9th August 2015 - Hugh Perry
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
The lectionary gives us snippets of a growing and continuing power struggle within the royal household and within the nation which is not uncommon among feudal monarchies, wealthy families and corporations and indeed democracies although the violence is more subtle or hidden in the contemporary world. The consequences of David’s lifestyle began to work themselves out and violence erupts among the king’s children, Absalom conspires to kill his brother Amnon because he raped their sister and eventually Absalom is led into open revolt against his father David. The carnage of the resulting civil war eventually puts Bathsheba’s son nearer to the throne.
John 6:35, 41-51
This section begins with verse 35 from last week’s reading to remind us of Jesus’ claim that he is ‘the bread of life’ and to clarify for us that we are still dealing with John’s communion theology begun with the feeding of the five thousand.
Jesus’ sermon continues to build his theology using rebuttal from the crowd as a prompt for Jesus to continue his argument, first by pointing out that God directs people to Jesus. The connection between the manna in the wilderness and Jesus feeding of the five thousand is made along with the idea that eating sustains the body, scripture feeds the soul and generous hospitality in remembrance of Jesus acts as support for those who have been called by God.
It was great to begin this morning’s service with the baptism of baby Evelyn and be part of welcoming her into our church especially as Evelyn is part of our Breakfast Church family. I never question the value of infant baptism because, although I was taken to be baptised by mildly agnostic parents, when eventually I felt God’s call on my life I knew where I belonged. As it is God, who calls us to Christ the Holy Spirit, later directed me to another denomination by cunningly using the sparkly eyes of a beautiful young Presbyterian. Nevertheless the nourishing of the embodiment of ‘Christ’ held in the Hebrew scripture and the Gospel narrative has never left me.
The two examples of scripture we read this morning give a contrast between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. I’ve never watched the ‘Game of Thrones’ but the promos certainly give the impression that our second Samuel reading could fit right into the plot. My mother was a Shakespeare enthusiast and this section of 2nd Samuel certainly fits the violent scheming of Macbeth or Richard the Third. Richard the third has been somewhat rehabilitated after his body was found buried under a Morris Minor but Shakespeare’s plays were based on history and succession squabbles in feudal monarchies were often violent.
Even in our time quite civilised families’ disputes over inheritance can separate siblings in intense legal disputes.
Multi-national corporations regularly discard loyal employees in search of greater profit. My limited experience of dealing with such companies gave me the impression that those within the management structure were more rewarded for making a good impression at the staff golf match than giving service to customers.
Behind all these struggles for wealth and power is our basic need for security and a mistrust of anyone other than ourselves.
That mistrust of others and personal insecurity is probably behind the millionaire who, after being evicted from a commercial airliner for not paying attention to the safety instructions, went out and bought his own jet.
Yet even in the struggles of David’s family there is recognition that humans live best in community although fear drives them to seek first the community of their relatives, then to rule that community and even to rule others.
Our Gospel reading, like all gospel readings, invites us to an alternative view of community living based of love, trust and empathy. A community Jesus called ‘The Kingdom of God.’
As we are not ruled by an absolute monarch we might understand the idea better if we referred to ‘the divine realm’ or something similar, a way of organising human society that follows spiritual principles of empathy and cooperation rather that human fear and domination of the many by the powerful few.
The episode we read from begins with the feeding of the five thousand where a small boy’s five loaves are somehow shared among five thousand people. This could be understood as a challenge to the commodity market through cooperation and sharing, a potluck picnic or the traditional magic miracle of the divine Jesus. However John is much more interested in telling his readers about what he believes about Jesus.
John’s Jesus gives us a long and complicated sermon about the identity of Christ and the theology of the Eucharist.
Unlike the other three gospels John does not have a last supper episode and as we follow this section through from the feeding event it becomes clear that this was indeed John’s communion episode. We can imagine the followers of Jesus coming together to share the memory of Jesus and all bringing food to share. Furthermore one of the resurrection episodes has Jesus sharing barbecued fish with his disciples. Following the story of the fishing episode where Jesus’ guidance yields an unprecedented catch of fish we read:
Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. (John 21:12,13) That is a very similar approach to what he did at the feeding of the five thousand and it is very much a communion service distribution except on this occasion it is a meeting with the Risen Christ called ‘Breakfast Church’.
