Sermon: 13th Sunday after Pentecost 23rd August 2015, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping,23rd August 2015, Reverend Paul Weaver

“GETTING THE POINT ABOUT JESUS”

(1 Kings 8; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69)

Over the past few weeks, our Gospel readings have taken us through the long sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. It begins with the feeding of the five thousand, and then moves into a complex discussion between Jesus and those who have come to see and hear him.

At the heart of this discussion is the repeated claim of Jesus: “I am the bread of life.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” This and other claims that Jesus made in this discussion or debate led many potential followers, and even some who already saw themselves as Jesus’ disciples, to give up on him. “This teaching is too difficult; who can accept it?” they asked. And off they went to their ordinary lives, safe from Jesus and his outrageous claims.

They had seen Jesus the miracle worker, the prophet of God, the man who challenged the religious authorities, the wonderful teacher, the man who loved ordinary people and not just the rich and powerful. Here was someone sent by God, a man of authority and power! And ideas and possibilities filled their minds. Could this really be the promised Messiah, the great leader and Saviour of Israel? And they started to work out their agenda for him. They wanted to squeeze him into their mould.

Surely Jesus could provide their material needs. He might raise an army and get rid of the Roman invaders. He could bring Israel a golden age of freedom and prosperity. He could give us all the things we want for ourselves! It all seemed so obvious.

But Jesus had different priorities. Yes, he had the power to satisfy people’s material needs, and he used it at times, but that was not his purpose. In fact, going along with the plans and agendas of the people would divert him from his real reason for coming. His real agenda was spiritual, not material; his purpose was not centred on the temporary here-and-now, but on eternal issues. And so he begins to challenge people’s assumptions about him. The bread that he had provided for the five thousand pointed to something – or someone – much greater: it pointed to Jesus himself, the bread from heaven, the giver of eternal life.

And this chapter of John really focuses on two themes: firstly, what Jesus means by saying that he is the Bread of Life; and secondly, how easily people miss the point of what Jesus is saying.

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus tells the people not to labour for the food that perishes. Rather they should labour for the food that endures to eternal life: the food that the Son of Man gives them.

They pick up the idea of labouring, of working – a familiar reality to these struggling people – but they miss the point that Jesus is making. Some realize that he is talking about something spiritual, and they ask Jesus: “What are the good works that God wants us to do?” They knew the Pharisees with their rules and the rabbis with their interpretations of the scriptures. They knew about the temple with its rituals and they had probably heard of John the Baptist and his calls to repentance. “What are your rules? What is your take on the commandments?” But they’ve missed the point.

Jesus comes back: “You want some work to do? Here is your work: believe in the One whom he has sent.” It’s not about how good you are, how many good works you do! The people realize that he is talking about himself, and they ask him for another sign to prove his claims, another miracle to keep them happy. Then they will believe in him. After all, Moses provided the manna every day for the people in the desert. Wasn’t there something more that Jesus could do to prove himself?

Jesus points out that it wasn’t Moses who provided the manna in the desert: it was God who provided it. And now God is providing heavenly bread, bread of much greater significance than the Israelites’ daily rations. “Give us this bread always”, the people ask.

And it is in response to this request that Jesus makes that astounding claim: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He knows that they have not come to genuine faith, but assures them that he has God the Father’s authority, and that he will never turn away any who truly come to him in faith. He promises that on the last day – the climax of history and the day of judgement – he will raise up all who belong to him. They will indeed have eternal life.

This is heavy stuff. It is not just a claim to be a prophet or messenger of God. It is not just that he is a prince or ruler. He is claiming to have authority which surely only belongs to God.

But they know who he is! He is the son of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth; the son of Mary his wife. Of course, we know that the truth about Jesus is rather deeper than this! But to his hearers, Jesus is an ordinary man, making extraordinary claims about himself. How can he be the giver of eternal life?

And he goes on. “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.” Once again, we know that Jesus is talking about his death on the cross, but to his listeners, this is getting stranger and stranger.

The people start arguing with each other. “How can this fellow give us his flesh to eat?” It sounds disgusting, not to mention contrary to the law. But Jesus comes back. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

And yet again, as we heard in today’s reading, people were offended by his teaching. If he wasn’t making blasphemous claims, he was awfully close! No wonder people were offended.

Jesus knows that even the twelve are struggling with his teaching. He assures them that they will one day see him ascend to his father’s kingdom, and his claims will be proved to be true. But not all of them will see this, for one of them, he knows, will become his betrayer.

As people turn away from him, he asks the twelve whether they want to give up too! And Peter, that mix of enthusiasm and faith and confusion, says those great words of faith and commitment: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we know that you are the Holy One of God.” He doesn’t get it all, and he will get tripped up like all of them, but he has more or less got the point.

There is always the danger of people doing what the multitude described in this chapter did. They get a bit of the message, but miss the point. For instance, they might see something of the importance of the temple whose dedication prayer in found in our first reading, or even of a church or cathedral; but they turn it into a box to fit God in, almost taking a superstitious attitude towards a piece of architecture, rather than seeing it as a reminder of God’s presence in all the world, and as a place where we gather to pray and worship the God who is everywhere.

Or they might hear Paul’s challenge to fight the good fight, battling against temptation and evil, and use it as a basis for justifying warfare between nations.

Or they might hear Jesus’ words and think that he was just talking about the Eucharist; that taking the bread and wine of Holy Communion was the only thing that mattered.

It does indeed matter, but we need always to remember that the elements point beyond themselves to the greater reality: for Jesus himself is the bread of life, and we spiritually eat the bread and drink the wine first of all by trusting in him as the Lord whom we serve and follow, and as the Saviour in whom we trust.

Of course, none of us gets it all right. That is why the response that Jesus seeks is faith, trust, dependence on him; not a demand for perfect doctrine or a perfect life, with our imperfect knowledge and our imperfect lives. He seeks simply faith, expressed in a desire to follow him day by day.

Jesus is the bread of life. Through him we receive God’s gift of eternal life. We remind ourselves of the cost of our salvation and the sacrificial love of Jesus every time we receive the bread and wine of the sacrament.

So this morning let us receive the elements with thankfulness. But let us look beyond what is visible, and let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus the bread of life, who died and rose to give us eternal life and hope. Amen.

Paul Weaver