Friday 4 February 2022

The Bread of Life

 A sermon for  Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
13 February 2022

John 6:35-59  
1 Kings 19:1-8  

Back in the day, well, in my day, anyway,
            there was a popular film called ‘Highlander’
            starring Sean Connery
and it was one of the box office smash hits of 1986.
I think it was an interesting film
            because it explored the issue of what it might mean to be immortal
The premise of the film is that there are, living amongst us,
            a race of immortals
who survive from generation to generation,
            carrying their battles down the centuries
            while those around them get old and die.
One of the great things about the film was its soundtrack
            which included a number of songs by the rock group Queen,
And one of these was a poignant ballad written by Brian May,
            which asked, over and over, ‘Who wants to live forever?’.
In the film this song was used
            to frame the scenes where the hero
                        must endure his beloved wife
                        growing old and dying
            while he, as an Immortal, remains forever young.
And I can remember listening to this song
            with all the optimism of a fourteen year old,
and in response to its repeated question
            of ‘who wants to live forever?’
thinking to myself, ‘well, I do!’
To quote another Queen song, (I want it all)
            there just sometimes seems ‘so much to do in one lifetime’
I’ve long joked that discovering the secret of living forever
                        is my ‘sleeper project’
            It’s something I work on when I’ve got an idle moment,
And I have to say, as I approach the end of my fifth decade,
            ‘so far, so good!’
But of course, it’s never that clear-cut, is it?
            I mean, would we really want to live forever?
I’ve asked a few people,
            and the response has been mixed.
Some, like me, have a kind of instant ‘yes, of course’ approach,
            in which the benefits outweigh the disadvantages
But others seem to take a more considered view,
            recognising that eternal life may not be all it’s cracked up to be
I’m tempted to take a straw poll,
            but I think I’ll just leave it for each of us to consider our own response
And whilst we’re thinking about this,
            it’s worth hearing the story about one of the characters
                        in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers series of books
            who has had immortality accidentally thrust upon him
He finds himself unable to come to terms with his longevity
            and gets increasingly frustrated
                        with a universe that he’s growing tired of
So, to pass the time, he decides to embark on a quest
            to insult every living being in the universe - in alphabetical order.
And I have to wonder whether I too, in time,
            would find myself tiring of life
If someone offered me the elixir of eternal youth,
            would I really drink it?
If some alchemist perfected the Philosopher’s stone
            would I really grasp it?
Many historic cultures include myths
            which address this issue
with the tantalising offer of eternal life
            striking right at the heart of the oh-so-human fear
            of aging and dying
And in our own world
            we are offered promise after promise
                        of ways to stave off the inevitable
            with anti-ageing products
                        diet regimes
            magic bullets
                        and a preserve-life-at-all-costs
                        approach to aging and dying
Eternal youth is only one trip to the botox clinic away,
            and many of us live in the hope
                        that the medical profession will keep us fit and active
            until we’re well into our nineties, if not beyond
But, at the end, death will come to us all…
            death and taxes, as Benjamin Franklin once said.
So, who wants to live forever?
Well, come back in time with me
            to a synagogue in Capernaum,
It’s nearly 2,000 years ago
            and a local preacher is down to speak.
And as he stands up to address the congregation,
            he asks roughly the same question we’ve been considering this morning:
            ‘Who wants to live forever?’
This was, for the Jews of the first century, a live question
            and there were different schools of thought around
            about whether eternal life was possible or not
The Sadducees were a Jewish group that arose during the Maccabean period
            and they famously didn’t believe that the soul could exist beyond death
            with no possibility of reward or punishment after one died.
So, for the Sadducees, this life was all there was
            and it needed to be lived carefully and faithfully.
Whereas other groups, such as the Pharisees,
            seemed to see some future for the human soul
            beyond the point of the ending of the body
and they came to believe that the rights and wrongs of this life
            could be sorted out in the afterlife
And it’s into this context that our young preacher
            starts talking about bread,
            and the importance of eating bread to stay alive
At one level this is absolutely correct, of course.
            without regular food, of which bread was the staple component,
            the people of Israel would starve and die.
In years of famine, when the grain harvest failed,
            the reaping of corn was all too swiftly replaced
            by the grim reaper coming to harvest the lives of the living.
Bread was, indeed, essential for life.
But even a regular diet of bread
            couldn’t stave off the inevitable forever.
Eventually even the most well-fed member of the aristocracy
            would get ill, and die of something or other.
Bread, it seems, is all very well to keep you going until tomorrow,
            but it won’t keep you going eternally.
The dependence on bread
            had been a feature of the Ancient Near Eastern lifestyle
            since Neolithic times
And the rhythm of seed-time and harvest
            had enabled the growth of great civilisations.
But within the Jewish religious tradition,
            the dependence on bread
had acquired a metaphorical meaning as well
            with the daily consumption of bread
            signifying the importance of the regular consumption
                        of spiritual nourishment as well
In Deuteronomy chapter 8 (v.3), we find the phrase
