Posts Tagged ‘Bread of life’

A glimpse of the great unknown

August 4, 2018

Pentecost 11 – 2018

John 6:21-35 (Notes while on leave)

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires to open our eyes to new ways of seeing and our hearts to new ways of being. Amen.

The following is a short extract from the Mad Hatter’s tea-party (In Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol)

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said, in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked. “There isn’t any,” said the March Hare. “Then it wasn’t very civil for you ” said Alice angrily; “to offer it.” “It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,” said March Hare. “I didn’t know it was your table,” said Alice; “it’s laid for a great many more than three.” “Your hair wants cutting,” said Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, this was his first speech. You shouldn’t make personal remarks!” said Alice with some severity; “it’s very rude.” The Hatter opened his eyes wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.” “I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud. “You mean that you think you can find the answer to it.” said the March Hare. “Exactly so,” said Alice. “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “At least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing you know.” “Not the same thing a bit,” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” “You might just as well say,” added the March Hare that, “I like what I get’ is the same as ‘I get what I like’!”

Little of Alice in Wonderland makes logical sense. The characters constantly talk past each other, providing answers that bear no relation at all to the question asked. Absurdity rules. Lewis invites us to suspend our rational minds and to simply allow the story to carry us along – not to try to make sense of it.

In real life we hope, expect even, that our conversations with others will be logical and consistent. We say, or ask something of another with the clear expectation that we will be heard and responded to appropriately. Most of us find it terribly frustrating to ask a question and to be given a response that does not relate to the question in the slightest or to be talking about something and have our conversation partner go off in another direction without even acknowledging what we have said.

It makes us feel diminished and undervalued. Yet, this is just the sort of communication (or lack thereof) that marks the Jesus of John’s gospel. Over and again Jesus appears to thwart an apparently genuine attempt to understand who he is, or what he is up to. Even for the reader it is frustrating.

In today’s gospel for example, Jesus’ response to the crowds seems to be deliberately obtuse. So what is going on? Ginger Barfield summarizes the conversation, or what is presented as conversation.

“Verses 25-27: The crowd wants to know when Jesus came to the other side of the lake. Jesus’ answer is a convoluted response about their not seeing the signs but being filled with food. It dissolves into something about working for food that endures for life.

Verses 28-29: The crowd wants to know what they can do to work God’s work. Jesus’ response is about believing rather than working.

Verses 30-33: The crowd asks for a sign from Jesus so they can believe. Jesus comes back with a proclamation about “My Father” and bread that gives life.

Verses 34-35: The crowd demands (rather than asks for) the bread. Jesus claims to be the bread (egō eimi the bread of life).”

The reason for Jesus’ obtuseness appears to be that the crowds have approached Jesus with the wrong expectations. They have asked the wrong questions. They want to make Jesus conform to their known categories and Jesus wants them to see that God is doing something new and different.

As you would expect, the differences between Alice in Wonderland and the fourth gospel are many, not least of which is the determination of Lewis Carrol that Alice should have no moral, should ‘do no manner of harm to the reader’s mind’. The author of John’s gospel has a clear and definite intention – that those who read it will come to believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that through believing they may have life in his name” (20:31). Alice is light-hearted nonsense, John is absolutely serious. Lewis just wants us to suspend reality and to enter the fantasy. Jesus wants us to abandon our fantasies and to open our eyes to the truth that is revealed through him. For this reason Jesus’ responses are designed to tease the listeners minds out of their conventional way of seeing towards a new and very different reality.

By providing indirect answers to the questions asked not the crowd, Jesus hopes to provide a disconnect that will encourage them to re-think their experiences, let go of their previous expectations and to see what is being on right in front of them.

Two thousand years have calcified our way of seeing and understanding Jesus. Many of us are locked into narrow, conventional and comfortable images of the Christ. The challenge of John’s gospel gospel remains the same: to break through our limited and restricted constructs and to open ourselves to a new and startling reality. To release the stranglehold that tradition and habit have placed on our minds and to liberate us to receive the Christ in the fullness of Christ’s divinity and power, through him to gain a glimpse of the great unknown that is God.


