BREAD WITH A PURPOSE
Well here we are on Lay Preachers Sunday, and it occurs to me that those who haven’t had a turn at leading worship, might not quite appreciate that those of us who are required to be up front might be somewhat less confident than we try to pretend.
There are all those technical words to try to understand and sometimes the simplest are the hardest. Take that simple word “worship” for example. Does it just mean expressing admiration for God and Jesus in our songs and prayers? Is the completion of the act of worship in a subsequent change of thought and action? Even finding the words to say what we mean by “God” or the “Son of God” is a bit of a challenge.
Then there is what to do with the Bible stories and sayings from Jesus.
Yes, I guess we all know that the Bible has some great ideas in it – but what are we meant to be doing with those ideas in practice? For example Jesus said to his listeners “don’t build up treasures on Earth”. Well, dare we ask? How many dollars do we need to have built up to have it called treasure? Was that meant to include not building Churches? The new cars that choke our motorways … are they treasures?
But then there are the really tricky parts of the gospels. Jesus said “forgive your enemies” and…. “Turn the other cheek”. So… how many wars have the people of our nation gone away to fight? And what was our Church teaching about that? And if it comes to that, I wonder how many of us would be prepared to put our hand up and say “because of Jesus’ teaching we are pacifist”?
The New Testament has ideas like “welcome the stranger in your midst”. Which I guess is why we see so many turbans and Muslim women wearing veils here amongst us… or do we? Don’t those strangers reading the signals we send even know they are welcome? I hope Jesus didn’t mean refugees because for all the millions of refugees in those camps overseas, precious few of them are allowed to finish up on our shores. Perhaps all this is why in practice we prefer to focus on the admiration part of what we call worship. Yet even there I suspect most of us do have a sneaking feeling that perhaps we ought to be taking Jesus’ words at least seriously enough to assume that there should be something ….anything ….about those of us who praise, that also sets our behaviour apart in a positive way.
Well today our lectionary gives us a well known phrase that should make us give pause for thought. When John’s gospel tells us that Jesus talks about himself being “the bread of life” he was of course using a metaphor. But is is nevertheless an interesting choice of words. Notice he doesn’t say I bring the bread of life. He says “I AM the bread of life”. Bread – well why not?. Bread was the staple food of the Middle East in Jesus day.
But I suspect the reason why he was calling himself the bread of life was that he was saying he actually was the message. He took his teaching so seriously that it actually became part of him.
Perhaps this metaphor also gives us a clue. Food can of course be admired but in the real world food is designed to be part and living of the body.
Now because I am a lay preacher my theology is not expected to be particularly strong, but because I used to be a science teacher, I do at least know something about food and what it does when it is internalized.
Indulge me for a moment, when we pause for a quick science lesson. So here are some things I know rather more about than what I know about theology.
Before food can become part of your body it has to taken on board. All those lovely foods at the supermarket are absolutely no use… if they are simply being admired. They have to be chopped up and ground into small bits by the teeth and then exposed to special chemicals called enzymes. Different parts of the body break down or digest different foods.
Long starch molecules will get broken into sugars. Proteins are broken down into amino acids – fats broken down into fatty acids and glycerol and then the real magic begins. Some foods inside you in effect do a slow burn with the oxygen in the air – and that is respiration. Amino acids link up to make new proteins – and the muscles begin to form. Some other bits are needed for making more DNA and enzymes and some of the calcium is grabbed in the bone making process . Digestion makes you the person you are.
Perhaps I might also say if you taken in food that is first digested and then reassembled as part of the body, if it is not then used then there are problems. As I tried to explain to some of my friends, I have not only kept my figure, there is now more of it.
So when Jesus talks about himself as the living bread, there is the clue. Like other food – say in a lunch box, looking at pictures of the food, listening to specially qualified people describe the food, or even what you believe the food would do if it was taken into your body – none of that is the point of the food.
