On 9th August, the tenth Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 34:1-8, 1 Kings 19:4-8, John 6:35, 41-51.
One of the marvels of Second Life is the way it allows us to communicate with others from around the world. Mostly this works very well and we can learn a lot from one another and make new friends that we could never have met in any other way. There is, however, always the potential for misunderstanding. Although we can use voice, the majority of conversations take place in text. Often we shorten our sentences to reduce the amount of typing, but this may cause some confusion. There may be several people chatting at once and then the conversation becomes complex as we’re not sure which reply belongs to which comment. Some people here are using English as a second language, perhaps with the help of a translator, and that too can lead to some difficulties. Even those of us who use English as a first language may come from different parts of the world where the language is used differently.
Although none of the potential difficulties I have just described would have applied to Jesus’ conversation with the crowd who had followed him to Capernaum, it’s apparent that there was a failure of communication. Jesus often took everyday items and events into his parables and left his hearers to draw their own conclusions on the deeper meaning of an apparently simple story. He was doing something similar here as he talked to the people about bread.
Bread was vital, a staple food, in Biblical times and still is now in many places. When God wanted to sustain Elijah, as we have heard, he gave him bread and he lived on the strength of that for forty days. If a person is provided with bread they will survive. It’s perhaps difficult for us to understand this when we have access to such a huge variety of foods. We could manage without bread completely. However, if someone falls on hard times, bread becomes very important once again.
The crowd was concentrating on this kind of bread. Perhaps the fact that the little boy’s meal (notice that it was mostly bread with ‘two small fish’) had supplied them with physical bread in their hands was still uppermost in their minds. This had set up a link in their thoughts with the manna which God had sent for the wandering Israelites in the wilderness. When Jesus said he was the bread that came down from heaven he using words that were used to describe manna. Of course, this led to confusion. How could Jesus have come from heaven? The crowd knew his family; some no doubt remembered the first news of his birth. He arrived like everyone else, not miraculously like the manna from heaven.
In order to try to sort out the confusion, Jesus repeated what he had said earlier: ‘I am the bread of life’. In English we lose some of the meaning here but in Greek it is clearer. That final word is a form of the word ζωή (dzo-air) which means ‘life’ but in a special way. It’s explained this way in one Greek lexicon: “the absolute fullness of life which belongs to God” and “ life real and genuine, a life active and vigorous, devoted to God, blessed, in the portion even in this world of those who put their trust in Christ, but after the resurrection to be consummated by new accessions (among them a more perfect body), and to last for ever”. If Jesus had wanted to refer to ‘life’ in contrast to death, the living and breathing life, he is more likely to have used a word that in Greek is ψυχή (psoo-khair). Manna was bread of that kind of life, as was the bread given to Elijah and the bread eaten at the feeding of the 5000. As Jesus pointed out even though the crowd’s ancestors had eaten manna, they still died. In contrast, those eating the bread that Jesus is talking about will not die but will live forever.
We might wonder at the stupidity of the people listening to Jesus. Why didn’t they get it? However, we have the advantage of 2000 years of scholarship which can help us to understand what Jesus meant. We can read the words over and over in our bibles, we can look up what is said in commentaries and yet I would say that many of us who would claim to be Christians, still don’t get it.
I’ve read about prison camps where the prisoners were so hungry that every blade of grass was picked and eaten. I’ve heard of refugee camps where the leaves of the trees, even some that are so poisonous they need boiling for a long time to be harmless, are eaten. These people are desperate. The grass or the leaves give humans very little nourishment as our digestive systems are not designed for such food. However, the people are empty and long for anything to fill the aching void of hunger. They would not need to do this if bread were available.
Many of us are doing much the same, acting as though we are living through a famine in terms of spiritual food. We have an aching void and will do anything, even something that doesn’t nourish us, to try to fill that empty space.
The Twelve Step programmes which have developed from Alcoholics Anonymous help people to overcome many addictions which limit their lives. Not all addictions are to chemical substances such as alcohol and drugs. For many the ‘drug of choice’ is people pleasing, sex, perfectionism, emotional dependency, gambling, gaming, shopping, and so on. Giving in to these addictions gives temporary relief to a spiritual ache but it doesn’t last. Those of us who are active in Second Life can be particularly vulnerable to using what it offers to try to satisfy our spiritual needs. So much is available so easily that saying no is not easy.
We cannot satisfy our spiritual hunger with the things the world offers. We don’t even need to try. Jesus gives us a guarantee that he will fill our spiritual hunger totally. He is our staple food, the bread of life, that abundant God-life. As Augustine wrote many years ago: ‘Lord, you created us for yourself. Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’
Substitutes cannot satisfy us. Only the genuine article will do. What’s more, it’s free – ours for the taking.
O taste and see that the Lord is gracious!