Preached 6 August 2006 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
In the paper a week ago there was the story of Holly the Collie – you may have read it. She got frightened during a storm in Cornwall and ran away, but she got trapped in the narrow gap between two buildings where she had tried to hide. And, amazingly, she was found there, still alive and whimpering, 25 days later. She had survived without food and water – or with only the moisture she could lick from the walls around her. But she was an exceptional case. Most creatures can’t survive that long without food or drink; and indeed, the rule of thumb is, for an average human being, three days without water and three weeks without food. And that’s why, until today in the affluent west, getting food and water has been the daily priority for all human beings and has usually meant hard labour and a single-minded commitment that left little room for anything else.
It was certainly so in Jesus’ time in the Palestine of his day. The curse spoken on Adam as he left Eden, must have often echoed in people’s hearts: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19). Men laboured hard to earn enough to buy bread or to buy the barley or wheat for their wives to make it. It was the essential basic food. That is why, in the prayer that Jesus taught, “Give us this day our daily bread” is such a prominent petition.
Not everyone ate the same bread, of course. The poor ate barley-bread and the rich ate wheat-bread – but all ate bread. And everything else they ate was just a supplement – enjoyed as and when it came to hand – olives, goat’s cheese, a bit of fish, some honey, vegetables, fruit and rarely – but very rarely – meat.
If a man was single or widowed and had no women in his household, he would buy his bread from the local bakery. Remember how, before he fed the 5000, Jesus asked Philip who knew the area on the eastern side of the lake, “Where can we buy bread for all these people?” In other words: “Where’s the nearest baker?” But if you had women in your household it was their job to make the bread … and that would take them many hours every other day. There was no bag of Bero on the shelf. They had to grind grains of wheat or barley between two millstones to turn into flour, before it could be mixed with water and yeast, kneaded in the kneading-trough, then popped directly onto the embers in the small clay oven to be baked into round loaves that looked just like stones in the desert.
And when all that was done, the women-folk had to walk sometimes a mile or more to the nearest well to fill pitchers with water and carry them back to the home, for there were no taps, no running water.
Bread and water … and work. The words were linked. And in particular bread and work. There were no state hand-outs in those days, however deserving a case you might be. If you could not work for your bread you had to sit in the street and beg. Remember Lazarus, in Jesus’ parable, who lay covered in sores at the gate of Dives, the rich man, hoping for crumbs from Dives’ table.
Fortunately, Jewish law commanded the giving of alms to the poor, and this often took the form of a chunk of bread placed in the begging bowl, so most beggars managed to survive … just. But if you weren’t able to beg, you simply starved.
So small wonder the feeding of the five thousand by Jesus on the eastern shore of Galilee the previous day had got people chasing after him on the day this morning’s reading was about. Nowadays we would hardly get excited about a free sardine sandwich … but things were different then. And now, eventually, folk have tracked Jesus down to the synagogue in Capernaum. And here they exercise what is known as “the freedom of the synagogue” to ask him questions even as the service is going on.
“How did you get here?” is their first question. But Jesus ignores it. Only the disciples know he walked most of the way – across the lake! In any case, he knows what they are really after.
“It’s bread you want, isn’t it?” he says. “You spend your lives working for bread but yesterday you got some for free and you’re hoping you’ll get some more today. Well, I understand. But what I want to say to you is this: Stop putting the flour and water kind of bread first in your lives. There’s another kind of bread: a bread that gives a new kind of life to those who eat it – the life of the age that is to come, the life that never ends in the kingdom of God that you’re all on the look-out for. Work hard for that if you will, not the other sort.”
And how do they respond? “Well, yes,” they say, “but what are the works (plural) we have to do to get this other kind of bread?
A very Jewish question. Works on the lips of these fellows are “works of the Law”. In their book, everything a man or woman does has an approval-rating with God. It carries a score. And once your score is high enough you reap the reward. God is an employer who offers only performance-related pay. He rewards by results.
Isn’t it amazing how deeply that view of God is rooted in the human psyche – not just among the Jews but in all world religions? I read an interview with Mohammed Ali in Readers Digest some months back. As you probably know, Ali has Parkinson’s disease. “It’s a blessing,” he said in this interview. “I always liked chasing girls – Parkinson’s stops all that. Now I have a chance to go to heaven.” He went on to explain that he now spends a lot of his time working for charities and organisations such as Unicef. “In everything I do,” he said in the interview, “I ask myself, ‘Will God accept this?’ One day, you’ll wake up and it’ll be Judgement Day, so you need to do good works.”
