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The Bread of Life

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday 5th August 2018

Some hymns lend themselves to being sung on a wide range of occasions.  “Guide me O thou great Redeemer” sung to its well known Welsh tune “Cwm Rhondda” often rings out whenever Welsh rugby supporters gather to hail and encourage their team. No doubt that’s mainly because Cwm Rhondda is recognised as being such a strong and affirming tune. Even so it’s become a favourite far beyond the borders of the nation it sprang from and can be heard at weddings and funerals as well as much else besides.

When an artistic creation – song, an image, a dance – gets taken over by popular culture it can lose touch with its original purpose. Singing the words “land me safe on Canaan’s side” may conjure the imagination of a rugby player crossing the try line to put down the ball. In reality, though, this poetic phrase speaks about something much deeper.

The hymn is based on the great, underlying theme of the Old Testament – the story of God’s desire for our freedom and well being as demonstrated by liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Yahweh tests their faith as Moses leads them through the wilderness on their rambling journey towards the Canaan, “land of my fathers.”  God’s people often find that having to trust in God’s word and benign purposes brings out the worst in them. Sometimes, however, times of trial bring out the best and we grow in faith through the experience. Today’s Old Testament reading is one such occasion. It’s sometimes said that an army marches on its stomach. The same could be true of a group of pilgrims on a long journey through difficult terrain. The book of Exodus shows us how much complaining the children of Israel do during their wilderness wanderings. Very quickly the pain and imprisonment of slavery fades from their memory and is replaced by the nagging and immediate challenges of hunger and thirst. Suddenly, all they can remember about Egypt is that at least there they had regular meals and a varied diet. Where does the fault lie for this unwelcome change of circumstances?  Obviously it’s the responsibility of Moses, they conclude, the one who convinced them that freedom was possible in the first place, and who followed God’s instructions to make this happen. 

Any one who has ever tried to lead a large group of people on foot from one place to another without the benefit of regular supplies of food and drink will sympathise with Moses in this predicament. Keeping people focused on moving forward when they are short of the basics of life and blame the absence on you, takes deep reserves of determination and strength. Yahweh intervenes with a solution that supports the leadership of Moses. First of all the Israelites benefit from a satisfying meal of roasted quail and then they awake to a refreshing drink of morning dew. Finally they are introduced to the bread of heaven which God will provide in plenty from now on each day. This is, without doubt, the finest bread they’ve ever tasted. There’s just one problem though. In order to benefit from this divine sustenance the Israelites need to learn to rely on God’s provision day by day. The manna which God will send them isn’t something that can be stored up and hoarded overnight. If they attempt to do so the food will simply go off and have to be thrown away. They will have to learn to trust, as they go to sleep each night, that God’s love will be renewed come the morning. This is the only way to be fed by God under these conditions.

The psalmist uses this pivotal story in Psalm 78. Whatever else they may do, the Israelites are not to forget how God feeds them. Moreover they must learn from the Exodus story that when God supplies us with the nourishment we need this happens in ways we can’t predict or control. Even so, his care and concern can be relied on without question.

Our response can be willingness, in the words of the Victorian hymn, “to trust and obey.”  Today’s Gospel ended with one of the great “I am” sayings we find in that Gospel – Jesus identifies himself as “the bread of life.” This follows an episode where Jesus has presided over the feeding of a crowd of five thousand. Five barley loaves and two fish have produced an incredible amount of leftovers – enough to fill twelve baskets. That event had ended somewhat ominously with the crowd trying to seize Jesus and proclaim him King, but he has managed to evade them and escape into the hills. Now, finding himself once more in the company of those who wanted to take him over, Jesus says he is well aware that physical hunger is the sole reason they’ve sought him out again. Instead of trying to end their bodily emptiness, he says, they should ask him for lasting “spiritual” food, “the food of eternal life.”

The conversation then turns back to the manna from heaven with which God fed the Israelites in the wilderness. In calling himself the “bread of life” Jesus is effectively identifying himself as the new food from heaven. We too can discover this provision afresh as we awake each morning and sense God’s love and concern. Like the food on which the Israelites learned to rely, Jesus and the nourishment he offers can be trusted and savoured but not hoarded or kept to ourselves. It’s almost impossible for many of us to think of Jesus as the bread of life without linking this to the language and symbolism of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass. In this shared meal we are reminded of other words from chapter six of John’s Gospel: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

There’s a deep intimacy about the idea of taking Jesus into our own bodies, through the sharing of the bread in the Eucharistic meal. We discover, through this ritual and gesture, the reality of being fed by Jesus even if the amount of bread we consume is only a small mouthful. When we are properly nourished by God, then a mature, balanced and life-enhancing Christian community results, as described by the apostle Paul in the letter we heard read as today’s epistle. Here each individual is able to develop the gifts they have received for the good of the whole, and people grow into maturity by modelling themselves on the example of Jesus Christ himself. Why does it matter that God is concerned to feed us and see us grow?; because without nourishment – both physical and spiritual – we all suffer.  And the opposite is also true; with a good, sound, wholesome diet our bodies thrive and are far more healthy; remaining hungry for God, and knowing how to be fed by God, is a good way to sustain our following of Jesus and our growth as his disciples. “Feed me now and evermore” is a good prayer to keep on our lips and in our hearts, as we go through life in the company of God.

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