The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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11am Holy Communion      22nd August 2021
Bread of Life
Jan Rushton


Trinity 12  Year B   2021  HPC

Ephesians 6.10-20 Armour of God, John 6.56-69  Bread of Life


In John’s gospel Jesus is powerfully, overwhelmingly divine. But right from the very beginning we encounter the opposition to his mission, fierce opposition from the religious authorities - ‘the Jews’. Again this morning, as over the past four weeks, our gospel is a section from chapter 6 of John

where Jesus repeatedly declares that he is ‘The Bread of Life’.  A response to this tension, and the serious challenges to his authority Jesus experiences from those religious leaders in Jerusalem.


In John’s gospel Jesus is regularly found at the Jerusalem Temple for the Jewish festivals.  And gaining an expansive audience and reputation

as he taught in the Temple precincts!  The religious leaders are worried about his challenge to their authority. And repeatedly challenge him in turn, even suggesting as we heard two weeks ago, that the wonder-struck crowds

could just remember where he comes from!  That nowhere town of Nazareth!


And what about his parents - you know who they are. Wink, wink!

And some do indeed begin to wonder whether Jesus and his new movement are worth the candle. Even his brothers, John tells us, begin to mock him!

And this morning we are told that many of Jesus’ disciples turned back.


In Jerusalem for the festival, Jesus heals the paralysed man at the pool by the Sheep Gate. On the Sabbath. John reports that because of this, ‘the Jews’ now start their persecution. And the evangelist sets out into Jesus’ extended discourse concerning who he is, and the authority he indeed has from God his Father - attested by no less a figure than Moses.


On the ‘other side of the Sea of Galilee’ Jesus has fed the crowds, Five thousand of them, with the five loaves and two fishes. And the crowd who have been fed become intent on making Jesus king. He slips away from them, climbs the mountain to pray. As evening approaches the disciples set out for home across the lake. Suddenly storms whip the sea into a frenzy. The disciples are terrified.  Jesus approaches them - walking on the water.


- - John is not anything but convoluted in his writing!


To continue. The crowds Jesus has fed notice everything. They have walked home, aware that he had not departed in the boat with his disciples!  Just what is all this about? Back in Capernaum, in the synagogue, Jesus begins his soliloquy on what it means when he says ‘I am The Bread of Life’.  This call to eat his flesh and drink his blood. ‘Whoever eats me will live because of me.’


If we find such concepts obscure, difficult to understand, it was far, far more difficult for his first hearers. Even those who know him so well are filled with consternation at these sayings.  Let us remember that for the Jews ‘blood’ is impure, must not be consumed, forbidden by the Law. A man must not touch a woman who is menstruating. 'Kosher' meat must have all the blood drained from it as the animal dies. Likewise, to touch a dead human body without the due rituals.


If we remember this abhorrence of contact with 'blood' and ‘flesh’ we can have some understanding of why many of Jesus' disciples might choose to desert him because of these sayings.


And perhaps we need also to reflect that still today, for those not versed

in Christian teaching, it is still extraordinary, obscure if not obscene imagery,

that the central symbol of a faith which challenges liberty, is one of an instrument for torture unto death.  The cross.  And our central act of worship, remembrance of this man’s horrific death as we indeed, eat his flesh and drink his blood.


Referencing his body, Jesus declares to the people: "The one who eats this bread will live for ever."

But, as we continue through Jesus’ address in the synagogue he goes on:

“It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”


As the story moves forward we discover what it is actually about: ‘believing’.  Believing Jesus’ words are spirit and life. Indeed among them, are some who do not believe. When Jesus asks the Twelve whether they too, want to leave, Peter answers that it is he who has the words of eternal life;

“We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”


So, despite the visceral images of a broken body, and drinking blood,

Jesus is speaking symbolically. This teaching is all about how we think, who we are - what we believe. Since the Enlightenment we have come to understand 'believing' to be about giving our assent to the truth of a statement. Giving our assent without incontrovertible evidence of the validity of our proposition.  Assenting to each tenet of the creed. Assenting to literal factual content in the gospels. But this is not how the concept of 'believing' was understood in Judaism, understood in Jesus' day. Believing for Jesus was inextricably involved with 'eating his bread'. Inextricably involved with action that is.


Not so much about intellectual assent, much more about living the truth.

Living his life in our lives as he lived life to the full. As we eat the Bread of Life, we take into our lives the essence of his living. We need to be not only hungry for food, literal bread, as those five thousand out on the mountainside, we need to be hungry for this inner life of Jesus.


For Jesus, you could only claim to believe if you acted on your belief.

If your belief directed your conduct. Nothing to do with making intellectual sense of these convoluted texts. Texts written fifty years after Paul’s first written account of the central rituals of Christian worship. Written in Greek at Ephesus, this gospel embraces a Greek mindset informed by the notions of Platonic metaphysics, notions of a perfect ideal world beyond our broken material world, a mere reflection of that Platonic Ideal. 


Obviously not how we think today.


Jesus’ teaching has nothing to do with assenting to a creed. There were none in Jesus day as we understand creeds - - though there were perhaps ‘Mission Statements’. Our assent - our believing, is in Jesus’ Way, Jesus’ way of living. Rooted in an expansion of the Judaic Law based on compassion and mercy.


Over the last eighteen months the world has journeyed through a pandemic.

Journeyed through the many myriad losses this has entailed. Much to grieve over. But, although almost certainly this virus was human made in our desultory care, our exploitation of the created world, the pandemic has not been intentional destruction of life.  Not so, what has happened in the near East over the last couple of weeks.


I am appalled, heartbroken at what is happening in Afghanistan. The extreme exploitation and cruelty, the drive to dominance at any cost, the narrow concern only for ‘our own’, with devastating consequences, are entirely the result of human choosing.


Our Prime Minister has declared ‘Job done’. And in doing so openly admitting that we were only ever there for ourselves, our own protection, never really having in mind, our promises of freedom and development of an embattled nation. And for those who risked their lives to support us,

‘Sorry mate - that’s life, tough’. The bungling is beyond belief. The lack of care, let alone responsibility, is breathtaking. And for those who imagine that maybe - as I heard suggested on the radio, maybe the silent majority of the Afghan people are content with the Taliban, let me assure them, no girl is content to be taken out of education and made the sex slave of a stranger.  Not a majority then I would venture!


So what can it mean in our current circumstances to ‘eat the Bread of Jesus’, ‘eat my flesh, drink my blood’?


Jesus’ words are spirit and life. Let us listen, listen for what the Spirit is saying to us, what that still small voice is nudging us to do: for ourselves,

for our families, for our communities, our nation, for the future of our world. I can’t tell you what that might be. It may surprise us, it may be obvious. Knowing, deciding what we could do is never an easy task.

Deep reflection, listening for the voice of the Spirit, choosing love, these are spiritual muscles that grow strong as we exercise them. Learning the wisdom to understand when to say No. And when to say Yes.


The gifts of God for our daily living as we feed on Jesus, eat his bread, the Bread of Life. Amen.

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