Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 12th August 2012
12 August 2012 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
Jesus says, “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”
All of us need reassurance. It’s a pretty fundamental human requirement, from time to time, and especially at moments of significant change. For me, and I suspect for many of my priestly colleagues, one of those most intense moments of reassurance needed to come, and came, moments before my own ordination to the priesthood. Having answered the Bishop’s interrogation and immediately after making the vows, the Bishop said to us all “You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged… pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.” You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength. This was said to men and women about to be ordained to the priesthood, but it should also perhaps be a health warning in every baptism service. Christian discipleship cannot be lived out in our own strength – and the liberating thing, is that it’s not meant to be. The scriptures in general, and St Paul in particular, remind us again and again, that we cannot live in our own strength, and that the power of God animates us most intensely when we hand our lives over. It’s perhaps what Jesus means when he says that we save our life by losing it.
For the Jewish people, the desert was a place where they learnt (and re-learnt) a fundamental reliance on God. The whole experience of the journey of the Exodus for the Hebrew people was one of call – of conversion, of failure, of being formed again and again by the love which would never quite let them go. The moments where they got it wrong, were the moments either of extreme self-reliance, or of confidence in obsessively controlling their own future. Elijah’s journey into the wilderness, which we heard of at the beginning of today’s first lesson, was one of fear. He seized the moment out of a need to save his own life from the pagan Jezebel. And when he sits under his broom tree, he prays “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.” But after sleep, he awakes to discover not only the challenge of an angelic voice, but the instruction to eat the food which has miraculously appeared in front of him. “Get up, and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” The whole Hebrew experience of the desert is in a sense encapsulated in this short brief passage. The desert as a school of discipleship, the desert as a place of challenge, the desert as a potential place of transformation. “Get up, and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
For an early reader of the first book of Kings, it’s likely that all sorts of bells would be sounding at this point. The desert had taught the Israelites much about sustenance, and much about God. Whether it’s the moment Moses strikes the Rock at Horeb which then gushes out drinking water, or the miraculous bread from heaven which is the answer to their tiredness and complaints, the desert is a place where food has urgent symbolism. But perhaps the most important lesson which the Israelites had to learn again and again throughout the desert experience was this: the hand that feeds you, will be the hand that owns you. The hand that feeds you, will be the hand that owns you.
This is the truth behind so many of the Old Testament stories – including many of the ones which we find unpalatable or difficult. It is when the people are in a relationship of trust and dependance upon God, when they live the covenant, that life unfolds in a true and fruitful way. By this, I do not solely mean simple, personal happiness. Whilst living a life of dependence on God’s love certainly liberates us in a wide variety of ways, it’s certainly not a simple matter of “be good and your life will be full of good things.” The most perfunctory look at both Jewish and Christian history – and the current reality for the faithful Christians of Syria and Iraq – reveal such an approach to be patronising and untrue. The key perhaps is in that sentence spoken by the angel to Elijah. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
It is perhaps in this context that we might hear again today’s Gospel. Jesus’s teaching about himself as the Bread of Life, the bread which has come down from heaven, is at the heart of his self-understanding, and how he perceives his relationship with those who follow him. Within this teaching, we see the past, the present and the future rolled into one – it is only through the Paschal Mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection that we glimpse this most fully – but here, in Jesus promising to be the answer to his followers’ hunger and thirst, we can see the possibility of fruitful and faithful Christian living. Today’s Gospel contains a promise about the past “I am the bread which came down from heaven”, Jesus says: I was that sustenance in the desert. It contains an assurance about the present, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry… I am the bread of life.” But crucially, the focus does not simply remain caught by the tyranny of the present moment alone: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever.”
For us, as people trying to live in relationship with Christ, and trying to make sense of the world in the light of Christ’s love, this is a promise indeed. But it is a promise to be received in the context of the journey through the wilderness made by our ancestors, the Israelites. We will be hungry. We will be thirsty. We will be exhausted and drained. And even in the desert, there may well be many choices about what could sustain us. There are plenty of glittering images and strangely attractive mirages even in the desert. But we forget at our peril that the hand that feeds us, will, ultimately, be the hand that owns us. We cannot do it all on our own – especially when times are hard. And we’re not meant to. Through the Eucharist, and through aligning our own will with the will and love of Christ in silence, we receive the grace to live lives which are not so self-centred, not so self-obsessed. The irony is, that when we know our own profound need of God, it is then that Christ will fill us. So, during this August, perhaps during our holidays, we might consider: what is it that truly feeds me? What animates me and gives me life? Jesus said, “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread, will live for ever."