The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The One God. Amen.
“He who eats the bread will live forever”
For the last three weeks we have been reading from the John 6 narrative of the feeding of the 5000 as well as the different sermons on bread. Jesus has been presented from two different perspectives: the first is that Jesus is the Bread in the sense of Jesus being the Word proceeding from God, and the second is Jesus is the Bread in the sense of the Eucharist consumed by the believing community in whom he abides.
One of the things that intrigues me this morning is that Jesus’ sermon at Capernaum is rejected by two groups, it is rejected by the Jews and by many Christians. The fact that the Jews did not accept Jesus’ words like, “eat my flesh, drink my blood” is not surprising. The disciples when hearing Jesus say “He who eats this bread will live forever” said, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” In addition, some of Jesus’ followers would certainly have had different understandings of what the Messiah would do, everything from being a “prophet like Moses” to a shopping list of all the wants that we have “when the Messiah comes”.
So here, in the midst of a sermon at Capernaum, Jesus creates a controversy, not unlike some of the controversies that we face in the Church today. Certainly throughout the history of the Church, the Church has faced controversies and we often forget that some of the fiercest battles took place during the life time of Jesus and immediately after his death and resurrection. The Bread narratives in the Gospel for today record some of these controversies.
Last Sunday morning from this pulpit, Steve Huber made a significant point when discussing the verse, “He who eats the bread will live forever.” Steve pointed out, the Gospel of John is speaking poetically and that it is explaining one of the great mysteries we all face, that is eternal life. Living forever with God. The disciples who considered this to be “difficult” were taking this saying literally. Instead of poetically trying to understand what Jesus was saying, Jesus’ disciples took the text literally. Reading the text literally is “difficult” but if we read the text poetically, indeed, if we eat this bread, we will live forever.
What did it mean for the followers of Jesus to hear the words, “He who eats this bread will live forever”? What does it mean for us today? We who are in the catholic tradition of the Church understand this phrase from a Eucharistic point of view. We who come to the table this morning to receive the bread and the wine of the Holy Communion, participate in the heavenly banquet feast. Every time we receive the bread and the wine, we are nourished to be the hands, the feet, the eyes, and the heart of Jesus in the world today. We are also preparing ourselves to celebrate and to participate in the heavenly banquet feast.
However, those of us who come out of a more Protestant tradition would understand this passage from a very different point of view. It would not carry the implications of the Eucharist/the Lord’s Supper; instead, Jesus himself is the bread of life, the Word, the Word that becomes flesh and dwells amongst us. Equally important is the spirit that gives life. The flesh is seen as useless (6:63). Instead it is the words that Jesus has spoken that give both spirit and life. In this tradition as well, we come to experience the poetry of John who says that the word becomes flesh and dwells with us.
“He who eats this bread will live forever.”
The Gospel for this morning clearly states that some of the disciples were not able to continue to follow Jesus because Jesus stated so clearly that his flesh is real food, and his blood, real drink. When some of the disciples broke away Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to go away? Simon Peter answered, “Lord to whom shall we go? It is you who has the words of eternal life … and we are convinced that you are God’s Holy One.”
While Jesus speaks in the Gospel about the bread of life in poetic language, it must also be said that Jesus’ first concern was always about feeding the hungry. The feeding of the 4–5,000 is a good example, that there was so much bread and fish left over that there is an abundance for everyone. But today there are many places in this world where there is no abundance, where there is no bread, there is no fish.
The Communications Director in the Anglican Communion Office, Jim Rosenthal, told an incredible story when he visited Sudan, for the first time, with Archbishop George Carey. It was New Year’s Eve, and the plane had arrived in Yambio, a remote Diocese in the south of Sudan. Over the trees, a cruciform Cathedral, which was a gift of the Australian Church to the Diocese, could be seen. What was exciting was the fact that there were thousands of people on hand to greet the Archbishop of Canterbury and his party, as he made this historic, unprecedented and dangerous visit. Everyone, although thin, gaunt and barely clothed, was singing, chanting, dancing, in thankfulness for the safe arrival of their visitors. The reality we all know is that the Sudan is plagued by endless conflicts. People have to live under the most severe circumstances, year after year. Civil strife and civil war are the daily menu.