In today’s passage the compiler of the lectionary reminds us of the previous episodes that are significant to today’s passage by beginning with verse thirty-five.
Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6; 35)
That is an extremely significant statement if we agree that struggles for wealth and power are inspired by fear of want. By living in the divine realm the fear of want is eliminated by the empathy and love we find in Jesus. The cooperation we witness in the feeding of the five thousand is a challenge to the market system that is designed to deliver profit rather than distribute food.
Even in our highly populated world that has evolved from wilderness journeys of migration upon migration the popular wisdom is that we can produce enough food to feed everybody but we can’t distribute it. At this very moment some of our dairy farmers are likely to go broke because the world of commodity trading has too much milk. As Tim Wilson pointed out on ‘Seven Sharp’ recently at least part of problem is that Europe has a trade embargo on Russia because of the fighting in the Ukraine. So Russians can’t buy European cheese and therefore Europe has too much milk. Furthermore our Christian Aid agencies continually tell us stories of communities where debt has forced a reliance on cash crops to the extent that there is no land left for the farmers to grow food for themselves and are not paid enough to buy food for their families. All of which sounds very like the ongoing ‘Game of Thrones’ that plays out its power struggles regardless of the misery it inflicts on ordinary people.
Jesus’ metaphor of being the bread of life that comes down from heaven focuses the reader away from physical bread to the spiritual nourishment that helps folk become the sort of people that transforms the world of power games into the divine realm.
Bread gives us carbohydrates that fuel our bodies but to gain the benefit of living in a human community our mind needs spiritual food. As Christians we find that food, that bread, in Jesus Christ. The closing verse this morning has Jesus say ‘Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of this world is my flesh.’ (John 6:51) There is certainly a sacrificial reference to the crucifixion which would fit the time the Gospel was written. However it can also be understood in terms of the scripture and tradition of Christ, which is remembered through the symbolic communion meal. In remembering Christ the ‘flesh’ is the embodiment of ‘Christ’ held in the Hebrew scripture and the Gospel narrative that feeds the soul.
Moving on from the claim that Jesus is the bread of life this passage builds on the theological understanding of Jesus by introducing the rebuttal of the crowd that know Jesus’ father and mother therefore can’t believe he come down from heaven. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is not credited with any good works because people know his family but here the healing and teaching is covered by the term ‘came down from heaven’. It is a rebuke of all those who ignore deeds of healing and transformation unless they are divinely certified by the appropriate religious authority. However we understand heaven it is a useful way of referring to a divine, rather than purely human influence in peoples’ lives. Furthermore our creedal understanding of Jesus is truly human and truly divine, something we can all aspire to.
Probably the most significant theological statement in this passage however is the idea that no one can come to Jesus unless drawn by God. (John 6: 44) God directs people to Jesus. That is an important message for evangelists and anyone intent on promoting church growth. In this time of church decline growth strategies are important so that there is a future church to teach the faith, encourage individual spiritual growth and carry out collectively those activities of healing and hope that we cannot achieve individually.
What this passage tells us however is that there is a division of labour. As individual Christians, and as a church, we must go about the works of Christ, healing the sick, offering hope and open hospitality and transforming individuals. We are called to live our faith so that the Risen Christ is made real to us. We must not divert ourselves from that calling to try and persuade people to join the church, give their lives to Jesus or whatever language we might use. We are instructed by this passage to accept the true bread of Christ that sustains our soul and with a vision of a better world than we have known. Nourished by such vision we are called to step into our world on a mission of transformation in the faith that God will call others to join us. Certainly our actions will make Christ known and we can answer questions the curious may ask us.
But we go in mission into our world in the faith that God will call people to the tasks the divine wisdom has assigned them to.
A successful mission church will offer hospitality to hundreds of people in a multiple ways but only a few will join. However some will and they will be the people Christ has called. Moved by mission to be Christ in the community with no strings attached some people will feel the call of Christ on their lives. They will reflect on the promises made for them at their baptism, or seek baptism. Such people will feed their spiritual growth on the Christ bread, the embodiment of ‘Christ’ held in the Hebrew scripture and the Gospel narrative. Those who God has called will be the people who take the church into the future.