Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; John 6.24-35
St Michael’s AL3 4SL; 5th August 2018
Ten years ago a legal battle broke out among members of Sixties boyband Procul Harum. The dispute concerned copyright of their most famous song A Whiter Shade of Pale. The matter went all the way to the House of Lords where keyboardist Matthew Fisher eventually won his fight to be recognised as co-author of the music. Success for Fisher, but spare a thought for another musician who has missed out on his share of the royalties. Sadly one J.S. Bach has been too busy de-composing to point out that Procul Harum adapted his tune from 2½ centuries earlier. Then again, Bach himself was a great borrower, re-using many melodies from the earlier Germanic tradition.
The honest truth is that all the best tunes riff off one another. And what is true of songs is also true of sermons. I gather ideas like a magpie from people I hear or read. And I find myself in good company – because Jesus did the same. Did you spot the similarities between this morning’s first text from Exodus chapter 16 and the gospel from John 6? The Exodus passage comes straight after the flight of the Israelites across the Red Sea and describes the time when God fed them on water and quails and the strange bread called manna. John 6 contains many echoes of Exodus 16: Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee, and begins a conversation about the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the famous miracle narrative which we heard last Sunday. The similarities between the two passages are so striking that the first hearers of John 6 would have recognised it as ‘midrash’, a rabbinic commentary, on Exodus 16. This means that we need to analyse both texts together if we are going to grasp what Jesus wants to tell us about the Bread of Life.
At the heart of the Bread of Life discourse are truths about Jesus’ identity and purpose.
Jesus as Gift, is so wonderfully greater than the manna of Exodus 16. The Israelites were told to gather up just enough manna for the day. God would give them what they needed for 24 hours’ sustenance – but no more. And of course the manna brought only physical nourishment. As Jesus reminds his audience a little later in John 6, ‘your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and died. But the one who eats the bread which I give shall live forever.’ Jesus is offering a fundamentally greater nourishment than the food which the Israelites received. He says that he gives ‘real’ bread – ‘true’ bread (verse 32) – not food which perishes but that which endures for eternal life (verse 27).
So Jesus is saying that the food (which is himself) is like the manna of the wilderness, only better. Let’s explore two contemporary ideas about manna which help explain Jesus’ interest in it.
‘rained down manna also upon them for to eat : and gave them food from heaven.
So man did eat angels’ food : for he sent them meat enough.’
Jesus as manna, then, is offering us even that which sustains the angels in heaven.
So the Feeding of the 5000 is a sign which points to Jesus being something like the food of angels and like the manna which Jews associated with the Last Days. But Jesus does not call himself manna. Rather he talks about being the ‘Bread of Life’. By this he means two things. Firstly that he is ‘living bread’ – something which has life in itself – and, secondly, he is that which gives life – a foretaste of eternity.
This is amazing stuff. But how might Christians get to consume Jesus the bread of life?! The tradition has proposed two solutions. Some have said that we eat Jesus with our stomachs, others that we eat him with our hearts. These alternatives became subject to one of the classic ding-dongs between Catholics and Protestants during the period of the Reformation.
So what is it going to be? Is Jesus the Bread of Life in his Eucharistic presence or through his teaching? The truth probably lies somewhere in between, a both/and not an either/or.
I should note that to be fed by Jesus at Communion is not the same as accepting the idea of transubstantiation, the notion that the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Christ. I do not believe that this is possible because the story of the ascension tells us that Jesus’ body is in heaven not on earth. What I do believe is that in the mystery of our shared meal we are drawn up spiritually into heaven. Through an upward movement of our souls we join the worship of the saints around God’s throne. Sursum corda, lift up your hearts, we will shortly say.
In summary, we have seen that Jesus, as Gift and Giver, offers us the food of angels, a token of the messianic age.
He is ‘living bread’ – something which has life in itself – as well as bread which gives life – a foretaste of eternity.
And we receive this great gift in faith when we listen to his teaching and celebrate his eucharistic presence together.
Bread of heaven – feed me now and evermore. Amen.