Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 13th August 2006
The Gospel reading this morning was really just a snippet from John's story of the Feeding of the 5000, followed by another of Jesus' miracles, when he walked on the water, and then a long discussion of the signs that he gave as to who he was. In this teaching, Jesus tells his followers not to be interested in him because he dishes out free food, but because he can give them the food they really need, the food which nourishes them for eternal life. Then he says a number of things which for us are very difficult to understand. He says of himself - twice - 'I am the bread of life.' And he also says - twice - 'I am the living bread that came down from heaven'. In the passage we heard, he finishes up by saying, 'The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.' Jesus makes it very clear that the living bread of which he speaks is to be seen as his 'flesh'.
John's Gospel has no narrative of the Last Supper. In the other three Gospels, it is at the Last Supper that Jesus takes bread and says, 'This is my body' and wine, saying 'This is my blood'. In John's Gospel, Jesus' teaching about eating his body and drinking his blood comes just after the passage we heard. It is because of this teaching, some of which we heard this morning, that when we receive the bread and the wine of the eucharist, it is with the words: 'The Body of Christ' and 'The Blood of Christ'. These are not easy ideas to grasp, and it may be some help to be reminded that the Church has always refused to take them absolutely literally. But is has also opposed taking them as signs of the body and blood of Christ, which are to be thought of as really existing elsewhere else. The Church has always taught that when Christians feed on the bread and the wine of the eucharist we really and truly - though spiritually - feed on Christ. Feed on Christ? This is such a strange idea we need to see more of how it comes about. Given what we heard this morning (so leaving the Last Supper and the Passover background to one side) I would say it comes about in four steps, and by bringing together two main ideas.
1. The first step is the conviction that God, who has created the world, provides enough in this world to meet the needs of the human beings he has made. In the story of the garden at the beginning of the Scriptural narrative, the man and the woman have everything they need, and they don't have to work for it. It is only after the Fall that food comes through hard work and childbirth through pain. Nevertheless, for the Israelites there was always the sense that God freely gave enough to meet the needs of his children, and that if there wasn't enough to go round that was because human beings would not share as we should. As the psalmist says,
I have been young and now am old,
Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken,
Or their children begging bread. (Ps 37:25)
A perfect example of this is the way that God provides a cake and a jar of water for Elijah before sending him on a journey for a symbolic forty days, as we heard in the first reading. We should note that in the story it is an angel who encourages him to eat: it would not be wrong to say that he is encouraged to eat 'angelic food'.
2. Now comes the second step and the first main idea which lies behind what Jesus says. The background lies in the story of the specific way in which God met the need of the Israelites in the desert for food and drink. The Exodus narrative tells us that when God set the people free from Pharaoh's tyranny, Moses led them through the Red Sea in to the wilderness but then they began to be hungry and thirsty and to think that this liberation wasn't so good after all. They began to look back on the good things that Egypt had provided - 'the garlic and the leeks and the onions' - and then to grumble against Moses and against God. In answer, Moses was enabled to strike rock so that water gushed out, and then the people began to find fruit on a desert bush that could be baked into cakes. They called it manna, and said it was 'bread from heaven'. When Jesus was teaching his disciples what he had done in feeding the five thousand, he reminded them about the 'bread from heaven,' but he also reminded them that once it was eaten the people went hungry again, telling them that what they should really be looking out for is the bread that meets all our needs, so we are never left hungry. When the psalmist talks about this 'bread from heaven' he also calls it 'the bread of angels' (Ps 78:25): the idea is that mortals can have their needs met 'from above' and feed on the food provided by the angels - but this physical food is only enough for human need at a specific time. People ate it, as the 5000 ate the bread and the fish that Jesus gave them at a time of acute need, but then they got hungry again. Elijah had just enough food - from above - for the forty day journey God wanted him to make.
3. Now comes the second main idea and the third step. This is the idea of Wisdom, which plays such a prominent part in the later texts of the Jewish Scriptures. In books like Proverbs, Job and the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus, the Wisdom of God, as it were, takes on a life of its own, so the writers speak of Wisdom dwelling with God' and also 'dwelling with human beings'. Here is the third step: human beings are said to be able to feed on the Wisdom of God, and if they feed on the Wisdom of God, they will hunger and thirst, but only for more of the Wisdom of God (Ecclesiasticus 24:19-21). 'Come and eat your fill of my fruits!' says Wisdom. There is a well-known passage in Isaiah (55:1-2), in which the prophet offers to those who have no money food and drink without money and without price'. Why, he asks, do they waste their money on food which is not real bread, when they could have really nourishing food from God - and all free? The really nourishing food that God offers is God's Wisdom.
4. The fourth, and vital, step, in understanding what Jesus says to his disciples is the step that John takes in his Gospel, when he proclaims that the Wisdom of God has taken human form in Jesus of Nazareth: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' The Word, of course, is the Word of Wisdom: 'In the beginning was God's Wisdom, and God's Wisdom was with God, and God's Wisdom was God. She was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Wisdom, and without the Wisdom of God not one thing came into being.' It was the Wisdom of God that in Jesus took on human flesh and blood. 'We saw the glory of the only-begotten Son of God, full of grace and Wisdom.' It is because Jesus is the living Wisdom of God, that his words give life and nourish as the words of no other prophet or teacher do. Even today, in the Orthodox church, when the Gospel is announced, it is with the words, 'Wisdom, attend!'.
So, when Jesus teaches his disciples about the bread in the feeding of the 5000 and the bread in the wilderness, he is reminding them that God does meet our human needs, giving us strength to serve him - but the real need we have is to feed off God's Wisdom. And this is not just an intellectual feeding - because the Wisdom of God has taken flesh. When we feed off God's Wisdom, we feed off Christ, and when we feed off Christ - as we do by sharing in the bread and the wine of the eucharist - we feed off God's Wisdom. Wisdom says, 'Whoever finds me finds life' (Prov. 8:35); Jesus says, 'I am living bread.' No wonder Jesus tells us to eat this bread; no wonder he promises that 'whoever eats of this bread will live forever'.