“Of course, you do,” say the Jews in the synagogue in Capernaum, “everyone knows that. So what are the good works we have to do to get this other kind of bread you’re talking about?
And what is Jesus’ reply? “This is the work of God (note the singular) … This is the single thing that God requires you to do to receive the bread that gives new life – believe in the one whom he has sent, put your trust in me, commit to me.”
Too easy … and therefore far too hard.
“So they asked him, ‘What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: “he (that is Moses) gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Are you another Moses? Prove it!’”
Hello? Were they stupid or something? Hadn’t he just done the “bread from heaven” miracle the day before? Or was it that these particular Jews hadn’t actually been present when Jesus fed the 5000 but had only been told about it. In any case they are still missing the point … and dodging the issue. “For a start,” says Jesus, “the bread from heaven – the manna in the wilderness – was just bread. It filled the belly but it didn’t affect the soul. It didn’t give the new kind of life I’m talking about. And secondly, Moses didn’t give it, God did. And it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Confused? Yes, probably they were. This was difficult stuff for them to get their heads around. “The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven?” I mean he couldn’t actually be suggesting that he was …. No, no, no – he must mean something else. But never mind. Let’s go for it. This bread is obviously good stuff. So …
“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
There is no mistaking what Jesus is saying now – and next week Jenny has the task of looking at all that – but let me draw my reflections on this passage to a close this week by looking at just one aspect of that astounding statement. It is the “never go hungry” bit.
I’ve been a Christian for a very long time and I’m frequently spiritually hungry. I know from talking to many of you that there are times when you get hungry too. So was Jesus exaggerating when he said what he said, or was he just plain wrong. I believe the truth is: neither. He meant what he said and what he said is true. The problem is that we mis-hear him. What he said was “he who comes to me will never go hungry.” In the Greek the words are “the coming-to-me-one by no means hungers.” Do you get it? I can belong to Jesus, be a Christian, but be in a state of “drifting-away” rather than “coming-to-him” and then I will hunger. I can be distracted, sucked into stuff that is not where Jesus is, and then I will hunger. Jesus is not saying that by coming to him once you will enjoy everlasting and constant satisfaction thereafter. No, no, no … you need to keep coming, keep receiving, keep trusting. The only place that you and I will not hunger is where the bread is. And that’s where Jesus is. For he is the bread of life.
And as he told the Jews earlier, I cannot buy this bread, I cannot earn it. It is a free gift. I get it by grace.
You’ve probably heard the story of the man who dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter, of course, meets him at the pearly gates as he does in all these stories, and he says to the man, “So here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.”
“Okay,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and was totally faithful her all the time.”
“That’s wonderful,” says St. Peter, “that’s worth three points!”
“Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life, sang in the choir, did Christian Aid envelopes, and gave away a tenth of my income,”
“Terrific!” says St. Peter. “That’s certainly worth a point.”
“One point? What else? Well, I did voluntary work one night a week in a shelter for the homeless and I was on the sick-visiting team.”
“Fantastic, that’s good for two more points, “ says St Peter.
“A measly two points!” cries the man. “At this rate the only way I’m going to get into heaven is by the grace of God.
“Come on in!” says St Peter.
So good workings count for nothing, then? They’re irrelevant are they?
No, not a bit of it. Let’s be very clear about this. A life of faith will be a life of good works because as James puts it in his letter in the New Testament: “Faith without works is dead”. Or as John Owen, the great Puritan preacher put it, “Faith, if it be a living faith, will be a working faith.” But it is the faith that opens the windows of heaven not the works that spring from our faith. John Calvin said that God will not deal with us on the basis of our good works, “not that no good works may be done, or that what is done may be denied to be good, but that we may not rely upon them, glory in them, or ascribe salvation to them.”
Everything we get from God, from start to finish, we get by grace as it flows to us through our faith, through our trust in Jesus. And nowhere is that more true than we it comes to our receiving the Bread of Life. In stark contrast with the bread that feeds our bellies, the bread that feeds our souls and spirits is free. Long ago, Isaiah had echoed God’s cry: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat. Yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Now Jesus says the same thing, but it is he himself who is on offer. He is the water, he is the wine, he is the milk … but above all he is the bread … the Bread of Life itself.
Why hold back? Why delay? Come now and, as it says in the communion service, “feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving”.