            quoted by Jesus at his temptation in the wilderness
‘one does not live by bread alone,
            but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’
Clearly, there is a parallel to be drawn
            between the physical life that bread sustains
and the spiritual life that also needs sustenance.
Whilst the body may be nourished by the regular consumption of bread,
            for someone to be truly ‘alive’
                        in a spiritual, as well as a physical, sense
                        apparently needs something more.
The suggestion of the writer of Deuteronomy
            is that what is required
            is to regularly ingest the ‘word’ of God
From the perspective of this ancient Jewish author,
            the ‘word of God’ was to be understood
                        as the ‘words’ of the Jewish Torah
            - the stories and laws found in the first five books of the Bible,
and especially those stories associated with exodus of the Jews
            from their time of slavery in Israel.
The story of how the people of God found release from Egypt,
            journeyed through the wilderness for forty years,
            and eventually entered the promised land
was one of the foundational stories for Jewish self-understanding.
And they remembered the moment
                        when God had freed their ancestors from slavery,
            in their celebration of the Passover meal
            - breaking bread together
                        and remembering their identity
                        as those whom God had spared from the angel of death.
They also remembered how God had sustained them through the wilderness
            with manna from heaven,
that strange bread-like substance
            which appeared on the ground every morning
                        and was good to eat
            but which didn’t keep overnight,
so ensuring that the people of God were daily dependent
            on the nourishment that God sent.
And it’s this image of daily bread from God
            that lies behind the injunction not to live by bread alone
            but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord
- daily dependence on God is what was required,
            a regular consumption of God’s word.
Meditating and ruminating on God’s commands
            was presented as the way to achieve a wholeness of being
- a path to life in a spiritual, as well as a physical, sense
So when Jesus, speaking in the synagogue in Capernaum,
            starts to talk about bread
he’s addressing a context which would already have been familiar
            with the need for spiritual, as well as physical, nourishment.
But the way Jesus puts it, there’s a new twist,
            and a provocative one at that.
‘I am the bread of life’ says Jesus,
            and in one short phrase lays personal claim
            to two of Israel’s great religious concepts
His opening words ‘I am’ deliberately echo
                        the divine name given to Moses on Mount Sinai:
            ‘I am who I am’ said God
                        in response to Moses request to know his name
And the phrase ‘bread of life’ symbolised, as we’ve seen,
            the Jewish Torah, the words of the law.
So, by saying ‘I am the bread of life’
            Jesus is claiming not only to be in some way Torah made flesh,
            but also God made flesh
And then he ups the ante even further
            by claiming that whoever eats this bread of life
                        will live forever
Whereas the bread given by God in the wilderness, and through the Torah,
            was capable of sustaining a person throughout their natural life
Jesus suddenly started claiming that the bread of life that he offered
            was capable of defeating death itself
It almost sounds like an advertising campaign too far, doesn’t it?
Really? Eat this bread and live forever?
            Would that get past the Advertising Standards Authority?
            I somehow doubt it!
It certainly didn’t get past the Pharisees
            who were under no illusions as to the controversial and radical nature
            of Jesus’ claims to be the bread of life
And so they start to complain about him,
            muttering to anyone who will listen that this is just Jesus from Nazareth,
            and his mother and father are well known to all of us
                        - he’s nothing special
                        - he’s got no basis on which to make these kind of promises
But of course, for every person who didn’t want to hear it
            there were plenty of others who were hooked
Because whilst the radical nature of Jesus’ revisioning
            of what it means to be in relationship with God
was threatening to those who had a vested interests in the status quo
            it was similarly liberating for those who had been controlled
                        and manipulated by the Pharisaic gatekeepers of eternal life
The Pharisees had been telling people that the bread that leads to spiritual life
            was the bread of Torah law, as interpreted by them, of course…
And suddenly here was Jesus, claiming to personify both Torah and God,
            making them freely accessible to all
‘I am the bread of life’ (v35) he says
            ‘whoever eats me  will live’ (v.57) he says
‘The one who eats this bread will live forever’ (v.58) he says
The impossible dream,
            the bread of eternal life
is suddenly and unexpectedly announced in a synagogue in Capernaum
Of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about the avoidance of physical death itself
            any more than he was talking about re-entering the womb
            when he told Nicodemus that he must be born again
Rather, Jesus was speaking about entering into an eternal quality of life
            which transcends physical death
The good news of Capernaum is the defeat of spiritual death
            it is the entering into a new way of being
                        that has an eternal quality
                        and carries eternal value
For the ordinary Jew,
            unwilling to embrace the scepticism of the Sadducees
            and oppressed by the legalistic religion of the Pharisees
This was a message of life in all its fullness
            a new way of living in the here and now
            which finds eternity in each present moment
            and sees the eternal value of each mundane minute
The temporary manna of the Torah
            the daily observance of the law
            and the regular rituals of religion
give way in Christ to a joyful embracing of the now
