Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Trinity: Lammas-tide – ‘the bread of life’: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 1 August 2021 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Ephesians 4: 1 – 16; St. John 6: 24 – 35)
A class of young children once had a task to complete, all connected with the postal system and letters, which had a series of sentences with a word missing. A list of the missing words was provided. For one lad all seemed to be going well until the last one. There was only one word left so, although it seemed strange, the boy concluded that there was no alternative since he thought he had placed a logical word in the blank spaces of all the previous sentences. The last sentence was “The <blank> came through the letter box” and the final word on his list was “postman”.
So many so-called howlers by school children are the result of misunderstanding and that is my theme for it seems to have been the fate of Jesus too to be misunderstood and of the four gospels it is St John who records those failures to understand by people most clearly. In our gospel today (from chapter 6) Jesus is following up the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 with an explanation of how he himself is sustenance for the people for life eternal rather than just the provider of food for this mortal life.
The people though seem determined not to understand. “Who does he think he is?” they ask “He’s an ordinary human being. How can he have come from heaven?” So Jesus explains patiently that he is not making great claims for himself, but simply building on what they already know about God – or should know.
It is easy to imagine that Jesus, as Son of God, suddenly burst upon an unsuspecting world. But the New Testament is clear that God has been working all through creation for that moment when Jesus came into this world and grew into the person who was able to speak about God’s love and plans for humanity. This revelation we call, as a sort of shorthand, the incarnation. In particular the religious history of the children of Israel and the words of the prophets inspired by God were a preparation for the great event. God had been working so that people would welcome the Son of God into their hearts. If we look into our own lives and personal history, we can see how God has hedged our path and encouraged us in our search so that we have been brought to share in his life.
The point Jesus makes in his teaching is that he is offering the people something which they should instinctively recognise, for it is the source of a true and real life. Jesus uses the image of bread to convey these deep ideas for everyone will recognise bread as being a basic food. A happy coincidence allows us to celebrate Lammas Day (on 1 August), one of those special days roughly half way between a solstice and an equinox, the others being All Hallows, Candlemas and May Day. Lammas means “Loaf Mass” which used to celebrate the first bread baked from the new crop of grain which began to be harvested at Lammas-tide. Processions to bakeries would take place and those working there would be blessed. Our ancestors, with their celebration of the new bread, recognised the significance of Jesus being the bread of life.
But God took into account the way in which human nature would resist what Jesus had to offer and this we see in the events of Good Friday. Built into Jesus’ glorious offer of himself as the bread of life is the perception that many people will not recognise it; that they will turn away from it and incomprehensibly choose dust and ashes and death rather that the life for which we were made. So Jesus anticipates this too, for he chooses death on our behalf. He chooses to die for us, to be in our death, so that here too we choose him. Jesus, electing to be the bread of our life has no illusions about all the implications of that choice.
We might well ask why God sets up this extraordinary choice. Why does he give humanity the power to crucify his son? Why does he allow us, even after the death and resurrection of Jesus to grieve the Holy Spirit by our reluctance to acknowledge our dependence upon God and each other? Later on, in this chapter St John records that the words of Jesus about himself as the bread of life was a contentious subject and that a good many of those who had followed him before and listened avidly to his words now turned away and were no longer prepared to receive his teaching.
Of all that we find difficult to understand about God, it is this amazing generosity and grace which is the hardest to comprehend. God does not need us. It is we who need him. His love and grace surpass our understanding.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life.”