Only a short message this week, as some people were needing to get off early to go to an event at a sister church.
“I am the Bread of Life,” said Jesus. “Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.”
But what, exactly, did he mean? His followers were totally unsure: “But he can't be – don't be silly! We know his Mum and Dad, he's not something that came down from heaven!”
The thing is, we are used to these words. We have heard them so often, and we associate them with the Sacrament, where the minister says over the Bread: “This is my Body, given for you”, and over the Cup: “This is my Blood, shed for you”. We don't actually hear them any more.
Those who were listening would have had no idea that he would take the Jewish Friday-night ritual and lift it and transform it into something very different, yet essentially the same. For them, when he said, “You must eat of my flesh and drink of my blood,” what they thought was cannibalism.
And, of course, that was seriously offensive to them, as it would be to us. Perhaps even more offensive than it would be to us, since we have no taboo against eating blood. But the Jews, like the Muslims, do have a terrific taboo against it, believing that the “life is in the blood”. I'll come back to that in a minute – and so to them it is probably not only unheard-of to drink blood, but rather sick-making, too. Whereas other cultures – the Masai, certainly, drink blood as a matter of routine. And even we have our black puddings, although I think we'd blench at being offered a nice warm glass of fresh blood.
And, of course, there are things that we wouldn't normally think of as food that other cultures eat routinely – think of the Chinese and their dogs and snakes, for instance. Or even the French with their snails, which are actually delicious if you like garlic butter! And I know that many West Indians follow the example of the Jews and Muslims and eat no pork, and probably feel rather sick at the thought, just as I expect Hindus do about eating beef.
You may well know that Jack Rosenthal play, “The Evacuees”, where the two Jewish children are presented with “delicious sausages” for their supper and expected to eat them. And although they've been told and told that as it is a national emergency, they may eat food that is normally forbidden, they simply can't bring themselves to try. The taboo against eating pork runs so deep, for them, that they simply can't overcome it.
And Jesus' followers certainly felt most uncomfortable at his words. To start with, they simply couldn't understand what he was on about: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Visions, there, of Jesus cutting great chunks out of his arms, I shouldn't wonder. Or of people cutting up a dead body and preparing to eat it - in some cultures, that would be considered quite normal, and the correct way of honouring the dead, but not for the Jews, any more than for us.
St Paul, or whoever wrote the epistle to the Ephesians, takes this concept – although he was, of course, writing long before the Gospels had been written down, but he would have been familiar with the teachings – he takes this concept and runs with it. He gives us that list of instructions as to how Christ's people are to behave, and summarises it: “Since you are God's dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice that pleases God.”
Jesus said that his flesh is the Bread of Life, which he is giving so that the world may live. We think of Holy Communion, but his first hearers couldn't think what he meant. Jesus tells them that what God wants is for them to believe in the one who was sent. But, as I said, they can't see that at all – how can he possibly say that he came down from heaven when he is Joseph's son, and they know his parents quite well.
It is, of course, one of the famous “I am” sayings in John's Gospel. The thing is, of course, that it wasn't just Jesus saying something about himself, because it echoes – and his first hearers may well have heard those echoes – it echoes the bit in Exodus, where Moses asks God his name when confronted with him in the burning bush. And the answer is “I am”, or perhaps “I am who I am”. And here, Jesus appears to be using the same phraseology:
I am the bread of life
I am the living bread that came down from heaven.
I am the light of the world
I am the gate for the sheep
I am the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, and the truth, and the life
I am the true vine.
Jesus is claiming to be divine. All very strange, because on another level I rather think Jesus was trying to put things into words that won't really go, like so much of Christianity doesn't quite go into words – even what happened when he died on the Cross; even what happens when we make our Communions. We all have a mental picture of it, which is certainly partly true – but none of us will ever know the whole of it, as the more we know, the more we know we don't know. And I think this Bread of Life discourse is something a bit like that. And yet, it was a definite claim to the divine. But how are we to come to him, to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood? There is Holy Communion, of course – but is there not more to it than that? Wesley would say that Holy Communion, one of the means of grace, is only helpful insofar as it brings us closer to God. It is not, in and of itself, something magical!
Paul is more practical, of course. Tell the truth, don't steal, help those in need, don't be angry in a destructive way, and don't feed your anger. “Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. Instead, be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.”
Hmmm, well, I don't know about you, but I'm not good at most of those things! But it isn't really a matter of outward behaviour, as I'm sure you know. It really is much more about allowing God's Holy Spirit to change us, to make us into the person he designed us to be. St Paul reminds us that “the Spirit is God's mark of ownership on you, a guarantee that the Day will come when God will set you free.” The day will come when God will set us free. So we are not yet free from the things that harm us, the things that bring us down. We are not yet able to live wholly surrendered lives as God's person – and yet, one day we will be.
Jesus said “I am the Bread of Life, those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.” So let us come to him again, let us recommit ourselves to him once more. Amen.