Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Jesus, the bread of life

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
3rd January 2016 11.00am
I am the bread

John 6.22-40  The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone.  23 Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.  24 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.  25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?"  26 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.  27 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."  28 Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"  29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."  30 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?  31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"  32 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.  33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."  34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."  35 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.  36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.  37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away;  38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.  39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day."

John 6.41-59 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven."  42 They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?"  43 Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves.  44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.  45 It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.  46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.  47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.  48 I am the bread of life.  49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."  52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"  53 So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;  55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."  59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

Well, happy new year everyone!
            Here we stand at the dawn of 2016,
                        a beautiful bouncing new-born year,
                        still only a few days old.

What will it hold for us, I wonder?
            Health, happiness, and prosperity?
            Or suffering, sickness, and war?
Or perhaps it’ll be just another year like most others:
            the classic mixture of good and bad,
            with a large dose of keeping your head down and getting on with life?

Anyway, tomorrow has enough worries of its own, as Jesus once said (Matt 6.34),
            so let’s leave 2016 to its own devices for a moment
            and think about how we’re doing today?

So, have you recovered from Christmas yet?

Was the annual festive season of over-eating and extravagant gift-giving
            everything you wanted it to be?

I think it must have been for many,
            because apparently in the UK
                        we spent over £700 million online on Christmas day alone,
                                    up 11% from last year;
                        and on Black Friday, we spent over £1billion online in just one day.

            And then, after all of that, we went to the shops on Boxing Day,
                        with the sales drawing another 11% of additional shoppers
                        to the high street compared to last year.

            And don’t even mention the turkey, Christmas pudding, and alcohol
                        which we have consumed in vast quantities as a nation,
                                    as we consigned our diets to the cupboard
                                    and let our waist bands out a notch or two.

In many ways, the extravagant consumption of the festive season
            is a metaphor for the way our world is run.
In a nutshell, we consume to survive.
            Tesco ergo sum, as it is occasionally satirised.
                        I shop, therefore I am

It’s no exaggeration to say that our world is built upon a system of consumption.
            We even give it a name that says it all, and we call it ‘consumerism’.
Our dominant doctrine is one of conspicuous consumption,
            which tells us that we are most fully alive
            only when we are in the process of consuming.
From food, to alcohol, to goods, to services;
            you might say that we consume to live,
            and that we live to consume.

But there is the inevitable dark side to our culture of consumption.
            It may not be fashionable or palatable to name it,
                        but slavery is the ultimate facilitator of consumerism;
            we enslave the environment, and we enslave fellow humans,
                        all to the service of our consumption.

One of the enduring metaphors for a consumerist society
            is the image of an empire as a body.
Whether we’re talking about the Roman, Babylonian, or Egyptian empires of old,
            or the more modern empires of the colonial period,
                        or the contemporary empires of global capitalism;
            it is possible to imagine the empire as a human body,
                        with the flow of goods and services
                                    feeding its voracious and growing appetites
                                    and engorging its swollen belly.

And of course,
            as those at the centre of the empire
                        grow fat and sleek through excessive consumption,
            so those at the margins struggle to consume sufficient food to survive,
                        with their daily labour being co-opted
                                    to the service of those at the centre,
                        rather than to the meeting of their own needs.

And in the rush to move from underdeveloped, to developing country,
            and then to full-blown member of the developed world,
we discover again and again
            that the higher a person or nation rises up the economic scale,
            the more wide ranging their appetites become,
                        and the greater their scale of consumption.

We move from consuming food to survive,
            to the consumption of resources to live in the manner
                        to which we desire to become accustomed.
And the more we consume, the more we need.
            The scale of our appetite for irreplaceable
                        and increasingly depleted natural resources is breath-taking,
            and the consequences of our conspicuous and all-consuming appetites
                        are staggering.
From climate change to international conflict,
            there is a compelling case to be made
that much of the suffering experienced by the human race
            is a consequence of excessive consumption by the rich.

For example, the desire of the developed world
            to secure its supply of fossil fuel reserves for the foreseeable future
                        lies behind many of the interventionist conflicts
                        in the Middle East of recent decades.
And our industrial-scale unfettered consumption of oil, coal, and gas
            has contributed to climate change on a global scale,
                        the effects of which will be felt hardest
                        by those in the poorest countries which are less able to adapt.

Or think about beef production:
            the amount of land given to beef cattle
            could feed the starving many times over.
Beef, however yummy, is an environmental catastrophe,
            and also one of the least efficient ways to feed a human being,
and that's before we get to the negative health benefits
            of regular consumption of red meat.[1]

And whilst we’re on the topic of human health,
            the obesity epidemic, as it is now called,
            is another example of a society that enslaves people to consumption;
                        and again it is, statistically, the poorest
                        who bear the brunt of the problem.
Those who lack the education and opportunity
                        to take informed and healthy decisions,
            and who lack the resources and time to invest in exercise,
are those most prey to eating
            the easy-access, high-sugar, high-fat, budget meals and takeaways
            that are so readily addictive, and yet so destructive.

