Sermon preached by Tomos Reed, ordinand at Westcott House
August coincides with the wheat harvest in the Northern hemisphere. The medieval Church marked its start on Lammas day, when a loaf made from the first of the new crop would be blessed in church and thanks given to God for the goodness of creation. Indeed, the Church of England’s Common Worship contains a form of liturgy for this very occasion.
I suspect, therefore, that it is no coincidence that the compilers of the lectionary have interrupted Year B, the year in which we have been proceeding through Mark’s gospel with five consecutive readings from Chapter Six of John with its repeated references to Jesus as the bread come down from heaven.
And whilst we can feel distanced from a medieval agrarian society, we can and should think of creation in much broader terms than simply what are often described as the fruits of the Earth. This includes the human ingenuity and skill that has allowed us to develop agriculture in order that we can turn biological matter into foodstuffs, an economy capable of producing the commodity traders, the lorry drivers, and the shopkeepers who deal in foodstuffs, and societies in which human skill, artistry and love produce food and shared meals that are closely linked to our sense of identity as persons and as communities.
Thus, even before we consider the significance of the Gospel reading this morning, we need to be aware that the language of food and bread and meals is already bound up in layer upon layer of human meaning.
And these meanings are not always unequivocally positive, for creation whilst good is also somehow damaged or as St Paul puts it in more mythological terms, struggling against the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of this present darkness.
Our agriculture and infrastructure, along with our financial system, whilst capable of producing foodstuffs in unprecedented and ample quantities still leave millions hungry, trap many in poverty and do enormous environmental damage.
Similarly, our food and our shared meals, whilst having a strong impact on our sense of self and a powerful role to play in drawing communities and societies together, can also be used to institutionalise and to justify unfair limits on human freedom and flourishing. In addition, they define the limits of who we are prepared to sit down with and who we regard as unacceptable company, in the process often perpetuating many forms of prejudice.
Consequently, there are some very deep resonances between this and the series of readings from John’s Gospel, beyond the obvious language of bread. Given that food is so strongly linked to identity, the first resonance is the issue of Jesus’ identity as portrayed in this chapter. The second is the profound implications this has for us in terms of our humanity and for the whole of creation.
Five Sundays ago we began with the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water, two miracles or signs that the evangelist uses to reveal Jesus’ glory and his true identity. During the following discourse, the company of the crowds and his disciples, Jesus repeatedly describes himself in terms of food. Many, even his closest followers have found this difficult and he does nothing to tone his words down. In fact, he does exactly the opposite, adding not only that we should eat his flesh but also drink his blood.
The repeated tension between the crowd who on one hand have been drawn to him and have followed him and the difficulty they have had in understanding his words reaches a climax in the passage we have heard today. Even his disciples have reached the point where they are offended, or scandalised, by what he says.
His response, asking them “what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” is even more provocative. For the evangelist is very clear about where Jesus was before, declaring from the very first words of the Gospel:
– In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
Therefore, the miracles or signs that began this series of Gospel readings all those weeks ago, pointing towards the identity of Jesus, are neatly bookended with what is effectively a declaration of the same from his own lips.
As if to ram that point home even more strongly the Old Testament reading forces us to draw a direct comparison between the Ark of the Covenant and God’s glory, his very presence amongst the people of Israel, and the person of Jesus.
And in this context, the assertion of his true identity, and also in the context of his death and resurrection, the words, that “whoever eats me will live because of me” take on their true meaning.
For, they throw into stark contrast how we experience our humanity and creation now, as good but somehow damaged, and the assurance we have of their future redemption.
In utilising the language of bread and feeding and meals Jesus enters into those ambiguous and damaged layers of human meaning and transforms them, making the Eucharist far more than a memorial of the past but also a tangible foretaste of our future.
However, I should add a word of caution though before we become too self-congratulatory and think that we have fully grasped something that many of the people in this morning’s gospel failed to understand.
If we have fully understood the implications of who Jesus is and what his words this morning means for us, perhaps our sensibilities should be offended. Perhaps the evangelist is asking the question “Does this offend you?” with intentional irony.
For this is a meal and a future to which all people are invited, without exception, regardless of how unsuitable, or acceptable we find them and how reluctant we might be to sit down with them. One of the great privileges of being an ordinand has been the opportunity to experience the huge breadth of ministry within the Church of England and therefore a hint of the sheer scale of what this implies, whether that has been in a deprived area of Greater Manchester, a Category A prison housing terrorists, sex offenders and other violent criminals, a Royal Navy warship or in a rapidly gentrifying but socially and racially segregated area of south East London.
Can I tell how that will work in practice? No, frankly I can’t and you would think me a fool if I claimed to do so. Just like Paul, we are all, everyone single one of us, ambassadors in chains,only able to catch the smallest glimpse of what it means, straining to comprehend the mystery at the heart of the Gospel, yet praying to make it known with boldness.
And finally, at the end of five weeks of this chapter, in the face of that incomprehensibility, that offence to our sensibilities, we find ourselves being posed the same question as the Twelve were asked, “Do you also wish to go away?”.
And there can only be one answer. It is the answer that Simon Peter gives on our behalf, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”