John 6: Bread from Heaven

Sunday 5th August 2012
Year B, The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
John 6:24-35

Although the account of the sojourn of the Chosen People in the wilderness set out in the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy is at worst two quasi parallel accounts serving the ecclesiastical purposes of authors writing up to 800 years after the events described and at best a retrospective marshalling of a ramshackle oral tradition, there is a single over-riding idea which stands out above the morass of law-making, ritual-justifying and doctrine-driving authorship which is that God is with and will always be with his people, and this presence is not symbolised, not allegorised, not analogised but is actualised in light, water and bread, respectively in the pillar of fire, in water flowing from the rock and in the daily gift of manna, in what we might call 'Old Sacraments'.

The theme of light and darkness in contrasting what is God and what is non-God is familiar from the opening words of Saint John's Gospel and it reaches down to us now although in a somewhat muted realisation as we are decreasingly familiar with total darkness and the fear that accompanies it, and it is striking how often John refers to the night, including the visit of Nicodemus, the exit of Judas from the Upper Room and, in a piece of unfinished business from last week, Jesus walks on water. And here we should pause for a moment to think about fire and water because the Chosen People had a deeply equivocal relationship with both. Fire comforts and cooks but it also destroys; it burns without consuming the bush and it flares in the night, above the heads of the travelling, bewildered people. As for water, it is essential for the survival of the people in the desert and its presence is precarious. But it is also regarded as a treacherous phenomenon in a large body like a lake or the sea; God causes Moses to strike the rock to induce water so that the people might live but Jesus walks on the water to show that the treacherous element can be conquered. The water that flows from the rock in the wilderness is reflected in the next Chapter of John, Chapter Seven (v38), where Jesus talks about "Living water" which is related to the Holy Spirit who, in the second verse of Genesis, moves above the waters, and water is associated with light in the Feast of Tabernacles which forms the backdrop to the whole of Jesus' major discourse in Chapters 6-8 of John.

But the crux of Chapter 6 is the nature of bread, which is associated with life itself and which embodies in its existence not only water and fire but also earth and spirit: the forest auto-combusts into fire; animals drink water; but only humans bake and eat bread.

And, not surprisingly, bread is the subject of a sharp controversy in the desert between human competence and divine intervention. At the Passover, the normal, artistic, yeast-based, bread making process, the thing that makes humans human, is abridged, is limited to the unleavened; and now, in the desert, there is no baking at all, just a mixing of manna with water; the human skill is no longer significant and what replaces it, what goads the Chosen People, is their utter and complete helplessness and their total dependence on God.

This history of the human and divine relationship, of dependence and conflict, was part of the religious and emotional heritage of the people who stood in front of Jesus as he taught in the Temple precinct during the Feast of Tabernacles; and everybody knew of the daily ritual of placing the shew bread in the Tabernacle, in the fixed place, which nonetheless represented the original tent of the Holy of Holies. And so when Jesus says that he is the Bread from Heaven sent down by God, the statement is, because of its very historicity, deeply radical. Jesus was calling upon a tradition of God's bread from heaven that had lasted more than a thousand years and which was, literally enshrined in the daily ritual of the shew bread.

Even without the Catholic understanding which sees Chapter 6 as a specifically Eucharistic discourse, it is difficult to avoid the connection between Jesus designating himself as bread from heaven and his words of Eucharistic Institution and, again, we are faced with the stark use of the unequivocal verb "to be" as in "I am the bread of life" and, as Jesus blesses and breaks the bread, saying: "this is my body."

There have, as we all know, been two millennia of attempts by theologians to comprehend the Eucharistic mystery but this theological engagement is, we might say, much more like writing poetry than using the language of mathematics but, then, even mathematics is only an approximation which attempts to describe reality. Our post 'Enlightenment' sensibility tends to push us into dividing reality and mystery, assigning too much certainty to the former and denying the existence of the latter, but we have to pay attention faithfully to what the Bible tells us. At no time before Jesus was there a greater sense of heaven meeting earth than during Moses encounters with YHWH of which manna is the manifestation and, that being so, how much closer is that contact personified in Jesus, the bread of life  come down from Heaven.

Perhaps the cleavage between our reality and God's mystery is so much more marked now than it was for the Chosen People because of our sense of our own rational assurance and the tendency to want everything to be tied down. We know, in a way that the Chosen people did not, why it thunders and lightens and we therefore do not have the same sense of fear and awe in the face of the naturally spectacular and, at the same time, we are obsessed with eliminating risk and uncertainty. We might grumble at what we glibly call 'red tape' but as soon as something goes wrong we call for yet more regulation; and when we are faced with the onset of death or turbulence in the money markets we want a statistician to reduce our uncertainty to a verifiable probability. If the icon of the Chosen People was utter trust in YHWH, ours is the risk register. But the interface between earth and heaven, like all interfaces of the unlike, causes incalculable turbulence, such as that which we have experienced this year through anomalous weather  fronts. Just as the Chosen People found that their encounter with God threatened their own sense of themselves, so our encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist, in receiving the Bread of Heaven, makes us fittingly vulnerable.