By Mother Janet Yabsley - Text: John 6: 24-35
Jesus answered, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never thirst.’ (John 6:35)
It was a difficult time to be living in the East End of London in the early 1940’s. A time when the daily effects of war had been continuously wreaking havoc on its population for many months. But my family, who had lived there for several generations, decided to remain in spite of the troubles. First of all my father was a firefighter in the London Fire Brigade. He had volunteered and needed to be there. From my mother’s perspective, a brief period of evacuation in the peaceful countryside of Wales had proved to be much too quiet for her. Being out of touch was making her anxious, so she brought me back to our home where we could spend at least some time with my father.
Life was far from easy, but community cohesion, friendship, support and helping one’s neighbour were right at the top of the list of things people could do for one another. Many adversities brought people together. Luckily our home escaped damage, but others - on all sides of the conflict - were not so fortunate. During the bombing raids of WW II thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. Some were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and a level of care. But many of these children had lost so much that they couldn’t sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Then someone had the good idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, the children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I had something to eat, and I will eat again tomorrow.’
The knowledge that still today there are people who find themselves in the same predicament as those children, raises questions for us. They are not questions exclusively for Christians but they do affect us acutely when we ask them in the light of the gospel.
What problems beset Christians living in a materialist society? What are the true needs of those who seek after Jesus? How do we understand the ‘spiritual’ in our own abundance?
In the relative comforts of life here in the West we are largely buffered against the harsh realities that millions suffer today. In the protected atmosphere of my own living-room I can choose to put away my newspaper or turn off the T.V. whenever images of conflicts and disasters of all kinds, demand my attention. Unless I physically, bodily enter into the situation, I cannot truly grasp its reality. I may feel a number of emotions - shock, pity, anger etc. I may also experience an acute sense of impotence, for at its core the problem is always a political one. There is hunger and destitution for some because others are greedy, or corrupt, or both. Christian social responsibility demands that the issues are addressed in concrete terms, but nothing will change while nations cannot live in peace with one another. Greed, and yet more greed, is always lurking nearby. (Cf. James 3:16-18)
The question of greed is never far away in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ miraculous feedings. As he leaves the scene they follow him - even hound him. They are greedy for yet more miracles. They hope to see some kind of spectacle, but know nothing of his true purpose. Jesus says to them, ‘You are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.’ (John 6:26) What Jesus does is never a magic trick but rather a sign of God’s love for them, tangibly demonstrated. They have not yet understood the symbolism in his actions. It is frequently mentioned that Jesus uses Barley loaves, the bread of the poor. One of the first miracles concerns a poor woman who begs for mere crumbs - crumbs that drop from the table to the floor. She will be satisfied with them if her daughter can be made well. Her need is not for bead to eat, but the nourishment that Jesus gives from his capacity to listen, to hear, to understand and to heal every kind of infirmity. (Cf. Mark 7:25-30)
The demanding attitude of the crowd is set against the ancient traditions concerning hospitality. Jesus, who had compassion on them, adhered closely to the tradition. First, the people were made to sit down. Then there were conversations, teachings and prayers. Then the food was set before them and they ate. Spiritual needs were satisfied before the needs of physical hunger (Cf. Mark 6:34-42). First of all, to eat bread, in its deepest meaning, is to taste the very source of all bread and nourishment which is the true and living God. For it was God who created the earth, all living things, all food upon which we depend. Yet we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Deuteronomy 8:3) Out of the mouth of God comes the creative word that makes all life, and nourishment possible. In the beginning God spoke, and it was so. Jesus said a prayer of blessing before he shared the loaves, acknowledging God to be the source of all nourishment, and so conveying to the people the need for a spiritual response to God’s acts of supreme generosity. The God of life has made all things holy - a reflection of the Divine Holiness - therefore all creation is to be revered (Cf. Genesis 1:29-31).
The Christian life is not simply a ‘natural religion’ of thanksgiving for creation, and of good deeds. God, who is Love, has made us a holy people, a redeemed people; accepts our service and our worship. Our prayer confirms and deepens our existing relation of intimate trust between God and ourselves. When Jesus talks about bread in the gospels, the tradition of breaking bread as an act of worship is a strong undercurrent. Of course the Last Supper has not yet taken place - we are only at chapter 6 - but the gospel of John brings these ideas clearly into focus, for the community from which his gospel comes, already had the sharing of bread at the centre of its worshipping life. What we read was set down in writing, in the light of the experience of early Christians (Cf. 1Cor. 11:25-26).
In all four gospels Jesus blesses bread, divides it and shares it among the people. In the crucial words we heard this morning Jesus declares himself to be the true bread. ‘I am the bread of life.‘ In other words, “I, in myself, am true bread, true life.” Jesus, within the bond of covenant with his heavenly Father, is true life; and so can bring about a condition of eternal life in those who feed upon him. Real bread is spiritual, for the followers of Jesus and indeed for all humankind. Yet Jesus will later remind some of those standing nearby that they have seen him and yet do not believe. (John 6: 36).
The Eucharist - a Greek word meaning ‘Great Thanksgiving’, with its Latin equivalent the Mass, meaning ‘Great Feast’ - is always a celebration of the new humanity, the ‘community of gift’ between God and human beings, and between human beings themselves. The new community are to take Jesus Christ as their pattern - in lowliness of heart; in their hunger and thirst for justice; in their compassion; in their role as peacemakers; in their capacity for costly giving of themselves (Cf. Matthew 5:3-12). At the personal, individual level, discipleship means daily seeking to draw closer to Jesus, to learn of him, trust him, and thereby to trust in God (Cf. Matthew 11:28-30). I would like to share something with you that I find helpful, although you may of course have something of your own that you do in your own way.
Perhaps then, later today, in a quiet space, ask yourself this question: “For what moment today am I most grateful?” Think about that for several minutes. Then ask, “For what moment today am I least grateful?” See where those questions lead you. ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1Sam. 3:10). Amen.