John 6 25-35
Our Old Testament reading this morning is a description of what was perhaps the very first Harvest Festival. The Israelites are being reminded of all the good things that God has done for them in bringing them to the land of milk and honey, the promised land. They are being instructed as to how to celebrate the bounty that they have received by returning it to the Lord and expressing their gratitude for his generosity towards them.
Today we celebrate Harvest Festival and coincidentally it is also the first day of the Jewish Harvest Festival known as Sukkot. Jewish families will construct small booths in their gardens or on their balconies and will use these to eat in and often sleep in as a commemoration of the booths that their ancestors built during the forty years of wandering that they endured after God delivered them from enslavement in Egypt. Sukkot is a joyous festival and is accompanied by lots of communal eating as well as worship and although as Christians we haven’t continued with the practice of building booths, we can see how the origins of Sukkot and the words given to the Israelites in Deuteronomy have formed the basis of the way in which we celebrate the blessings that God continues to give to us.
Both of our bible readings include reference to bread. I wonder if anyone know how many times bread is specifically mentioned in the Bible? Well according to the index of my NIV 28 times! I had a look to see if there was any other item of food that gets quite so many mentions and there isn’t. Not even wine features so prominently – a mere 15 mentions! Bread is a universal food. Wherever you might travel in the world it is highly unlikely that some form of bread like substance won’t feature prominently in the local diet. In practically every culture when people offer others hospitality the first thing they generally do is offer them bread. It may look different and it may certainly taste different but bread is the common feature of the majority of culinary traditions across the globe. The passage from John’s Gospel that has just read to us is often subtitled “Jesus the bread of life” and verse 35 is one of the most well known in scripture “I am the bread of life. He who comes me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never go thirsty”. Quite a claim and words that those listening to Jesus would have found challenging. For many of them, bread was an integral part of their lives on which their survival depended – the staff of life indeed. The rhythm of the day would start with the baking of bread. When people ate together the meal would usually commence with the breaking of bread.
In addition bread had played an important part in their history – the unleavened bread that marked their forefathers flight from Egypt, the manna from heaven that saved those same ancestors from perishing in the desert. Indeed, this is referenced in this passage when Jesus speaks of this miracle. Earlier in this same chapter there is an account of one of Jesus’ most well-known miracles – the feeding of the 5,000. From three loaves and two fishes Jesus produces a bounty of food that more than satisfies the hunger of every one present. In this instance He meets the crowd’s physical needs and as a result they follow him, more perhaps in the hope that he will continue to feed them than through recognition of who he truly is. When Jesus addresses the crowd he encourages them to look beyond the sign that they have been given, to consider more deeply what is happening right in front of them. He tells them that they should focus on receiving the food that will endure, the food that will be given to them by the Son of Man, he on whom God has placed his seal of approval. But his audience are unable to comprehend the true meaning of what he is telling them. They assume that in order to do the work of God they must undertake specific tasks, they are tied into the Old Testament covenant concepts of demonstrable acts. To just simply believe must have seemed too simple. Surely God’s expectation of them is more complex.
These are people whose religious leaders have emphasised a punitive judgmental God who requires obedience through keeping a multitude of laws. The idea of a God who simply requires faith in the Son he has sent as a sign of his love for his people is beyond their comprehension. And this remains the case today. We know that there is a great hunger in the world for spiritual satisfaction. The growth of interest in eastern religions, in mindfulness, in meditation techniques is evidence of the longing so many have for peace in their lives, for something more than the quick fix solutions to the challenges they face in an increasingly complex world. Our search for spiritual peace is completed by accepting the simple truth that it is through Jesus that we come to God who provides for our every need. In the same way that our physical health would suffer if we didn’t eat the food that is fundamental to our survival, when we fail to recognise our need for the bread of life that Jesus embodies, our spiritual wellbeing is similarly jeopardised and our relationship with God suffers. There are times when we fail to put Jesus at the centre of all that we do, that we neglect our spiritual health through a lack of prayer, through not taking time simply to sit with God, to rest in his presence, to listen to what he is saying to us. Our spirituality is as important to our overall health as any other aspect of our wellbeing. We make sure we find time to eat and drink yet we don’t equally prioritise time to pray or reflect on God’s presence in our lives.
When I was a hospital chaplain I delivered teaching sessions to healthcare professionals about the importance of caring for the spirit as part of the overall holistic approach to looking after patients. There is a wealth of evidence that proves that outcomes for those whose faith needs are met recover better than those for whom this important aspect of their lives is neglected. Caring for our spirit doesn’t replace the care we need physically but it complements it, it brings wholeness when we are broken, be that in mind, body or spirit. When we are right with God then the other challenges in our lives become easier to bear. But to be in that right relationship takes commitment and faith. We have to trust in our Lord that He will indeed ensure that spiritually we never hunger or thirst. And that is a big ask and perhaps even more so in the complex world in which we live where it can be hard to prioritise time spent with God when there are so many other pressures on our lives.
As Christians we are witnesses to the truth that Jesus is the living and true bread. We are blessed by God’s goodness to us and as a gesture of our desire to bring glory to his name and to live out Jesus’s commandment that we love our neighbour we will shortly bring forward gifts as a practical demonstration of that love for others who are not as fortunate as we are. On this harvest festival it would be naive to assume that faith in Jesus is all we need to survive. We need real bread as well as spiritual bread and we need to be mindful that there are many in our society and across the world who will be wondering when they might next eat, for whom physical hunger is a real threat to their survival. I know that there will be many who will question where God is in such situations, who will deride our faith as being meaningless in the face of such suffering. What good is the bread of life when there is nothing to eat, when there is no water to drink? Yet it is through faith that change can result. We can pray for God’s hand to be on those situations where there is suffering, we can provide resources to the aid agencies who work so hard to help those affected and we can have hope, hope that justice will prevail, hope that God’s kingdom will be seen on earth as it is in heaven.
I never cease to be thrilled by standing at the altar and saying the words of institution over the elements – it is truly one of the most awesome aspects of being a priest and I give thanks for this privilege. But this morning I am moved to reflect on those words that occur towards the end of some Eucharistic prayers. “Draw near with faith. Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you and his blood which he shed for you. Eat and drink in remembrance that he died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving”. When you approach the Lord’s Table on this day I pray that you do so in a spirit of gratitude not just for the worldly blessings that God has provided but also for the spiritual blessings that remind us of the way in which he upholds us no matter what challenges we may face. Jesus said” I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me with never be thirsty”