August 17, 2014

The Bread of Life

Passage: 1 Kings 3:3

1Kgs. 3:3   Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.   4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.   5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you."   6 And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.   7 And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.   8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.   9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?"  10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.   11 God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,   12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.   13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you.   14 If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life."

Jn. 6:51   I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."   52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"   53 So Jesus said to them, "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.   54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;   55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.   56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.   57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.   58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."

Pause for a moment at the outset of this sermon to reflect upon the tragedy of our world. Consider the mess of the middle east and the inability of leadership to stem the tide of violence; thinking that war and civil strife can solve something. Instead we are left with dissolving countries of Syria and Iraq. Israel and Gaza are at constant war it seems. Russia and Ukraine cannot agree. Violence erupts in Ferguson, Missouri when a white police officer kills an African America unarmed youth. Where are the leaders who pray the prayer of Solomon:

Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?" 10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.

Notice how God responds: because you have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, God will give him riches and wisdom and long life. Notice that God is pleased that Solomon did not ask for the life of his enemies. The Islamic State terrorists should listen to this passage of Scripture.

Centuries ago Christians were no better, forcefully converting Jews and Muslims on the pain of death, but hopefully those days are long since passed. So much happens in the name of religion that is displeasing to God. But leaders who ask for wisdom and act with justice at the forefront of their mandate are pleasing to God. Unfortunately the problem with democracy is that in order to get elected, you act not out of justice but out of self interest. Can you imagine a premier in Alberta saying the oil revenues of the province are to be shared for the good of all Canadians? Can you imagine Quebecers wanting to share their hydro electric power with all? Can you imagine a former time when Ontario’s manufacturing was the hub of the Canadian economy. Would we have shared our wealth for the good of all?

But this reality seemingly does not exist. Many pundits realize that there can be no global security unless we have a common security where injustices around the globe are sorted out. Do we honestly believe that pouring billions into the arms race accomplishes more than pouring billions into feeding the poor and protecting our health systems. Discrepancies and inequalities around the world exacerbate the issues in which terrorist groups can flourish. Although we know this, the rich and powerful have a vested interest in war machines and we do so little to say ‘enough! That has never worked and will not work now.’

One of the leading theoreticians of global capitalism, George Soros, makes this crucial concession:

“International trade and global financial markets are very good at generating wealth, but they cannot take care of other social needs, such as the preservation of peace, alleviation of poverty, protection of the environment, labour conditions, or human rights– what are generally called public goods.” On Globalization 2002 p14

Solomon was very wise. Unfortunately the very blessings that were bestowed upon him led to his undoing. When he became rich and powerful he made some foolish decisions with the result that at the end of his life, the state of Israel broke in two following a civil war after his death.

Where does that wisdom come from? Jesus indicates that we need to be rooted and grounded in God's love for true life and justice to flourish. He stated: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Is bread not more powerful than a bomb? Instead of wasting billions on armaments, if we fed the world's hungry, who would the terrorists be able to recruit? So the wisdom of Jesus is portrayed in feeding hungry crowds.

A word about bread - In a delightful little book called Elegy to the family farm - 80 Acres the author, Ronald Jager, pens these words: ". them (city slickers) those country things were like manna from heaven. The appreciation they expressed for - of all things! -- bread was a revelation to us. Jaded children of the land, we casually consumed a dozen loaves of my mother’s bread every week, not realising that it was twice as nutritious and tasty as ‘boughten’ or baker’s’ bread that we always craved but seldom had. “Give us this day our daily bread we always prayed” but when the Hoechzma’s were with us we ate each other’s bread and fruit and gave a happier thanks.” p. 73 Annemarie confirms this sentiment exactly. Growing up on a farm where her mother always baked the bread, how she craved Weston’s white enriched bread on which mice would die of starvation if that were their sole source of food. As for me, when I visited her from the city how delighted I was to get homemade bread.

The Gospel reading for today follows after the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes. As a result the crowd attempts to make Jesus their king. The crowds follow the next day and Jesus “explicates” what has transpired. 26 Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.   27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal."   28 Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"   29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." 30 So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?   31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"   32 Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.   33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."   34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."

