Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 9 August 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Kings 19: 4 – 8; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; John 6: 35.41-51
“And they shall all be taught by God.”
Fr. Michael, our Assistant Priest, is Australian – but he is of a type rare among that nation – he has no interest in cricket. So recent events at Trent Bridge have not cast him into the slough of despond in which most of his compatriots can be found. Australian hopes of retaining the ashes, after their comprehensive destruction of England last year and their victory in the first test at Lords, have not turned to ashes in his mouth.
“Cricket”, said one commentator, “is a cruel game,” one in which fortunes can be reversed in no time at all.
I apologise to any visitors from non-cricket-playing countries who might be finding this totally incomprehensible. So let’s turn our attention to the readings.
In the ancient Middle Eastern religious politics was a cruel game too – as it is today – and with more lethal consequences than a game of cricket. In a climactic confrontation at Mount Carmel, the prophet Elijah seemed to have triumphed in his struggle against the prophets of Baal sponsored by King Ahab’s foreign wife Jezebel. But Jezebel was not done yet and swore revenge against the prophet. Now he is on the run, desperate to get out of her reach. The adrenaline of victory has drained away and he is plunged into a deep depression. Unlike the captain of a defeated cricket team – early retirement is not an option. He asks God that he might die.
Exhausted, he flies down under his broom tree and falls asleep – only to be woken by an angel who tells him, “Get up and eat.” He eats the bread and drinks the water he finds set before him and then sleeps again. The process is repeated, with the angel saying, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” God is not finished with Elijah yet and, strengthened by this food, he is sent off into the wilderness of Sinai, to Horeb, to the mountain of God where Moses had received from God the tablets of stone and where he too will experience the presence and the commission of God in the still small voice.
This passage from the First Book of Kings, with God’s feeding of the prophet in the wilderness, has clearly been chosen to complement this Sunday’ section from the discourse on the Bread of Life in St. John’s Gospel which follows on from the Feeding of the 5,000. But miraculous food is not the only link. There is conflict too, conflict which intensifies as the discourse proceeds. Last Sunday, we heard of the people murmuring against Moses, as the Israelites had done in the wilderness against Moses and God. Now we hear that, “The Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that comes down from heaven.’”
This is the first time in this exchange that John speaks of those hostile to Jesus as “the Jews.” He does not explain who they are and why he calls them this – when everyone involved in the story was Jewish. Scholars suggest that it reflects conflict between John’s church and the synagogues from which they had been expelled for their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. In any case, this language has had a baleful influence on Christian-Jewish relations which we must strive to avoid.
What the people so described ask is how someone whose earthly origins – humble ones at that – they know – “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven.’ This is John’s equivalent of the response of the neighbours when Jesus returns to his home town and speaks in the synagogue of himself as God’s anointed one. It is a response to Jesus which will be heard again from the religious authorities as the conflict between them and Jesus intensifies. It is not an uncommon among those who see someone they know getting ideas above their station: ”Who does he think he is? We knew his father. She’s no better than she ought to be.”
The irony in John is that these people who think they know where Jesus comes from, only know part of the story. What they do not know is what is said of Jesus at the very beginning of the Gospel: that he is “the Word made flesh – the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Those who think they know are shown not to.
This response to the claims of Jesus is not one limited to the pages of the gospels. Ever since, people have questioned how one born in a particular time and place, with all its limitations, can be the divine word which is able to save humankind and the world. Theologians even have a name for it: ‘The scandal of particularity.”
The scandal of particularity is that in an historic person, limited in time and space and culture, universal truth is available. How can someone who lived long ago and far away from us have anything to say to us that we cannot imagine or work out for ourselves? We do not like having to admit that we cannot come to a saving knowledge of God on our own. So we regard the Bible as no more than a collection of human thoughts about God, and Jesus as simply one religious figure among many others.