This is a land where there is no sanitation, basically no food, certainly no water and as the Archbishop’s party made their way to the Bishop’s house, Jim asked the Bishop, “Sunday, tomorrow, is New Year’s Day. I can’t wait for the Eucharist. How many do you think will be attending?” “Ah”, the Bishop said, “Well tomorrow we literally expect thousands of people to be here at the Cathedral.” The Cathedral probably seated about 400. The next day the crowd estimated was nearly 20,000. The Bishop added, “Well, Jim, I ‘m sorry to disappoint you, but there will be no celebration of the Holy Eucharist. No Holy Communion.” Being curious, Jim asked, “Why?” The Bishop hung his head and said, humbly, “You see we have no bread or wine.” We have no bread. We have no wine.
We live in a country of abundance. We only know abundance. It is inconceivable that we would ever come here to the National Cathedral and be told that we have no bread, we have no wine. But the reality is that in many parts of the world, people have no food to eat, no water to drink.
I will never forget the day I was visiting St. Andrew’s Church in Chinka, Nigeria in the Diocese of Kaduna. We were confronted with a reality that I thought I would never see in my life. While we were having our little prayer service in the mudbrick church that held no more than 30 people, about 40 people of that congregation were standing outside bargaining over the price of a rat, a rat. We saw some people fighting, negotiating and struggling over a rat to be sold. What was the rat for? It was for food. Food. Protein! Can you imagine that this is what our fellow Christians in that part of the world look to for their daily sustenance? Here in Chinka I understood the prophetic words of Jesus, “He who eats the bread will live forever.”
One of the greatest sins we face today is the mismanagement of the resources which this earth provides. We have the ability to grow enough food. The earth has enough food and fresh water, but the challenge is often delivering food and water to those who need it the most. We also know the destructiveness of water; all we have to do is recall the horrors of Katrina last year and the broken levees in New Orleans. To experience poverty one does not have to go to Yambio or to Chinka. We saw it last year when 100,000 New Orleanians, mostly African Americans, were too poor to evacuate the city and then were left to fester in sub-human conditions. Michael Brown, the then director of FEMA, was quoted as saying, “We’re seeing people we didn’t know existed.” How did the poor become so invisible? Or more accurately, how did the rest of us become so blind? A special place has been prepared in the Holy Spirit Chapel here in the National Cathedral as a place for you to pray and so you can light votive candles as we prepare to remember the first anniversary of that national tragedy.
Recently during some severe floods in Mozambique a lovely event took place. A young woman gave birth to a baby in the branches of a tree while she was trying to escape the torrents of water which were raging just inches below her. The water could have taken her life. But out of that water came a new chance for this young girl. When the helicopter pilots brought the new mother and the new born child to the safety of the helicopter, I am sure Jesus was saying, “She who eats the bread will live forever.” Already she had tasted the gift of eternity.
We are so blessed. We are given the opportunity to use our resources so that people who have no bread to eat, no water to drink, will be able to share in our abundance. This last week I was in Cyprus and one day we were in the Troodos Mountains visiting the 11-14th century painted churches. In those Orthodox Churches, the entire interior of the Church is painted, the ceiling has beautiful frescoes of Jesus overlooking all of God’s creation. The painting on the upper level of the walls are frescoes of stories in Jesus’ life and the paintings on the lower level are of the local saints. We are all a part of God’s creation. We are all created in that perfect image of God and ultimately all of us will be a part of the frescoes on the wall as a continuum of the Saints.
When I prayed these different frescoes, I know that I was confronting Jesus today in each of us. Heaven and earth are joined together. We are a part of that bread that will live forever. Some of us are those disciples who can not understand that Jesus’ flesh is real food, and his blood, real drink. While some of us are convinced that Jesus is God’s Holy One.
It takes courage today to understand Jesus’ flesh is real food, and his blood, real drink. It is no less controversial today than it was for Jesus’ disciples. This Cathedral has committed itself to justice and reconciliation. It has committed itself to bring people together. This takes courage, lots of courage, but reconciliation is at the very core of Jesus’ Gospel. By doing this, heaven and earth will touch each other and truly we will be in a part of the divine fresco. Today we are a part of that great continuum of Saints.
The Bishop of Yambio in the Sudan challenges us, “We have no bread”, “We have no wine”. Today the people of St. Andrew’s Church, Chinka challenge us as a rat is sold to the highest bidder. Today that young woman and baby from Mozambique challenge us as they are lifted into the helicopter. Today 100,000 citizens from New Orleans challenge us to do something about the urban poor and the unjust structure that allow people to be invisible in this country.
How are we going to respond to the Bread that will live forever?
In the name of God. Amen.