Notice that the people are not overwhelmed by the event that has just transpired. Instead they ask him for a sign. Really? What just happened? But rather than turning this into a nice church growth opportunity - Jesus suggests that the one thing needful is for them to believe in him, and accuses them of not believing. When he calls himself ‘the bread of heaven,’ a bread better than manna, they start to murmur and complain. Is not this Joseph’s son?

Unlike today, when the debate may rage: 'how did Jesus accomplish such a miracle?' the question for the people who had eaten was more mundane. Let us take care of our immediate problem and make him our king. Surely a greater than Solomon is in our midst. It is a reminder that power elicits great temptation and opportunity. Think of the good Jesus could do for his people if he were to reign instead of Herod. Anyone who could feed 5000 with such meagre resources surely could challenge the Roman empire. I believe we underestimate the seductive nature of this temptation for Jesus. Instead he retires to a mountainside to pray, and presumably to get it straight one more time what his mission truly was.

Jesus insisted that the kingdom he inaugurated is "not of this world" (John 18:36). Almost all human kingdoms and powers go to any lengths to exercise power over others (political, economic, military, cultural), whereas the reign of God that Jesus taught and modeled flourishes—counter-intuitively and paradoxically—by what he calls "power under" others, a radically counter-cultural mandate for an alternative ordering of human affairs. He did not allow himself to be co-opted by any political ideology or party of the day. From his birth when King Herod tried to murder him until his death at the hands of Pilate, Jesus threatened the political powers of his day, not because he sought to control what they controlled but because "he undercut its pretensions and claims to supremacy" (Wills). If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not Lord. Thus, concludes Garry Wills, Jesus did not acquiesce in silence before political power, he confronted it, so that "the program of Jesus' reign can be seen as a systematic antipolitics" (What Jesus Meant).

Have you ever seen a miracle? Would you like to see one? Why? What would it do for you? There were serious obstacles to belief then and there are even more serious obstacles to faith now. Remember, the feeding of the 5000 was not a proof but rather a sign pointing in a direction. A sign that the people did not accept. I like what Jean Vanier suggests: “Today, some two thousand years after the event some of us may smile cynically: miracles! As if they were wholesome stories intended for children. We may laugh and say: ‘How wonderful if Jesus were present today. We would not have to go out and buy bread!” He continues: “Jesus reveals a caring God, a God who is concerned for our well being and wants us to be well.... It is not just a miracle of multiplying food but also of creating and building a caring community where people are concerned for one another.” p.119 Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus in the Gospel of John.

Reflecting upon the experience of the people in the wilderness, Jesus said: John 6:48 I am the bread of life.   49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.   50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.   51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

What strong language! The metaphor of eating his flesh sounds positively cannibalistic. The passage before us is acknowledged to be Eucharistic. The Aramaic with which Jesus spoke had no distinct word for body as in Greek. So the reference to flesh is quite likely original. Various commentators have pointed out that the passage is awkward in its placement. - What would the crowd understand?Did they not have a right to be confused?

But what Jesus is saying is that where we belong is near to the heart of God. The next time you partake of communion may you appreciate anew that you are engaged in a very intimate act where Jesus mysteriously comes to you in the bread and wine and makes his dwelling with you. Rev. 3:20   Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

"That's when I want you—you knower of my emptiness, you unspeaking partner to my sorrow. That's when I need you, God, like food," wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in his Book of Hours. Rilke's intense hunger for God is one known and expressed throughout our faith tradition, from the Israelites' walk to freedom, to Jesus. From Elijah, who promised that "they shall eat and there shall be some left over" (2 Kings 4:43) to Jesus, God always provides extra.

In some of the most powerful writings of the New Testament, John describes the embodied God as our only source of nourishment and true life. In Christ our deep hunger and loneliness is fully satisfied: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever" (John 6:51). Realistically, Jesus reminds us in the Lord’s prayer of how important this nourishment of bread really is. Give us today, our daily bread.

Come to the God of abundance who from meagre resources not only filled the crowd, but there was an exceeding overflow of twelve baskets.