On 2nd August, the ninth Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 78:23-29, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35.
There is a famous saying which is attributed to Marie-Antionette, who was married to Louis XVI of France. It is said that when told that the poor did not have bread to eat, she said ‘Let them eat cake’. It is normally interpreted as meaning that Marie-Antoinette was totally out of touch with the poor people and the reality of their everyday struggles to survive. This was supposed to have contributed to her being guillotined to death in 1793.
There is actually no evidence that Marie-Antoinette said these words at all. Jean-Jacques Rousseau attributes the words to a ‘great princess’ who is thought to be Marie-Therese, the wife of Louis XIV, who lived 100 years earlier. Whoever said it would appear to have had little understanding of the significance of bread in the diet, especially for the poor.
Bread has existed for 8000 years and is still found in every culture. It turns up as brotchen, chapatti, pitta, tortillas, baguettes, matza, bagels to name but a few of its forms. Bread is a staple food. In medieval times in England, each adult ate approximately a kilogram of bread each day. If you have bread you know you will survive. There may be other foods around but they are extras, something nice to have but not essential. Bread is essential to life. The Arabic language demonstrates this in that its word for bread ‘aysh’ also means life. Bread and life are synonymous. As if to emphasise the life in bread, Muslims and Hindus consider it to be blasphemy to cut bread with a knife.
Jesus says to those questioning him, that he is the Bread of life. He is saying that he is essential for life in the same way as bread is. If you have bread with a meal you will come away from the table satisfied. It takes away physical hunger in a way that other items simply cannot do. In the same way, Jesus takes away our spiritual hunger in a way that no one and nothing else can.
You can guarantee that if you put bread in front of hungry people they would pounce on it and devour it. Just before the gospel passage for today is the story of the feeding of the 5000. We don’t hear that those hungry people politely refused the bread that was being handed out as they sat on the grass. We are told that everyone ate and was satisfied. They knew they were hungry, bread was on offer, they ate, they were satisfied. The bread was digested and became part of them. Simple.
It’s the same with Jesus, the spiritual bread, the Bread from heaven. It will not satisfy us just by being put in front of us. We have to recognise our hunger, notice that bread is on offer and eat it. Eating in the spiritual sense means to take Jesus into ourselves, to invite him to be part of our life, to feed on his words and learn from him until he becomes part of us and we become like him.
The people who had chased after Jesus when he crossed to Capernaum just couldn’t grasp what was going on when Jesus was talking to them. They had found someone who could do miracles and they wanted more of it. They had tried to make Jesus king, and you can understand why. Imagine having a king like Jesus around! Nothing would be impossible for him. There would be no poverty, no hunger, no sickness, no oppression. The people were pretty sure they had found the person who was foretold by the prophets, the Messiah, who would give them bread as God had done in the past.
Jesus wanted to redirect them. They were not to focus on the bread but on the giver of the bread, Jesus. They wanted a set of instructions on what to do to benefit from the eternal life that Jesus was offering but Jesus told them that all they had to do was believe in him. Reading beyond the gospel for today we find that this was a major stumbling block for many. To come humbly to Jesus, knowing their need of him was more than they could cope with. It would have been far easier to have rules and earn eternal life. It’s a kind of being in control, ticking the boxes, a bit like on a to do list, that they were looking for.
Jesus wanted them to have a relationship with him not rules to follow. He wanted them to have something of substance, something sustaining, not empty ritual and religion. It’s exactly the same today for each of us. We can have eternal life, a full and satisfying life, simply by believing in Jesus. There is no way to earn it, no way to buy it, no amount of hard work that will achieve it. Just as those who sat on the grass had to simply hold out their hands to receive the bread and fish, so we just need to admit our need and accept what Jesus offers us, holding out empty hands and lives to be filled. Here on offer is what Isaiah spoke of: ‘Why spend your money on food that doesn’t give you strength? Why pay for groceries that do you no good? Listen and I’ll tell you where to get good food that fattens up the soul!’
In the physical realm, if we have the assurance that there will always be bread to eat, we don’t need to worry so much. There may or may not be meat, vegetables, fruit, but we won’t starve if they are not around. Once we have Jesus as that essential staple of our lives, it doesn’t matter if other things are present or not. We may feel God’s presence or not, we may experience miraculous healing or not, we may be well off financially or poor, we may be sick or healthy. The essential thing is in place if we have Jesus, the Bread of Life, and circumstances cannot take that from us.
Once we have this most essential staple, the wonderful Bread that is Jesus, once we know we will never hunger spiritually, we can afford to reach out to others with generosity and love. We no longer need to concern ourselves about striving to better ourselves, to be richer, more successful, more beautiful than everyone else or to score points at the expense of others. Instead we can use the gifts we have been given to build up the body of Christ until it becomes unified, to the glory of God, fully mature as he wills it to be.
Let’s remember St Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus: We are all parts of one body, we have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. For us there is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and we all have the same God and Father who is over us all and in us all, and living through every part of us.