Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
The 5th of August, 2018
If you’ve been attending church for many years, and the church that you’ve attended follows the Revised Common Lectionary, you might have noticed something odd that happens after Pentecost in the Year of the Gospel According to Mark. If you haven’t noticed it before, it’s this: suddenly, in the middle of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary leaves the Gospel according to Mark behind and spends five weeks reading one single chapter in the Gospel according to John. For five weeks we read slowly through the sixth chapter of John, which is all about bread. I meet regularly with some other ministers to talk about the Bible readings for the coming Sunday, and there is always a point during August in Lectionary Year B when we just stare at each other in exhaustion because we have said absolutely everything we could possibly say about Jesus and bread, and we still have another two weeks to go.
I suspect that the reason we spend so much time on this one chapter from John is because this is the closest that John gets to telling us about Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. The Gospel according to John has no narrative of the institution of the Eucharist. Rather than showing Jesus on the night of his betrayal inaugurating the new covenant by breaking bread and taking the cup, John shows Jesus tying a towel around his waist and washing his disciples’ feet. But that doesn’t mean that John’s gospel doesn’t have Eucharistic references, and the passage from which today’s gospel reading comes is part of them.
To understand today’s reading we need to know what came before it. The lectionary reading from last week told the story of two miracles: the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walking on the sea. The story of the miraculous feeding of the crowd is told more often in the gospels than any other miracle. It’s in all four gospels, and the gospels of Matthew and Mark tell of the feeding of the 4000, as well as of the 5000. It was obviously vitally important to all the gospel writers that this particular miracle be told, though they each described it slightly differently.
The Gospel according to John is the only one to mention that the feeding happened when the Passover was drawing near, and John is the only author to show Jesus taking the initiative, rather than responding to the disciples’ concerns. Before anyone has asked for food, in fact when the crowd is still approaching him, Jesus says to his disciple Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ John says this was Jesus testing Phillip, because Jesus himself knew what he was going to do, which is a good thing because Philip has no idea and answers, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ That the food that is provided comes from a boy with five loaves and two fish is mentioned in every gospel, but only John mentions that the five loaves are made of barley, traditionally a grain used to feed the poor and animals.
After Jesus performs this miraculous feeding, with twelve baskets of scraps left over, he realizes that the people are about to come and forcibly make him king and so he retreats to a mountain by himself. The disciples get into a boat and make for Capernaum without him, but while they are on the water the lake becomes rough. In the midst of all the waves and wind the disciples see Jesus walking on the lake and are terrified, but Jesus reassures them, saying, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Immediately the boat reaches Capernaum.
That’s what happened last week, according to the lectionary, and yesterday and last night, according to John. This is where today’s reading starts. The crowd are looking for Jesus, who has disappeared overnight. Unsurprisingly, they don’t think of walking on the lake as a possible mode of travel, which is why their first question to Jesus when they find him is ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus doesn’t answer. Instead he rebukes this crowd who are following him, ‘you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves’. Yesterday they wanted to take him and make him king because of his miracle, now Jesus accuses them of coming after him because they want more of the same. And it seems that Jesus is right, because less than twenty-four hours after Jesus fed them all with five barley loaves and two fish, the people are asking for another miracle, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?’ I would have thought that their awe at yesterday’s miracle would have lasted a little longer, but apparently not.
John, as I said, doesn’t tell the story of Jesus instituting the Last Supper, but this story has Eucharistic themes. Jesus now uses ‘bread’ as a metaphor for himself. He is the true bread from heaven, Jesus says, the bread of God that has come down from heaven and which gives life to the world. The people are understandably confused. They ask Jesus for this miraculous bread, just as John described the Samaritan woman by the well asking Jesus for living water a couple of chapters ago in his gospel. The woman at the well said, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ Now the people say to Jesus, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ And Jesus answers, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. Next week we will see how badly some of the people reacted to Jesus describing himself as the bread from heaven; and the week after we will discover how really angry they became when Jesus told them to eat his flesh and drink his blood. That did not go down at all well!
We’re going to spend August thinking about food, and now you can see why. Today in our communion service we are going to feed on Jesus, the bread of life. Two of the books I read during my holiday were histories of the Reformation so I’m not going to get into the specific ways in which the bread we will eat is the body of Christ, because Christians have literally killed each other over the issue. The Uniting Church’s communion liturgy sidesteps all such questions by asking God to pour out the Holy Spirit on our gluten-free bread and non-alcoholic grape juice that they may be for us the body and blood of Christ. The mechanics of exactly how that might happen is left up to the Holy Spirit. But we do believe that in some way as we gather round the table Christ is present both as the host of the meal and through the elements of bread and wine, common things that have become holy.
As today’s gospel reminds us, we can’t separate our eating and drinking of the Lord’s Supper and the spiritual hunger and thirst that satisfies, from real hunger and thirst in the world. When Jesus told the people, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,’ he was doing so in the context of having fed the literally hungry with the real food they needed to survive. Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, has many symbolic and spiritual meanings, but it is also always about feeding the world’s hungry. There’s an immediate and obvious connection between us sharing communion together, and us gathering food to share with those outside the church who need it. Yesterday at the concert we collected food for the Williamstown Emergency Relief Program, and that was just as ‘religious,’ just as much the work of God, as what we do here today. That might have been more obvious in the days when people brought bread to church to enable the Eucharist to be celebrated, and what was left over was given directly to the poor, but it is still just as true today as it was then.
One of the prayers that can be offered after the Eucharist contains the line, ‘as you have been fed, got to feed the hungry’. Whether we pray that particular prayer or not, that is always the unspoken implication of our gathering around the table at which Jesus is the host, that we share with others what we have received. And so I’d like to leave you with my favourite grace before a meal, which comes from the Iona Community in Scotland; maybe you can use it at your meals in the coming week:
God, bless to us our bread; give bread to those who are hungry and hunger for justice to those who are fed. God bless to us our bread. Amen.