Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
One of the most moving parts of priestly ministry is administering the last rites. Offered near the time of death, the last rites combine the sacraments of confession, anointing, and holy communion, and give strength, grace and nourishment as the dying person prepares for death, and for their journey to eternal life. I’ve administered the last rites to old people afraid to die; to terminally ill people reconciled to death, and who welcome it as a friend; to those who face death with the same level of organisation and planning as they’d faced life, and who called me out in good time to ‘do it properly’; and to those hovering in the borderlands between life and death. I’ve been called out by families bewildered and scared by death, for whom Christianity is strange and its rites exotic, but who knew that the Church could offer something their loved one needed. It’s a great privilege to declare to someone that their sins are forgiven; to anoint them and to pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to strengthen them and raise them up; and to exhort them to trust in Christ, and give them the sacrament as the sign of his love and presence with them. I’ve seen these sacraments bring healing and freedom and peace.
In older prayer books, the last communion offered to a person near death is called the viaticum. This word didn’t always have a religious meaning: originally it meant provisions or money for a journey. In this context it is the provision for the journey from life to death to eternal life, as through the sacrament Christ unites himself to the dying person. But in a wider context, every time we receive communion it’s a viaticum, food for the journey.
For as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ He’s talking to the crowds who clamour for a sign, so that they may have some evidence that he’s the Messiah. That they are there at all is because he has just miraculously fed them all with a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish, but they don’t understand him when he talks about the food that endures for eternal life; they make no connection between what just happened on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and who Jesus is.
They remember the miraculous feeding in the wilderness, with the manna that came down from heaven. That’s part of the story of salvation they tell, of how God provided for his people and sustained them on their journey to the Promised Land. But they seem not to notice the way their behaviour echoes that of their forebears in faith. In the wilderness, the people of Israel complained to Moses and Aaron. They were tired and hungry and the wilderness seemed endless and inhospitable, and they started to think with nostalgia about Egypt, when, the words of our Old Testament reading, ‘we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.’ The crowd around Jesus is not complaining – at least, not yet – but their motivation is the same: ‘you are looking for me’, Jesus tells them, ‘not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’ In other words, they are similarly motivated by their physical appetites and wellbeing. Even the feeding of the 5000 makes them follow Jesus because they want more bread, not because of the glory the miracle reveals.
In the wilderness, the manna arrived as gift. The people didn’t sow it, and while they had to collect it, its provision didn’t depend on their labour. From this, they learnt to depend on God for their lives: they were sustained by him, and not by their own efforts. Drawing on this as a prefiguring of himself, Jesus tells the crowd, ‘the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’
And here, poised beyond the immediate hunger for what will fill their bellies, but before a declaration of faith, the crowd asks for ‘this bread always.’
The answer to their request is standing right in front of them. Jesus Christ is the life-giving food, come down from heaven. He is the one in whom their hunger will finally be satisfied. ‘I am the bread of life’, he tells them.
And it is believing in him that will bring them to eternal life. The crowd begins by recognising Jesus as a prophet. Jesus tells them he is the Son of God. It is on him that they must feed for life.
And this is perplexing for them. Bread, they can understand, even miraculous bread from heaven, or multiplied bread that they can chew and taste and swallow. But what does it mean for Jesus to say that he is Bread?
Jesus means that he is the one who gives life to the world. He is the one for whom we hunger; the only one who can satisfy. And the life he gives is his own: he takes on flesh, is born as one of us, lives and dies as one of us – a life freely offered to the Father so that in his death we may have life. For as Jesus will go on to say, the bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. When he says he is the bread of life, he is talking about the way in which his life will be taken, blessed, broken and given so that we may have life, so that the gulf between God and humanity might be healed, and that we might be restored to the relationship for which we are created.
And in talking about his death, he is also talking about the Eucharist, the meal through which his self-offering is made present to us now. Chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel is rich in Eucharistic imagery. The bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is his body, given over to death for us in his passion, and given for our life in the Eucharist. Here, in the form of bread, Jesus gives himself to us.
That is an astonishing promise and gift. Day by day, Sunday by Sunday, from the grandest of cathedrals to a furtive gathering of Christians who must worship in secret, Christ gives himself to us, his people, as our food and drink to sustain us for the journey. Here the divine Logos, the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, offers himself to us, unites himself to us, so that he can bring us to where he is.
Just like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are given what we need to sustain us for our journey to the Father. For here Christ makes his home with us, despising not the rather humble and shabby abode we often offer him, just as in his earthly life he was found among the lowly. I often try to make faith more complicated than this, thinking that if I perhaps exert myself in prayer, or fill my diary with good and useful works, or design for myself a more rigorous rule of life that I can somehow summon God’s presence – and even as I say it, you can hear how ridiculous that sounds. But in truth all I need is the faith to recognise and receive Christ. All he asks of me is open hands and an open heart: he has done the rest.
So when you come to the altar, remember that what you receive is Christ himself, uniting himself to you, making his home in you, giving you his strength and grace so that you can live his life in the world. If you feel unworthy, come. If you feel tired and weighed down or broken or despairing, come. If you feel frazzled or joyful or thankful or sad, come, and receive the nourishment you need, the very presence of Christ, and the promise of his glory, given for your salvation, and given for you to share with others who are frazzled or lost or sad, so that they too may find the life for which they are made. Here in this bread you will find food for your soul, provision for the journey – a true viaticum indeed.