At every turn, we consume people-by-proxy
            to feed our voracious appetites.
I think it is no exaggeration to say
            that our society is sick from over-consumption.
 And never has the world needed more
            the counter-cultural challenge
            of the one who claimed to be the living bread
                        which satisfies our desires and fulfils our appetites.

To say that Jesus is the ‘living bread’
            is to subvert the narratives of consumerism that our society lives by.
And to collectively consume the broken body of Jesus at communion
            is an act of rebellion against our dominant individualist consumerist ideology.

As we have seen, our global system of consumerism
            is one which is predicated on a global system of slavery and violence,
where the many work for next-to-nothing
            so that the privileged few can enjoy the fruits of their labours.
And in this, we are no different to the Roman Empire of the first century;
            except they had their slaves living in their homes,
            whereas our slaves live on the other side of the world.

But then, as now, the mainstays
            of both first and twenty first century consumerism
                        are slavery and military expansionism,
            as strong countries consume weaker ones,
                        claiming the resources of another for their own.

It's an old story, told again and again in human history,
            and it was the story of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt.
The people of God knew what it was to be consumed by another,
            barely escaping with their lives.
They told and re told the story of their long walk to freedom
            through the wilderness of sin,
led by the fiery cloudy pillar,
            and sustained by the miraculous bread of heaven.

For the Jews, talk of heavenly food, of bread from above,
            meant only one thing: freedom.

And this is the context for our reading this morning from John’s gospel.

The extended passage from John’s gospel,
            sometimes called the ‘bread of life discourse’
                        is, as the final verse of the reading makes clear,
                        actually a Jewish homily, or sermon,
            delivered by Jesus the Rabbi in the synagogue in Capernaum.

Jewish worship services in the first century
            had several features in common
            with what we would recognize as Christian worship;
which makes sense, given that Christianity emerged from within Judiasm
            and borrowed many of its key features.

And one of these common elements was the sermon.
            In the synagogue, there would be a reading from the Torah,
                        and then a reading from the prophets,
            and then a sermon where the text of scripture would be applied
            to the life of the community who worshipped at the Synagogue.
In other words, it could be our normal pattern
            of Old Testament reading, New Testament reading, and Sermon.

On the occasion recounted in John’s gospel,
            where Jesus gives his sermon on the bread of life,
we are able to reconstruct what passages from the Hebrew Bible he’s using,
            and it’s pretty clear that he’s drawing firstly
            on the story of the miraculous manna from Heaven
                        that fed the Jews on their journey through the wilderness
                        on their way from Egyptian slavery to the promised land;
                                    a story we find in Exodus 16;
            and secondly Jesus is using a passage from the prophet Isaiah (54.9-55.5)
                        where the Lord promises his people food and drink
                                    which will never fail them,
                        in contrast to the bread they can buy in the market,
                                    which goes off like manna left overnight.

And what Jesus does is to take these two ancient passages
            about the contrast between earthly food and heavenly food,
            and use them as the basis for his assertion that in him,
                        people can find true nourishment
            that will sustain them in ways
                        that even the finest of human foods could never achieve.

The broader context of the passage within John’s gospel
            is also important here:
Jesus has just performed a series of signs
            which contrast earthly things with heavenly things.

So the water at the wedding at Cana
            has been miraculously transformed
            into the fine wine that comes down from heaven;
Jesus has predicted the destruction of the earthly temple
            and its miraculous rebuilding in in three days,
                        and used this as a metaphor
                        for his own earthly death and miraculous resurrection;
Nicodemus has been told that being born in the normal human way is not enough
            and that he must instead be born again from above;
a Samaritan woman has asked Jesus for water
            and instead been promised the water of eternity that never runs out;
and the crowd who followed Jesus into the wilderness
            have discovered that two fish and five little barley loaves
            can feed thousands of people when blessed by Jesus.

And so the point Jesus is making in his sermon about heavenly food,
            delivered in the synagogue in Capernaum becomes clear,
            and I might summarise it in this way:

‘If you do not have heaven’s perspective on your life,
            you remain trapped on earth.’

And Jesus uses the image of bread as a metaphor to make this point.

For the Israelites, the path from slavery to freedom
            had been a path through suffering,
            a path through the wilderness that might have killed them off
                        had the miraculous manna from heaven not sustained them on their journey.

The Jewish journey to freedom had begun in Egypt, in slavery;
            as they served the Pharaoh
            and bore the brunt of his imperial aspirations.
And their plight could be written time and again through human history,
            as one people bind another into the bondage of oppression
                        and grow rich and powerful from the suffering labours of the powerless.

But of course, the thing about manna, the bread from heaven
            that sustained them on their path to freedom
            was that there was only ever enough for that day.
Any that was kept over was rotten by the next morning.

The Israelites in the wilderness learned what it was to be daily reliant on God’s provision
            as they made their journey of emancipation.

