Sermon for Sunday 1 August 2021
John 6.35. Jesus said: I am the Bread of Life
We celebrate the birthdays of two 80 year old priests at a time when the diocese is obsessed with “getting in the young people”, and I’m sure that’s a good thing, but It’s all of us together or none of us, isn’t that the whole point? An imbalance of the generations in church shouldn’t worry us too much. There’s a story about Archbishop Runcie. Archbishop Runcie went to Moscow. The Patriarch showed him round the Moscow churches. To make conversation the Archbishop said, I see you have the same problem we have in the Church of England. The churches are full of old people. Who is going to fill these churches when all these old people have gone to their heavenly reward? The Patriarch looked puzzled, and then replied: Well, more old people. In every religion, every culture, it has been the custom for the elderly to gravitate towards the altars of their ancestors. There we discover communion, and maybe some healing, with Our Lord, with the past, and with each other, of whatever age. Prayer, solitude, and the need to find God within require this slower pace of life. A heart centred in God is hard work, whoever we are. And beware, ye elders, of becoming like Ebenezer Scrooge, who said – or at least he said in the film with Alastair Sim – It’s not that I’m impenitent, it’s just that I’m too old to change.
The need to locate God, unless suffocated under the chloroform of today’s culture, is universal, across all generations, from childhood onwards. This is what unites us: maybe not fully understood, but a quest for meaning, for some guidance in how to live life, how to survive, how to cope, a brave quest these days when Christianity is counter cultural. Everyone who comes through that door has a personal reason for doing so, and churches which welcome fellow searchers as they are, without asking questions, will survive. Truth, beauty and goodness always attract.
Jesus welcomes those who meet him here, however sketchy their understanding of religion might be, with the words, I am the Bread of Life. I will not see you starved of soul and spirit. I shall help you to survive and thrive in this world, I am to be assimilated into your life, first into your hearts and minds by listening and by faith, and then into your whole life, your physical self, so that you can be the real self, that God has created you to be, living with Him, and joined to all others through Him. Now those listening to Jesus back then, and probably us too, heard the Bread of Life as a symbol for Wisdom, those life strategies that we’d all like to have. Food and drink are sometimes symbols for Wisdom in the Old Testament. But today’s Gospel raises the bar for us. Follow me briefly into the mystery. The people talk about manna. They knew about manna, you know about manna, it was the subject of our first lesson. Manna was the food, “the bread from heaven”, that fed the Israelites in the desert, it was a sign of God’s favour. The idea of food from heaven goes way back, beyond Judaism to pagan times. Manna, whatever it was, lasted only for a day, so to keep going you had to pray for emergency supplies the next day. Jesus, as the Bread of Life, is not to be confused with the manna from heaven. “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.” Which brings us, in a heartbeat, to what is going to happen at our altar today. It is all too easy to regard the eucharist, the Mass, the communion service, as a manna event, a routine supply of God’s love, like filling up the car. Then we do it again next week. But the Mass is a sacrifice, it is a representation in the reality of today of the one and only sacrifice made by Jesus on the Cross. That food cannot perish. His whole life, his death, and his resurrection are represented for us in that sacrifice, so that what we actually consume, that little wafer stamped with the image of the Crucified, is the Bread of Life, His Body, his life, his death, his resurrection, working salvation in the very different lives of each one of us. Remember, of course you remember: The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. What we witness is the ordinary stuff of God’s creation, bread, wine, ourselves, which we offer for the sacrifice, being transformed by the Holy Spirit, restored to a relationship with God, by the Spirit and by Christ’s own words: Do this in remembrance of me. Give me your life as it is, He says, and I will make it My life as it is.
Yet we remain vulnerable to the end of our lives. The healthy doubts and explorations of youth are replaced as the years pass into the more critical and unsettling question, about the meaning and purpose of life. It doesn’t get any easier. What are we alive for, where is our spiritual home, our unique place in the human family? Somehow we have to move beyond our self-absorption and regrets, and embrace the life we have as God-given. Christianity helps us with this transition. There is no need to find the answers to our many anxious questions about the meaning of life, because the only answer worth having is to be found in my life and in yours, and the way we choose to live that life, discovering our own way of the Cross, where God lives and loves us, giving up ourselves in His service, so bringing into real time, as now in this church, at this altar, the life of the one who walks the hills and lanes of Galilee and says “I am the Bread of Life”.
Fr. Julian Browning