            as this moment is welcomed into God’s eternal embrace
Jesus promises that he will lose nothing that has been entrusted to him,
            and that all that he has been given will be held fast
            and will receive the life eternal
So what earthly difference does this make to us, then?
All this talk of bread that gives eternal life?
            all this talk of eternity in the here and now?
What are we, here today, to make of it…?
Well, in many ways we’re in the same place as those hearing for the first time,
Some of us will be Sadducees,
            The rationalists who can’t quite bring themselves
            to buy into a belief that there’s more to life than meets the eye
Some of us will be Pharisees,
            so sure they’re right,
                        because they’ve been doing it this way for years,
            and unwilling to let go of the values that have got them safely this far
And then some of us will be sitting in the middle,
            neither the rational sceptic,
                        nor the religious establishment,
            but just longing for some good news
Well, to the Sadducees amongst us, Jesus affirms the present:
            the here and now does indeed matter.
Eternity does begin today,
            and who we are here, is who we shall be eternally;
            welcomed and purified and held safe forever,
                        by the one who calls us to follow him.
But Jesus also challenges the Sadducees
            to recognise that just because now matters
            doesn’t mean that there is no hope for tomorrow
For those of us stuck in our rationality,
            focussing only on that which we can see, taste and touch and measure,
Jesus asks us to dare to believe that there is an eternal dimension
            to who we are and what we do.
Because maybe, if we can let go of our ownership of the now,
            and if we can learn to trust our present to God’s eternity,
we can find release from the burden of today
            and embrace wholeheartedly the risk-taking adventure
            that is our part in the in-breaking kingdom of God.
To the Pharisees amongst us, Jesus affirms the future,
            reassuring us that all our hard work and self-denial
                        and care and attention to the details are not lost.
But he also releases us from the necessity to care so much
            and he calls us to trust him when life loses its certainty.
            to trust him when others do it differently,
and he reminds us that our way isn’t the only right way,
            and that the lives of others are also valued and held fast by God,
            even when they seem far from the way we have been called to live.
And maybe, if we can let go of our ownership of the future,
            we can find release from the burden
            of trying to make sure we get there in the right way
and can learn to embrace wholeheartedly the risk-taking adventure
            that is our part in the in-breaking kingdom of God
And to the rest of us, Jesus affirms our value as people of eternal worth,
            and calls us to join him in changing the world
If we can learn to trust him with our lives and our deaths
            if we can learn to embrace today without fear of its ending
                        then death has lost its power over us
and when this happens,
            we can discover the freedom and liberation
                        that Christ gives
            to live each moment
                        as an instant of eternal worth
There’s an apocryphal story told about Francis of Assisi
            who was out hoeing the garden one day
and was approached by someone who asked him
            ‘great saint, if you knew that tonight you were to die,
            what final great work would you accomplish this afternoon?’
to which Francis replied that he would finish tending the garden.
Today matters, the task for today matters,
            whether it’s a mundane day, or an important day
            whether a day of pain, or a day of rejoicing
            whether it’s a day of youth, or a day of old age,
today matters.
And if this moment is of eternal value
            then we can risk it all for the sake of the in-breaking kingdom of God.
If we’re no longer defeated by the power of death,
            then we’re liberated to live fully in the present
And so, today, if we are sustained through the wilderness of the world
            by the bread that gives life,
if we’re nourished by the bread of the body of Christ
            who lived, and died, and rises eternally to new life,
then we have before us the path that leads through death
            and in following that path
                        we find the freedom and strength
                                    to live life in all its fullness
And so we ourselves become in turn the agents of good news to the world:
            recognising and proclaiming the eternal value of each human soul
Because if this moment in my life is of eternal value,
            then it is also of eternal value in everyone else’s life as well
            and their lives matter too
And so when we engage the world in the name of Christ
            we must challenge those policies and decisions
which depersonalise and objectify
we must remind the powers that be
            that people are more than statistics
            and that every human life is of equal value
We must resist the insidious voice
            which whispers in the ears of the powerful
            that one person is of more worth than another
            and that privilege is a right not a gift
And as we do this, as we challenge the world
            to pay attention to the individual soul of each created person,
intercessory prayer takes on a new dimension
            because we bring others before God
            in the confidence that nothing that is good is lost
            and all that he keeps is held safe for eternity
So, when we hear news of floods, fires, and famines,
            of civil war and terrorism, of so much human suffering around the globe
                        we are not powerless before God
Because as we pray for those who suffer
            we know that even in the depths of hell on earth
                        the crucified and resurrected Christ is present
The astonishing news of the bread of life
            is that the broken body of Christ on the cross
            is the nourishment that brings the lost to life
The bread of life is broken
            so that those who are dying can receive the gift of life eternal.

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