People who see thinking as the highest human activity find the idea of the highest knowledge human beings can attain to being found in this particular human life, one of apparent failure as well, too much to swallow. To some, confident in our human ability, it seems to say that we cannot do this on our own – and that offends our pride. To some, this claim of Jesus seems too exclusive. Are not there other sources of truth equally valid?
Jesus’ response – as usual when he is questioned in John – is not to answer the question directly but to take the discussion to another level: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me....It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who have heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” We are, whether we like it or not, and often we don’t, dependent on God for revelation of God-self. Christianity is a revealed religion.
That revelation, that unveiling, is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the culmination of God’s self-revelation in creation and in the life of the people of Israel; the law and the prophets. The nature of God is such that it cannot be understood simply by human intellectual effort – but only by revelation. That does not mean that there is no place for human thought in seeking to comprehend what that revelation means, but that effort cannot get anywhere without something to work on. It is the Father who brings people to Jesus.
The revelation of which the Gospel speaks is not about disembodied ideas but about a person; about a God who is love: the perfect community of love in the Trinity. Love does not exist in the abstract, in some kind of intellectual vacuum, but between persons: between husbands and wives, parents and children, partners and friends. That can only be revealed in a real person with a real life and in a real death.
Bread, to Jesus’ hearers, is the staff of life. When he speaks of himself as the bread of life, what kind of bread and what kind of life does he mean?
In John, bread is explicitly connected with life that is not merely physical. It is life in relationship with God: “eternal life” (6.40, 47) is not just life without end but life of a different order: a relationship, a communion with God that begins in faith and continues beyond the grave into eternity.
Those who knew Jewish tradition, as Jesus’ hearers did, would connect “bread” with God’s word, wisdom and law. The Scriptures said that the manna given by God, pointed to the central place of God’s word in human life. Moses told Israel that God fed them with manna in order that they might know that we “do not live by bread alone but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8: 3; cf. Wisdom 16: 20, 26). Amos warned of a famine, not of bread, but of “hearing the word of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).
Bread was also used of the Law of Moses in which God’s word and wisdom were to be found. When God first gave Israel the manna, he said they were to gather a portion every day in order to show “whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exod.16: 4). The way they received the manna revealed their readiness to obey the rest of God’s instructions found in the law.
Jesus connects “bread” and divine instruction when he announced that all who came to him would be “taught by God.” (John 6: 45; Isaiah 54: 13). Jewish interpreters regularly took this Isaiah passage as reference to instruction in the law and the call of Wisdom to “Come, eat of my bread” in Proverbs (9: 5), as invitation to study the law.
John’s Gospel refocuses this imagery, so that the Scriptures are not bread in themselves but witnesses to Jesus who is the true bread. The scriptures promised eternal life (John 5: 39) but life is actually given in Jesus Christ.
That does not mean that we can discard the scriptures, only that we must understand them in the light of the person of Jesus Christ: who he is and what he does. The Liturgy of the Word in our Eucharist reflects this idea of feeding on the word of God. Thomas a Kempis in “The Imitation of Christ” speaks of us being fed at the table of God’s word. The monastic tradition of Lectio Divina, sacred reading, meditation on the words of scripture, speaks of us ruminating on them, chewing them over as a cow chews the cud, to extract meaning and nourishment, direction and strength for our spiritual journey, our pilgrimage through life.
That all this points us to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is hammered home in the final verse of our passage this morning which makes the startling disclosure that the true bread is given through Jesus’s crucifixion: “the bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
These words form a link to the closing section of the bread of life discourse – which we will hear next Sunday and which Fr. Michael will address. They point Jesus’ hearers and us to the crucifixion and they will bring the conflict into even sharper focus. In our worship, they move us forward from the liturgy of the word to the liturgy of the Eucharist, to the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ – that “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” of which today’s epistle from Ephesians speaks (Eph. 5: 2). Here, God teaches us not only by word but by example and not only by example but by participation in the self-giving love of God for all his creatures revealed in the incarnation and in the passion of Jesus Christ.