Sunday 6 August 2018
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that 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.
There is a minor character in a novel I once read who the author described as the sort of person who enjoys going around doing good to others. Unfortunately, despite Google, I’ve not managed to trace the book or its author, or get an accurate quotation. But the phrase that sticks in my mind is, ‘you could always recognise the others by their hunted look.’
Last week’s gospel was the feeding of the five thousand. One of the best known stories in the Bible and the inspiration for all sorts of Christian projects aimed at feeding the hungry. Feeding those in need has always been an important task of the church as of many other religions.
It’s something we are called to do. It’s not easy. We can salve our conscience with an occasional donation to Christian Aid or the food bank. But most of us don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Instead we worry about whether we are doing enough; whether we are really following Jesus’s example or just assuaging our sense of guilt.
We try though. There is a very practical down to earth streak in many Christians and we can look around this congregation, and many others, and recognise people who are really putting themselves out for those in need. They see the need and do all that they can to help.
That’s practical Christianity. It appeals to people who see themselves as no-nonsense, down to earth folk who don’t get bogged down in complicated theology or other-worldly flights of fancy. People whose mission in life is to go around doing good to others.
And thank God for them. We need practical Christianity, and the Bible time and time again keeps telling us that it’s what we do, not what we say, that will make a difference. ‘Not everyone that says to me Lord, Lord’, says Jesus ‘ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my heavenly Father.’
But. There are dangers. Remember the hunted look in the eyes of those who are being done good to. Maybe they feel patronised, got at. Maybe the do-gooders (and it’s interesting how that is not a positive reputation to have) are more intent on scoring heavenly Brownie points than responding to God’s will.
Maybe they have got an agenda: they know what people need and they begin to think they, the do-gooders, know best about how to help them, the ‘others’.
So they – we – set out with the best intentions, but begin to lose heart. We run dry; we are running down our spiritual batteries. Because we are looking in the wrong place for our support. We forget that we are not in charge, and me implementing my latest bright idea is not the same as me striving to do God’s will.
Jesus started by feeding the crowd. Physical food to satisfy their hunger. But we need more. ‘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.’
And the rest of this chapter 6 of St John’s gospel, which form our readings for the rest of this month, is a meditation on Jesus as the Bread of Life. Jesus doesn’t just teach us to feed the hungry; he doesn’t simply tell us how we can find spiritual comfort. He is the Bread of Life. He tells us, ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’
Being a Christian isn’t a simple matter of obeying a few commandments and trying to be a good person. It’s nothing less than the transformation of our whole selves. It starts with baptism, when we become members of Christ. Not just followers, not just admirers, but actually members. Part of his Body.
The same body that was put to death on the cross; the same body that was lifted down from the cross and placed in the arms of his mother; the same body that was laid in the tomb. And the same body that rose from the dead and appeared to Mary Magdalen and the other disciples, and ascended into heaven.
It’s that Body that we are, in a mysterious and wonderful way, made part of. And when we come to the altar and receive bread and wine we are being fed by that very same Body and Blood.
At the heart of our Christian life is this Mystery. The deeper we enter into it the more our human selfishness is being changed; the more our narrow understanding is being expanded.
If our religion just became a way of doing good, of practical caring, we would just be like an ambulance service; sticking plaster for the world’s wounds. That is needed, of course. But what is needed even more is radical transformation. And that can only come through the power of God; God who takes our human nature and through the cross and resurrection transforms it into the divinity of Christ.
And the more we are transformed by regularly feeding on this sacrament, the more we are fed with Christ’s Body, the more we will be conformed to his likeness and the more we will be able to recognise him in the people we meet.
So that we will no longer reach out to ‘others’ in a patronising way; people will no longer be poor defenceless objects of our charity; people will be our brothers and sisters and we will recognise in their faces the face of Christ.
Nearly 100 years ago Bishop Frank Weston, gave an impassioned speech about the connection between the sacraments and social justice. He knew that if we honour Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, if we revere his words in holy scripture, we must reverence him in the poor and the needy and all our brothers and sisters. He concluded his address: ‘it is folly, it is madness, to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are [exploiting] him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.’