Feeding on Christ

August 15, 2015

Pentecost 12 – 2015

John 6:51-58

Marian Free


In the name of God who gives us life in abundance and desires that we share that life with the world. Amen. 

Most of you will have gathered by now that I experience a degree of frustration with regard to the focus on church growth and in particular the time spent in worrying why congregations are declining and the time and money spent on programmes designed to turn the decline around. My concern is that the navel-gazing of the past fifty years has achieved little and has caused us to become inward-looking rather than outward-focussed and that we are more anxious about the survival of the institution of the church than we are with the transmission of the gospel.

I am confident that God will survive with or without the church and will find new ways to make Godself known with or without our assistance. That said, thriving faith communities would ensure that for generations to come, that there will be a place or at least a group to whom people can come to hear the good news, to find spiritual refreshment and to be restored and made whole.

It was interesting therefore to attend the Arnott lecture two weeks ago and to be reminded by Bishop Stephen Cottrell that there are people in the wider community who are yearning for some spiritual connection, who have spiritual thirst that they are longing quench, a hunger they are desperate to satisfy and who are searching for answers in a world that can be isolating, confusing and even hostile.

Last week’s Clergy Conference focussed on Church Growth, but while its proponents did at times seem to be promoting growth for the sake of growth, they too expressed the belief that there are many non-church-goers who are seeking nourishment for their souls, an experience of life that is more satisfying than the material and superficial and a relationship with the utterly other.

The church as a community of faith is in an ideal position to satisfy this longing for meaning, search for depth and hunger for spiritual connection. So why is it that we are in decline? Why is it that those who are seeking turn to other faiths, explore other paths or simply give up the search? Is it because those who are looking for a connection with the sacred do not find it in the church? Is it because it is no longer evident that the church is the place in which spirituality is fed and nurtured? Is it because we have become so comfortable in our faith that we no longer make the effort to work on and to strengthen our relationship with God?

One of the speakers at the Clergy Conference challenged us to ask this question of ourselves and of our congregations: “Where are you with God?” “Where are you with God?” By this he means, “How is your relationship with God?” Are you conscious of the presence of God in your life? Do you nurture your relationship with God through regular prayer, reading God’s word or practicing some form of spiritual discipline? Is your spiritual life sufficiently full and rich that it spills over to enrich and enhance the lives of those around you? In other words are we feeding our own spiritual lives such that we have plenty with which to feed others?

In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners that he is the bread of life and he challenges them to feed on him, to so take him into themselves, into their lives, that they become a part of him and they of him.

If we really want to turn the church around perhaps we should stop looking for external reasons for the decline in numbers and begin looking at ourselves and the way we practice of our faith. We will have to stop looking back to the golden era of our past, stop believing that the faith is somehow passed on by osmosis or hoping that the right programme, the right youth leader or the ideal priest will turn things around.

The health of the church as a whole is the responsibility of every member of the church. That means that each of us needs to ask ourselves what we are doing about our own spiritual health; to question whether we are really feeding on the bread of life, continually re-fuelling our faith, allowing our relationship with Jesus to be constantly re-energised and enlivened and remind ourselves on a regular basis not only of what we believe, but of the benefits of being in a relationship with the living God.

Are we day by day allowing ourselves to abide in Jesus and allowing Jesus to abide in us?

I believe that the church will grow because we are energised by our faith, because the joy we experience is palpable, because we demonstrate in our own lives God’s unconditional love and because our experience of Jesus as the bread of life fills our longing for meaning and inspires us to share that meaning with those in our community who hunger and thirst for something more.

As you come to the altar this morning, as you take into your very selves the life-giving presence of Jesus, allow yourselves to be changed and transformed by the bread of life, let the Spirit of God burn within you and the creative energy of God inspire you. May our lives overflow with the knowledge and love of God – the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – such that we cannot help but bring healing to those who are broken, provide direction to those who have lost their way and be a beacon of hope in a world that sometimes seems devoid of meaning.

Finding in Jesus all that we desire

July 25, 2015

Pentecost 9

John 6:1-21 (Matt 14:13f, Mark 6:32f, Lk 9:10f)

Marian Free

In the name of God who provides for us more abundantly than we can imagine and more generously than we deserve. Amen.

