John 6: 35 and 41-51
This has been a week of returns – the most important of which is The Great British Bake-Off, on that we are surely all agreed. Indeed, the panoply of saints in our household has widened to include Saint Mary and Saint Paul, along with Saint Alan of the garden of course. But let me remind you of a less-fashionable baking and cooking saint – not the domestic goddess Nigella, but the blessed saint Delia, who in the fourth chapter of Book One “Delia’s How to Cook”, writes “Wherefore do ye spend money on that which is not bread?”.
Delia was quoting a saint perhaps known to some of you – Elizabeth David, who bewailed the state of British bread making (a state we may not have improved much this morning!!).
But of course these words were really spoken by the Prophet Isaiah chapter 55:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good.
And I think Jesus must have had this saying in mind when in our chapter 6 verse 27 he criticises the people who are following him only because they want more miraculous food, as they have just received during the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish, and because they do not have neither faith nor even curiosity about who Jesus truly is.
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.
Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel supplies our lectionary readings for 5 weeks in July & August – if you’re not familiar with it then I do recommend reading it, as we only get excerpts on Sundays. It opens with the miracle, then Jesus walks on the water, and then the crowd catch up with Jesus and he teaches them that he is the Bread of Life – a bread more sustaining than manna, a Bread that will supply their eternal needs. As is typical during the ministry of Jesus, he meets with complaints and opposition. After all, it is a big claim to make about yourself – particularly in the strict monotheism of Judaism, where Jesus’ claim to be “the bread that came down from heaven” is actually a claim about his divine origins, as well as the way that Jesus himself is essential to life, just as the manna was essential in the desert. Jesus’ response is resilient, he does not back down but speaks clearly of how he is the living bread, and that to eat this bread is to receive eternal life.
Holidays give us that luxury of doing the things that we really enjoy – perhaps baking, or reading, or walking. And yes we should return from our break feeling relaxed, restored and ready to go. The slightly slower pace of life of summer gives us chance to ask ourselves questions about how we choose to spend our time, as Isaiah puts it, do we spend our time, our energy and talents, on the things that truly fulfil us and reward us, or are we distracted by “that which is not bread.” As we reflect on our lives, are we satisfied with the fruits of our labours? Perhaps you are lucky enough to have a paid job that you find (or found) challenging and fulfilling, and that is undeniably important. Jesus’ challenge here is about more than our working lives (although it is good to occasionally put those under the microscope as well).
Reflect for a moment on the things that you are able to do (and not the endless to-do lists or those things which you are not able to do). Are those activities worth it? Do they help you experience eternal life? Are they ways that you participate in the Kingdom of God? Remember that Jesus promises living bread on earth, in the here and now, as well as bread that is for eternal life (more on that next week, if Brian Beck chooses the lectionary gospel text). And so eternal life is also to be found in our lives, in our time.
If you are a fan of the Lord of the Rings, you will remember the elvish bread called “Lembas”, that they take on long journeys because it lasts so long. More than that, even a small amount was enough to keep a traveller going all day, and it had healing properties too. a quote from The Return of the King suggests Lembas has even more striking powers:
The Lembas had a virtue without which they would have long ago lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind
Of course Elvish bread is neither heavenly manna nor the Bread of Life but through his writings, Tolkien directs us to the way that we can rely on Christ Alone, to feed only on the Bread of Life, to labour only for that bread, which gives strength, which satisfies.
As you reflect on your many activities and the demands on your time – is there also time there for you to rely on Christ? Is there time for prayer, and worship? In John chapter 6, the people have anxiously asked Jesus “What must we do to perform the works of God?”. It is a classic question – what does God want from us? The prophets tells us clearly, Paul describes how the early churches also enact what God wants, and Jesus too sets the tone of loving one another and bearing each other’s burdens in practical ways. But Jesus here keeps us focussed on the important things, because he replies “This is the work of God, that you BELIEVE in him whom he has sent.” Our accountability to God for how we spend our time grows from our belief. And even this belief is not reliant on ourselves but comes in response to God’s call. When Jesus describes how the Father will draw us to Jesus, he is speaking of the grace of God, that works in our hearts and minds in so many ways, but every time to show us Jesus and to enable us to be close and connected to him. It is God’s doing and God’s will that we learn directly from God, by paying attention to Jesus.
This imagery of being drawn to Jesus is important in John’s Gospel, it is also used in chapter 12, the beginning of the extended narrative concerning the last days of Jesus. Jesus says: “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32). Ultimately, we are drawn to the Cross, we are drawn there together, with all those who believe and are relying on this living Bread. When we read about Jesus being the Bread of Life, we also associate this saying with our celebration today of the Lord’s Supper, a moment when we are united with Christ, when we rely fully on Jesus to be present to us, a ritual that is full of power to heal us, to reconcile us with God and with each other. At the Cross, symbolically remembered in the meal of the Last Supper, we are both confronted with our faults and failings as we realise that Jesus dies for us, and at the same time offered a way to be healed and made whole again as we recognise that in being united with Jesus the Bread of Life, we are forgiven, and the world has the chance to be made anew. And so let us once again be drawn by God, to this table, together, prepared to meet Christ in wine and in bread.