And it’s a similar story for the prophet Isaiah,
            in the other passage Jesus refers to in his sermon.
Writing a thousand years later than the exodus,
            to the Jews in exile in Babylon,
Isaiah was addressing a people who owned no land and could raise no crops,
            people who were reliant daily on what they could buy in the market place,
                        and were trapped in the economic snare of Babylonian oppression.
To these exiles, Isaiah spoke of food from above, food from heaven,
            which would free them from their exile
            and release them from their captivity.

So deep within the Jewish story lay the hope
            that those enslaved and exiled in this world
            would not be slaves and exiles forever;
and this hope was based on a firm belief,
            articulated by prophets and preachers alike,
            that God is at work in the world
                        bringing freedom, and release, and restoration.
And it is this hope that finds its focus
            in Jesus’ description of himself as the bread of life,
            broken for the salvation of the world.

Jesus’ casting of himself as the bread that comes from heaven
                        and which brings life eternal
            is a direct challenge to all political systems and ideologies
                        that rely on human consumption as the means of their own sustaining.

Even Communism, that idealistic attempt
            to control the means of production for the benefit of the poor,
            foundered on the rocks of the reality of human greed.

The exclusive claim inherent in Jesus language
            is that it is he, and only he,
            who offers the bread if life,
it is only the crucified and resurrected one
            who has the capacity to challenge
            consumptive and violent ideologies at their very root.

And so, when, at communion, we eat the broken body of Christ,
            we participate in a narrative of redemption and freedom
                        which asserts that the innocent sacrifice
                        is consumed by humanity to redeem it from the inside out.
We do not eat the bread to survive starvation,
            we eat the living bread to survive death itself.

But more than this,
            the consumption of the bread of life
                        also subverts the very narratives of slavery and violence
                        that dominate human society.

Because in the broken body of Jesus
            we meet not the unwilling sacrifice required by consumerism,
                        where some must suffer and die so that others can live,
            but rather the willing sacrifice
                        of the one who identifies with the scapegoats of our world
                                    in order to redeem consumers from their sins
                                    and to release captives from their oppression.

When we eat the meat of Jesus’ body,
            we cannot ignore the questions and challenges this poses
            to the way we consume meat, bread, and other staple necessities to survive.

Jesus says, that when we eat him, we need no other bread.
            If we, spiritually speaking, consume the flesh of Jesus,
                        he enters into us and is at work within our lives
                        to break the cycles of addictive yet destructive behaviour.

This isn't just a 'follow Jesus and he'll give you strength
            to break your addiction to consumerism' challenge,
                        although that is true,
            and I would indeed say that the path of Jesus
                        is one which challenges our destructive addictions.

No, the challenge that Jesus brings
            in his declaration of himself as the living bread
            runs far wider than a challenge to our unbalanced personal consumption.

Michael Hardin, who visited Bloomsbury last year, puts it very well.
            He says:
In order for us to properly achieve distance from sacred violence,
            [whether they be] witch hunts, Inquisitions,
                        pogroms and Holocausts
            [or] world wars, genocides, death camps,
                        renditions, secret prisons and torture,
            we must see the victim from the perspective of the victim.[2]

This is what happens when we break bread and share it
            in memory of the broken body of Jesus Christ.
At communion, we learn to see the victim
            from the perspective of the victim.
We take the bread of life into ourselves,
            and we are transformed as we identify with the crucified messiah.

In our consumption of the bread of life,
            we enter into the story of the ultimate sacrificial victim,
                        and his story enters into us.

When we consume the body of Christ,
            we discover that we need nothing more.

In our confession we recognise with humility
            that we are enslaved to our appetites,
            that we struggle to give up our addictions,
            and that we are held captive by our desires.

As we share bread together,
            we consume the living bread that is the broken body of Jesus;
And the one that has been sacrificed enters into us,
            both individually and corporately;
to unmask our delusions
            and challenge our addictions to greed and violence.

And so we come to communion,
            to take deep within ourselves the living bread that is Jesus.

As we do so, maybe it is time for us to turn our eyes to tomorrow,
            as we contemplate the new world that opens before us
            through our participation the death and resurrection of our Lord.

As we stand on the cusp of a new year
            let us allow the one who comes to us in bread and wine
                        to consume us, even as we consume him.

May we learn what it means for the living bread of his broken body
                        to nourish us day by day,
            sustaining our commitment to live peaceably, one day at a time,
                        challenging our addictions to consumptive addictions
                        and the violence inherent within them.

May we , through Jesus, find ways of subverting and resisting
            the systems and practices that lead to death.
May we learn what it means to desire Jesus more than possessions,
            more than money, more than power,
and in our hunger for Jesus so find the freedom to truly live.

What would our lives be like
            if we learned what it is to be daily reliant on God’s grace?

As Jesus might have said:

Give us this day our daily bread,
            free us from our addictions
            and release us from our compulsions;
deliver us from greed,
            and forgive us our excesses,
            as we forgive those whose excess defines us.
For your is the kingdom,
            the power and the glory.
Forever and ever, Amen.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/21/giving-up-beef-reduce-carbon-footprint-more-than-cars
[2] Facebook Status Update 17/12/15

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