Parish Eucharist 29th July 2018
Meeting God in the Bread
John 6. 1 – 21
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Imagine a sheet of paper printed with a grid containing a series of the same image, a bit like a postage stamp. The repeating image could be a saint, the face of Jesus, or a Christian symbol. In Early Modern Germany, these sheets of small images were popular methods of prayer, called Schluckbildchen. The sheets were widely available and inexpensive. One of the small postage stamp-sized images could be cut out, and either dissolved in water or baked into bread, so that it could be eaten. Eating the image was an act of prayer, usually accompanied by a request to protect themselves or a loved one from disease or death. In the Middle Ages, owners of sumptuously illuminated Books of Hours would not only gaze at artists’ ornate images, but touch and kiss them. Many historical examples show wear and tear suggestive of repeated touch, as the reader made contact with the image to intensify a holy experience of prayer. The concept of the Schluckbildchen is similar – for a prayer to be intensely experienced, the small image would be eaten. Effectively, these functioned as ‘holy pills’, integrated directly into the daily bread of German Christians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
There is also new evidence this week that eating bread has been a core aspect of religious ritual for almost 15 000 years. Archaeologists at the Shubayqa 1 site in Jordan have found 254 pieces of flatbread preserved within a sacred site. This bread is 5000 years older than previous discoveries. It would have been complex and costly to make, and therefore producing this bread was itself a sacrificial act. Eating together as a sacred ritual was evidently a core element of this ancient community’s way of creating cohesion and fellowship – the effort was worth it, to worship together by eating together.
Feeding the 5000 is a miracle that appears in all four Gospels, though each has its own unique details and differences. In John’s Gospel, three figures – Philip, Andrew, and an unnamed boy – participate in the narrative with a particular part to play in producing the core meaning of this surprising act of abundance and gift. Moreover, the context of the miracle is evidently one of food insecurity, where the population is not merely intrigued by Jesus and his activities, but literally physically hungry. In Jesus’ time, it was common practice for high status leaders and roving preachers to feed crowds that followed them, and the Gospel may be referring to this with a critical eye. In these cases, the leader wants attention and celebrity status, so he bribes followers with food. In Jesus’ case, he has no interest in affirmation or attention, but feeds the large crowd because they are hungry and because he desires to offer them a sign of who he really is within a context they could understand. But the crowd do not understand, appreciative as they are for the satisfaction of a hearty meal.
One way of interpreting this story is to make a connection between Moses and Jesus. Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness, and mediated between God and the people to nourish them with a strange heavenly food – manna - when they were starving. Jesus, too, feeds his people with such a vast amount of bread that there is a great deal left over.
Another Old Testament link is with Elisha, in the passage we heard earlier this morning. In this story, Elisha leads an army into the wilderness, they are afraid of starvation, and Elisha is able to provide sufficient food from very few loaves.
Moses, leader of the Israelites and bearer of the Ten Commandments, represents the Jewish Law. Elisha represents the prophets. In feeding thousands of people, multiplying little resources to offer miraculous abundance, Jesus is demonstrating to this Jewish crowd that he is the divine fulfilment of both the Law and the Prophets. But neither the guests at this spontaneous sacred picnic nor Jesus’ own disciples recognise that this is what the meal means, nor wholly that this is who Jesus truly is.
The fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom suggested that the individuals mentioned in John’s Gospel – Philip, Andrew, and an unnamed boy – interact with Jesus and each other in order to deliberately slow us down, building up the narrative in nuanced layers so that the radical and holy quality and quantity of this miraculous food becomes more impactful for Christians both in the Early Church and in our own time.
Philip points out that there is not enough money to buy the necessary amount of bread. Jesus could have miraculously multiplied the money so that disciples could go to the market and participate in Roman-dictated economic forces. But Jesus has no interest in money as such.
In John’s account of the feeding of the 5000, Andrew the disciple presents Jesus with a boy from the crowd who has a few loaves and a couple of fish. To Andrew, the boy’s offering is useless, a demonstration of how impossible it will be to feed everyone with so little. The boy’s gift, however, is the starting point for a meal so vast that there is more than enough for everyone.
Both Philip and Andrew do not see the potential in this event. Not in the boy, not in the bread and fish, not in the empty pockets with no money, and not in Jesus either. By including these three figures, John’s Gospel intensifies the drama around Jesus’ action, and his decision to give people more than they can imagine is possible.
Timing is key in John’s version of the feeding of the 5000, too. The event takes place at Passover. The next time John mentions Passover in in relation to Christ’s Passion, the Last Supper, and the identification that Jesus makes between his own body and the bread he offers to his disciples on the night before the crucifixion. The bread, therefore, that Jesus miraculously multiplies to feed this enormous, hungry, impoverished crowd, is by implication his own self, his own love for his people, and his own promise of eternal life. It is no coincidence that in the same chapter of John’s Gospel as the feeding of the 5000, Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life.’
There is a similarity here with the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle, in which Jesus transforms mere water into flowing wine, and the wine is conscpicuously high in quality and in quantity. The Kingdom of God, in the bread eaten by thousands on this patch of grass in the wilderness and in the wine drunk by wedding guests, is beyond anyone’s expectations in every sense. That is because, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, it is ‘rooted and grounded in love’.
But the problem in this vast meal in the Gospel of John, and there is a serious problem, is that the crowd is delighted to eat the bread but they cannot imagine that Jesus himself is the bread of life. They do not see the connection with Moses. They don’t spot the link with Elisha. And Jesus refuses to be their king when they try to elevate his status because he sees that they are very excited about the bread, but they can’t see past the bread to its deeper meaning. At least, not yet. Jesus is not an eccentric or magical baker, who will magically provide food, or material wealth, to those who demand it from him. He offers bread because he offers himself and his love as the Son of God.
When Jesus says that he is the bread of life, he makes the Moses connection very, very clear: ‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.’ (John 6:49-51)
In St Augustine’s reflections on John’s Gospel, he wrote that the manna ‘was only a shadow’ and that Jesus’ arrival, God incarnate, ‘is the reality’. Augustine explains, ‘Those who heard were terrified at this. It was too much for them, they thought it was impossible. But believers know they are the body of Christ, provided they do not neglect to be the Body of Christ. One must be the Body of Christ, is one is to live by the Spirit of Christ. So whoever wants to live, must live as part of the body.’
When we participate in the Eucharist, we take the bread, the Body of Christ, and we eat together to share in Christ’s life. We grow closer to God, closer to each other, and closer to the deepest meaning of the bread. When we consume Christ’s body and blood together, we share in Christ’s life and in Christ’s holiness.
The American writer Sara Miles started a foodbank in California that completely changed hundreds of lives and transformed very few resources into a wild abundance of nourishment, both physical and spiritual, well beyond anyone’s expectations. At the food bank in this church in California, they prayed together, ‘O God of abundance, you feed us every day. Rise in us now, make us into your bread, that we may share your gifts with a hungry world, and join in love with all people, through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ May this prayer, which emerged out of an urgent need to feed the hungry, be our prayer too, as we hunger for the bread of life. Amen.