I always approach the sixth chapter of John with a sense of trepidation bordering on dread. This is not because I find it particularly difficult to unpack or that there are themes within the chapter that jar or disturb. The reason John 6 fills me with a sense of disquiet is that we will spend the next five weeks working our way through it – all 75 verses of it! For the next five weeks (allowing for some literary license) I will be lying awake at night wondering whether there is yet another way that I can speak about bread or help to make sense of eating flesh.

Fortunately, John’s gospel has timeless appeal and is sufficiently complex that it warrants regular rereading and rewards a more detailed examination. So let us take a close look at today’s gospel – a well-known story that we hear today from a Johannine perspective.

The first thing of note is that the account of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story that is found in all four gospels. We know it so well that we have probably only paid attention to the elements that are familiar – the crowds who have followed Jesus, the concern shown for the hungry crowd, the worry that five loaves will not provide enough to go around, Jesus’ giving thanks, the sharing of what little is available and that not only is everyone satisfied but also that no less than twelve baskets of fragments are gathered afterwards.

So far so good, but I wonder if you noticed there are a number of significant differences in the telling of the story that alert us to the fact that John has a particular reason for recording this miracle. To begin at the beginning, John does not tell us that the hour is getting late as do Matthew, Mark and John. Instead John sets the scene by saying that the Passover is near. This detail is significant, as the remainder of the chapter will make clear. The author of John’s gospel wants the reader to understand that Jesus has supplanted not only the Passover Feast, but all the Jewish Festivals. They have been made redundant because in his own person Jesus is the light of the world, the living water, the bread of life and so on[1].

Another difference is that it is Jesus who takes the initiative in John’s gospel. It is he (not the disciples) who is concerned about the hunger of the crowds and he who asks how they might be fed. Further, Jesus doesn’t engage with the disciples as a group, but specifically with two of them – Philip and Andrew. It is Philip to whom Jesus addresses the question about the bread and Andrew who identifies the boy who has brought the barley loaves and dried fish.

These and other differences tell us that John has a specific reason for recording this particular miracle. Unlike the Synoptics writers who emphasise Jesus’ compassion and welcome in their accounts, John’s purpose in recording the feeding is to emphasise Jesus’ foreknowledge and power and to set the scene for the discussion and discourse that is to follow. The discussion will allow Jesus to reveal something of himself, his relationship with God and his purpose on earth. In this instance the story provides the author of the gospel with the opportunity to introduce a number of topics – Jesus as the bread of life, the bread that has come down from heaven. Unlike the manna in the wilderness, this bread will not perish and those who eat of it will live forever. Those who come to Jesus the true bread, the living bread – will never hunger or thirst because the bread that Jesus will give is his flesh – his life, his very self. Those who eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood will be raised on the last day.

This is a lot to absorb, which is why it takes 75 verses and why we take five weeks to explore it. It is important to note at the start that at the heart of the argument (and at the heart of the gospel) is the Johannine idea that Jesus and the Father are one and that discipleship consists of nothing more and nothing less than having a relationship with Jesus that is the same as Jesus’ relationship with God. According to this view, discipleship results in a complete dependence on God that stems from an understanding that in and through Jesus all our needs can and will be met. The miracle of the feeding is the vehicle that enables John to explore this theme and to make it clear that intimacy/union with Jesus puts an end to all our desires and all our striving because in and through our relationship with Jesus we will discover that we have all that we require and more besides.

Yes, it is extraordinary that five thousand are fed with just two small fish and five small loaves, but it is just as extraordinary to recognise that the discipleship that results in eternal life does not depend so much on what we do, but what we don’t do. By allowing Jesus to be our primary source of sustenance and our sole reason for being, we will discover that union with God that provides a sense of fulfillment and well-being such that the world can never supply.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:15-19)

[1] The Festival of Booths celebrated water and light and a central element of the Passover was bread.

When it gets too hard do you wish to go away?

August 19, 2012

Pentecost 12

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

 In the name of God – source of life, wisdom and joy. Amen.

