ‘You will follow me as long as I feed you, as I did on the hillsides the other day, but your commitment to me and my good news is much less certain.’
Those words leave me confused. I can see in them a truthful observation that our human nature does tempt us to join a crowd, to watch a spectacle, and to receive any free gifts that may be going, and perhaps even to go looking for more free gifts from the same source.
I can see that such behaviour may have been the motivation for some of the crowd who came to hear the miraculous teacher from Nazareth and who followed him around the Galilee villages so as not to miss out on the next spectacle and perhaps another free gift of food.
But somehow I don’t hear that rather temperamental comment as the authentic voice of Jesus. I can imagine it being said by frustrated disciples who were getting thoroughly fed up of having to deal with those they saw as hangers-on who took everything and gave nothing.
I can imagine it being the perception of a Christian community, around 100 AD when John’s gospel was being written, a community from which people were drifting away when the challenges of Jesus’s message became too demanding for the world in which they lived.
But I don’t hear such a sharply judgmental comment coming from the Jesus who elsewhere in the Gospels is inclined to forgive rather than to criticise.
The church, of course, has usually been quick to judge various followers of Jesus as not being sufficiently loyal and committed and only interested in what they could get.
In nineteenth-century China, Christian missionaries invented a specific name for people who came to church because they were hungry for the free rice which the church gave them to help alleviate their poverty.
In the judgment of the missionaries, these people converted, were baptized, joined the church, and remained active members for as long as their physical needs were met through the generosity of the congregation. But once their prospects improved and they and their families no longer needed the gifts of rice, they seemed to drift away from the church. So the missionaries called them "rice Christians".
In another setting, it was observed by churches in East Germany and Romania that there was a substantial growth in church membership and attendance in the mid-20th century just before the liberation of Eastern Europe took place. The churches were showing courage and pastors were speaking out against the corruption and atrocities of dictators and their regimes.
The people came to cheer the church on, and to join the congregations in their opposition to the tyrannical state. But after liberation from Communist influence and from the power struggles of local dictators, the crowds dispersed and the churches returned to the level of slow decline they were experiencing before the campaigns for political liberty took hold.
To be honest, neither of these examples reveals anything about human behaviour which we did not already know. The motives of the crowd which pursued Jesus around the villages of Galilee were probably not entirely selfless and their behaviour is not particularly surprising. The challenge is to find a way of responding to these behaviours which is genuinely Christ-like - which means that it will probably not be judgmental and will not generalise about people in ways which neglect the individuality of each person.
And the place where we take up that challenge is here, in and among our own congregation; because if we can’t be Christ-like here, we might as well close the doors and go home.
But we don’t close our doors. We open our doors to everyone; we seek to meet people where they are; we join them on a journey to wherever they are called to be; and sometimes we wish them farewell as they change direction or embark on a different journey.
There is a line in one of the hymns we sing, ‘Let me be as Christ to you’. And I think this is how we do it - we journey with people for a while, sometimes over a long period, sometimes only briefly, but in both cases the effects can be profound and remarkably durable.
I think we are called to be largely unconcerned about motives or loyalty or commitment - these are things which, in the final analysis, only God knows for certain. Instead, we are called to develop trust, to share faith, to heal pain, and to show love. And I don’t think you can do that with sincerity while giving in to the temptation to label people as ‘rice Christians’ or as ‘political opportunists’.
I thank God for all the lives that this congregation has touched and for those who are yet to engage with us. I feel blessed that we are able to offer worship which speaks to their souls, teaching which shares the good news with their intellects, pastoral care which supports their spiritual and emotional needs, and food which puts meals on a few tables each week. That is what I see when I look for the bread of life. I see something which sustains us more completely than flour, salt, yeast and water ever could.
But above all, I trust God to be the guardian and guide of everyone whom Christ has touched in this place - both those who walk with us now, and those who have taken a different path for their continuing journey of faith - because those of us who have met, do meet, and will meet Jesus here are held together with a bond of community which is unique to us: a mark of unconditional love, a principle of inclusion, a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and peace, and something which is precious in God’s eyes.