In the same way listening to the amateur lay preacher, or even the full time presbyter describe the bread of life might encourage us to admire Jesus, unless we too are prepared to take the bread of life and make it part of our very way of life how can what we admire make a difference.
If Jesus’ description of himself as the bread of life had stayed simply as an interesting idea to be trotted out in instalments once a week in formal worship it would do little more than perhaps then offer a reason for respecting Jesus. But Jesus took it one step further. Jesus lived as if he first internalized it and it became part of his words and actions. But more importantly for us it then in turn became part of his followers’ way of life. In effect this started what became a revolution in thinking for those early Christians.
In the interests of truth it is also good to remind ourselves that living in a different way is not universally appreciated by others who are made uncomfortable by what they then encounter.
Back in Jesus day I would imagine that many would feel threatened by a different philosophy with Jesus that – if adapted – would mean their power would be reduced. Most modern historians who specialize in the study of what was happening in Israel at the time of Jesus seem to have come to the consensus that as more started to follow Jesus this was seen as a threat to the public control of the occupying force of the Romans and more locally as a threat to the status and authority of the religious leadership.
Jesus hit out at the effective prostitution of the house of God. I have no way of knowing exactly what happened in the incident of the clearing if the Temple but it is hard to believe that the message he was bringing would have been popular. What was that bit in the Gospel of Mark: “Beware of the scribes who walk about in long robes, to be treated obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the place of honour at the banquets. These are the men who swallow the property of widows, making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive”.(Mark 12 38-40)
Having been made a guest of honour a few times at various religious festive occasions I want to suggest that in some of our Churches this sort of thing can still happen …. and I inwardly squirm when I hear those words of Jesus. But for those challenged, you can see how they would become angry and want to attack the one who was challenging their conscience. The bread of life is not the only food which has attractions.
Some of you may be familiar with the Irish saying: “ The person who speaks the truth should be ready to ride off at once”. People do not like the truth when it challenges their current beliefs and practices. But this is the tricky bit. Jesus did not ride off. For him the bread of life meant that the unpalatable truth would need to be told regardless of the personal consequences.
I may have it wrong but I see this same dimension of the bread of life being played out at present in international politics. The United States of America as an example has about 5% of the Worlds Population. It consumes about 25% of the World’s GDP. Their government, under their current President, feels that their trade arrangements unfairly treat their nation and they are trying to improve things so that basically that the proportion of 25% of the World’s GDP can be increased. Yet beggar thy neighbour is not what Jesus was saying.
But here is the question. Is this the best a Christian nation can offer? What would we say about a President who apparently wants to get more of the World’s wealth for a country that already has 25% of the Worlds wealth, and to organise immigration in such a way that the richest and best qualified can come in and the undesirable unqualified poor can stay out. There are of course those who can and do see that Mr Trump and his policy makers are called out for identifying themselves as Christian. Those critics are the ones who say that the present US government appear to be following some policies that seem to be the opposite of what Jesus was teaching.
But have you noticed two other things?
First: Those who challenge these policies are currently ridiculed and where possible punished so I guess there is a strong temptation to keep quiet and not get in the way.
Second: Before we sneer at Mr Trump and his leadership team for being so intolerant and so unmindful of the plight of those less fortunate, we first need to be certain that our own nation’s policies are reflecting our claimed Christian principles – and that we are indeed making sure that what Jesus meant by the bread of life be discerned in our own attitudes and actions. In short should we be insisting that our policies show care for those whose standard of living and living conditions are much worse than our own?
That the bread of life must be identified as both an internal rebuilding and external expression is not always appreciated. If we are only casual about the significance of what we learn in this place, this Church, I guess we can, and in truth at times probably do conceal the need in our outer world by simply not looking too hard. Similarly if we are casual about the state of our inner world we can cover our insecurities by surrounding ourselves with the good things of life, and accumulate possessions, prestige and power so that there is no time or space to become part of the answers to our prayers.
Jesus was his message. He was in effect the bread of life. I wonder what message others encounter in us because we too are our message. AMEN