The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      29th July 2018
The bread of life which came down from heaven
Handley Stevens

The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (John 6.33)

Our readings this morning take us on a thought-provoking journey of exploration into the way God acts to provide for our physical and spiritual well-being, and the way he wants us to respond.

Both in our Old Testament reading and in the Gospel, God provides bread for his people to eat. God knows that we need the basic necessities of life, and we can rely on him to provide what we really need. The trouble is we find it so hard to get our heads around what that really means for the way we live.

Both stories remind us that the Christian life is not about using our sharp elbows to maximize our share of what’s on offer, but rather about stepping into a culture of trusting and giving, receiving and sharing, which reflects God’s love for us.  The ancient Israelites who grabbed more of the manna than they needed for the next day found that the surplus went mouldy overnight.  If that story suggests how not to behave, the Gospel has a more positive twist.  The people who followed Jesus into the desert were fed by his blessing of the generous gesture of one small boy whose gift of loaves and fishes prompted Jesus’ revelation of that generous love which, in the words of our text, comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

Admittedly, not many of those who were fed on either occasion understood the significance of what was happening, but the memory lingered, entering into the culture which finds expression in the books of the Bible.  The whole story of the Exodus became central to the Jewish understanding of their special relationship with God, celebrated not only in the five books of the Torah, the Law of Moses, but also in the songs they sang, including the Psalm we sang this morning. The cultural memory of the Exodus, including the provision of manna in the wilderness, helped to crystallise a sense of reliance on the bedrock of God’s providence which would help the Jewish people to make sense of the tumultuous ups and downs of their subsequent history.

As Christians we have inherited something of the same reassuring culture of providence, but there are risks that go with it. The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.    Like our Jewish cousins we run into trouble when we fail to distinguish between our own goals as a nation or as a Church and the true goals of the God whose love inspires our devotion.  We need to repent of the misunderstandings which have sometimes taken church or nation down paths which brought death to the world rather than life.

Our New Testament readings suggest two ways to avoid these traps. The Jews who had come out into the desert to listen to Jesus were looking for something which they could do to gain salvation.  ‘What must we do,’ they asked, ‘to perform the works of God?’ (v.28)  And Jesus says to them, as he still says to us, ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you’ (John 6.27).  There are two key points here.  First, the good life is not about piling up possessions or fame or power, but about seeking the ‘food that endures for eternal life’ – the relationships, the love given and received that endures when everything else has crumbled away.

And the second thing is that it is not something we can achieve by striving for it.  It is something which we can only receive as the free gift of God – the ‘food’ which the Son of Man will give you (v.32).  St John invites us to believe in the one sent by God, putting our trust not in anything we can do, however admirable, but in Jesus himself, Jesus who is the bread of life, the true bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul offers a slightly different answer to the question of what we should do.  To Paul’s way of thinking, which is perhaps more active, where John is more contemplative, Christ’s gifts to us are the gifts we can employ for the benefit of one another, some of us to speak as teachers or prophets, others to show God’s love to one another as pastors and carers others to share the good news with one another as evangelists.  We tend to think of evangelists as a special class of super-preacher, perhaps standing on a soap-box in the market, or carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth, but when we see God’s love at work in our corner of the world, and have the courage to say as much to a friend, we are all evangelists – or Ambassadors as the Diocese of London likes to call us.

The rich variety of gifts is a theme to which Paul returns again and again in his letters. The fullest exposition is found in 1 Corinthians.  There, after enumerating all the busy things which we might do, and urging us to strive for the greater gifts, Paul finally sets all that to one side as he shows us what he describes as ‘a still more excellent way’.  Those are the words with which he introduces the splendid hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13.  And that surely is where he and St John come close to the same understanding, for if in St John’s terms we believe in Jesus, and believing put our trust in him, we shall indeed share in the spirit of love which animated his every action, making of him the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

They said to him: Sir, give us this bread always.  Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6.34,35).  We give thanks that as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are drawn into the embrace of his love, and empowered by his grace to play our various parts in his ongoing work, giving expression to God’s love as preachers and teachers, as evangelists or ambassadors sharing the good news of God’s love, as pastors and carers looking after one another.

He gave them bread to eat. All these gifts of grace that we see in our own community are the daily manifestations of that miracle of God’s loving provision in our own world.

The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

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