 “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus’ question to his disciples in verse 67 catches us by surprise. These are the people with whom he has chosen to share his mission, his most private moments. In their turn, they have chosen to follow him despite what others might think. Why would they now want to go away? Today’s gospel helps us to understand the lead up to Jesus’ question. In fact, we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 6 to see how the tension builds to the point where some disciples leave Jesus and Jesus is forced to ask the remainder if they too wish to leave. The author of John’s gospel records the account of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walking on the water as do the other three gospels. According to the author of John, the crowds which have been following Jesus, discover that he is on the other side of the lake and pursue him. This provides Jesus with an opportunity to challenge their self-centredness and to elaborate on his role and his mission.

Jesus perceives that the crowds are primarily interested in what he can do for them – provide food, heal the sick and so on. These signs, while important, are not the real reason that Jesus is here. He challenges those who have followed to seek the deeper meaning of Jesus’ presence among them. Bread sustains the body for a limited time. Jesus asks his listeners to consider the sort of food that will sustain them in the present and more importantly for eternity. He asks them to look beyond their physical needs for sustenance and to seek the food that endures – the spiritual food that sustains the soul. This is the food that he provides to those who seek it.

As part of this argument, Jesus claims to be the ‘bread of life’. We are so familiar with this concept that it can be difficult for us to understand how such a discussion could create the sort of offense that would cause some of Jesus’ disciples to abandon him and Jesus to ask if others too wish to go away. Jesus as the ‘bread of life’ provides us with strength and courage, spiritual nourishment and support.  Perhaps if Jesus had left the argument there his disciples would have remained with him. However, Jesus has claimed to be the bread from heaven which endures forever – unlike the manna in the wilderness which sustained the Israelites in the present, but which was unable to give them eternal life. Among his listeners would have been those who would have heard Jesus’ suggestion that he was more important than – in fact that he had superseded Moses.

If that claim were not confronting enough, Jesus makes the even more disturbing claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this brad will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Not only is the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood utterly repulsive, it is impossible for Jesus’ audience to grasp such a difficult and distressing concept. Many of them know Jesus, they know his mother and his father. They know that he is a human being like themselves – how can he say that he has come down from heaven? It is impossible for them to even begin to conceive that it is possible, let alone necessary for them to consume this man’s flesh and blood if they are to have eternal life! No wonder many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him! They say: “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”

They have failed to understand that Jesus, through this dramatic and uncomfortable language, Jesus is asking his followers not to physically eat him, but to become one with him, to allow him to become so much a part of them that it is as if they are indeed one flesh and blood. Eating and drinking are metaphors for this complete unity. In some way faith is a process of somehow absorbing Jesus into our lives and allowing our lives to be absorbed into that of Jesus.

Eating and drinking are strong images, but they are not totally unfamiliar. We say to children: “I could just eat you!” We don’t mean that literally, we just mean that we love them so much that we don’t want to be separated from them. This is the sort of relationship that Jesus is asking his disciples (and us) to have with him.

It is at this point that Jesus asks those who remain: “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Peter responds: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter, who so often fails to understand, who so often gets it wrong has cut to the core. He may not always understand what Jesus has to say, but he knows what Jesus means – to himself and to the world. Peter may not really understand Jesus’ teaching at this point, but he is sure of one thing – that there is nowhere that he would rather be, nowhere else that he would receive the sort of spiritual guidance that he has found in Jesus. He knows that in the present and in the future, it is his relationship with Jesus that has opened the doors of heaven.

I suspect that it is the same for us. There may be times when we do not understand – when scripture seems too difficult, when the events of our lives or the lives of others seem inexplicable – but we with Peter know that Jesus is the means to eternal life. We have thrown in our lot with Jesus, and nothing in this life or the next will separate us.





Bread of life

August 11, 2012

Pentecost 11

John 6:35, 41-51 

Marian Free

In the name of God who sustains and fulfils us. Amen.

 Some years ago there was an advertisement for a (then) popular deodorant. The ad featured a beautiful woman holding up various essential items and saying things like: “I can do without my iPhone, I can do without my hair dryer, I can do without my first cup of coffee, but I can’t do without my Mum.” Of course, it’s a play on words. Our minds immediately leap to the conclusion that she can’t do without her mother, but in fact Mum is the brand name of the deodorant that she is promoting! It was a clever piece of advertising – not only because obviously I still remember it, but also because for a while, the phrase: “I can’t do without” passed into common use.

In the scale of things, deodorant is a particularly superficial item to be unable to go without. People are starving and dying of disease every day, surely we can go without something that is not vital to our well-being, but only to our vanity. However, the goal of advertising is to convince us that we simply cannot do without the latest fashion, the latest kitchen items, the latest phone or computer. Many of us today have lives cluttered with things that we do not absolutely need, but which seemed a good idea at the time. It gives pause for thought. What do we really require for a reasonable life? What things are absolutely essential for our well-being and what things are essentially luxuries?

Some of the things we need are obvious. We simply cannot survive without water, oxygen and a certain amount of food. Warmth and shelter are also good but not necessary. In 1943 a man named Abraham Maslow published a seminal paper in which he identified a hierarchy of needs. All these years later psychology students would be familiar, if not with his work, then with the hierarchy to which he gave his name. The hierarchy he developed suggests that a person’s basic needs must be met in order for them to be creative and moral. So at the bottom of the hierarchy are things like breathing, food, water, sex. When those needs are met a person may becomes aware of the need for safety (both physical and economic). When one is fed and safe, love and belonging become important for happiness. These are followed, Maslow would say, by the need for self-esteem (confidence, achievement, respect form others). It is only when all these underlying needs are met, he claims, that a person is able to achieve self-actualisation – creativity, spontaneity, lack of prejudice and so on.

There are some flaws in Maslow’s argument. A number of creative people are creative, not because they have reached some higher dimension of existence, but precisely because their needs for love or something else have not been met. Their art is drawn not from their self-fulfilment, but from their suffering. Likewise we often witness people who to us, seem to be living in the most dire of circumstances and yet who are able to express surprising joy and inclusiveness.

Today’s gospel is part of a long discourse on bread in which Jesus claims to be both the bread of life and the living bread that has come down from heaven. For many people bread is one of the staples of life. Jesus appears to be claiming that he is both essential for life and that a relationship with him is the key to eternal life. In contrast to Maslow’s hierarchy, Jesus places himself at the bottom of the pyramid and implies that all else in life is built on faith in him.

As he does so often, Jesus seems to be challenging his audience to consider where their priorities lie and where they place their relationship with him in comparison to their other needs and wants. By claiming to be the bread of life and by comparing himself with the manna in the wilderness, Jesus is suggesting that his listeners need to place him at the centre of their lives, to have the confidence that if they put him at the heart, all else will fall into place. Jesus is claiming that faith in him is essential to the well-being of all people. It is not an optional extra that can be drawn on only when it is absolutely needed, rather it is the central requirement for a life that is rich and satisfying.

This is more difficult that it appears – especially for Jesus listeners. Many of them have known him all his life, they know his parents and they know that he didn’t come down from heaven, but was born in the usual way. For Jesus’ audience accepting that he was who he said he was meant suspending their rational minds and allowing themselves to trust that what Jesus said was indeed true and that he could supply all their wants. Further, it meant letting go what they had believed until now and trusting that God was indeed doing something new in Jesus, that they faith they had held was being enlarged to include all that Jesus did and taught. For many this was an impossible task. They simply could not make the leap. They could accept Jesus as a miracle worker, but not as the source of their being or the most essential part of their lives.

This sort of faith is no easier for our generation. Faith still does involve a suspension of the rational and a belief in something that ultimately cannot be proven. The faith that Jesus demands is not new to us as it was to Jesus’ first century listeners. We are not caught by surprise as they were. However, that does not mean that it is easy. For ourselves, accepting Jesus as the bread of life entails trusting Jesus with one’s whole life and not just with part of it. It means relying on Jesus (and not on our own strength) when things get tough. It means learning to be grateful for all that we have and knowing that Jesus will give us those things that we really need. It means that Jesus is the one thing in life that we simply cannot do without.

What is the one thing in life that you cannot do without? Is your answer Jesus?

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