John 6:35 Good News Translation
35 “I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.
I have always thought that this passage in the gospel of John, that we have just heard today, is somewhat of a ‘superstar’ passage in the Bible. It is one of those texts that even those who are not Christian are familiar with, one might say a favourite quote. In many ways it is essentially tied to the core of our beliefs. Jesus tells us that it is through him, through his love that is the love of God, that we achieve salvation. He tells us that through his sacrifice we are saved, and that his intervention provides to our greater needs, the ones that cannot be sated by the things of this world. It is a message full of hope, and that hope has become the basis of our belief. Jesus is the bread that comes from Heaven, and it is through that that all our needs will be satisfied.
Yet however beautiful this message, I have also always found that in many ways, perhaps precisely because it is so familiar and well-known and, in a certain sense, a Christian favourite, this passage can also be very dangerous. If we look back at the history of Christianity, from its beginning up to this point where we are standing now, we can easily see that there has always been a risk of our attention being too focussed, so to speak, onto the promise at the end of the road, to the point of forgetting or even disregarding the material needs of those around us. We may start thinking that because of the promise that through the bread that comes from Heaven we will all be fed, then it is far less important that we have enough of the material bread that feeds us here on Earth. Even riskier, there is a certain rhetoric that rears its head every now and then that sufferings and deprivations that happen to those around us will be compensated in the Kingdom of God, with the implication that it is perhaps not necessary to address them in the here and now, because at the ultimate end justice will prevail in any case. We may end up believing that the material bread that feeds us, and the other material needs that we have in this life – the clothes, the homes, the friendship and fellowship of others, even the pasttimes and entertainments – are after all unimportant, because the only thing truly of importance is that we partake of the bread of Heaven, and as long as we do, all will be well. It’s like a coin that has hope on one side, but the dangerous other side of that same coin is inaction, or resignation. Worse even, a skewed perspective on these ideas can justify decisions that end up harming people. I am sure you can all think of at least one politician that claimed at some point that their actions were informed by their faith – I am Italian, and in my country this is a very common occurrence – and very often those very same politicians stand by cuts to services and support to the poorest and most vulnerable, the ones that are most in need of material help. An excessive attention to morals and spiritual matters may cause a lack of intervention in the practical matters that represent an immediate crisis. The Kingdom of God is not some kind of idyllic endgoal that awaits at an end of the road that is not quite yet in sight; by Jesus’ sacrifice the Kingdom of God is already alive among us, and part of bringing it to life on a daily basis is also by helping those who are in need with concrete, material help – giving bread to the hungry and water to the thirsty, clothes to those who are cold and a home to those who are homeless, and our love and support to those who need it.
1 Kings 19:4-8 Good News Translation
4 Elijah walked a whole day into the wilderness. He stopped and sat down in the shade of a tree and wished he would die. “It’s too much, Lord,” he prayed. “Take away my life; I might as well be dead!”
5 He lay down under the tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said, “Wake up and eat.” 6 He looked around and saw a loaf of bread and a jar of water near his head. He ate and drank and lay down again. 7 The LORD’s angel returned and woke him up a second time, saying, “Get up and eat, or the trip will be too much for you.” 8 Elijah got up, ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to walk forty days to Sinai, the holy mountain.
Let us look at the passage from the book of Kings. Here we have the prophet Elijah, embarking, as Jewish prophets often did at the time, in a difficult trip through the wilderness. Elijah’s situation was particularly bad, as he had previously got on the bad side of king Ahab, who was not a forgiving ruler. So we can easily imagine that that trip, already in a very difficult and demanding environment, might have been particularly difficult for him. When he finally lays down, he is in desperate need of rest. He doesn’t think he can make it; he is starting to think that death might be preferable to the pain. It is at this point that God intervenes to support and help his prophet. Yet God’s intervention is, we might say, extremely pragmatic: twice he gives his help to Elijah, and he does not so through flamboyant visions or spectacular manifestations, but by giving him food and drink so that he can sustain himself through the rest of the trip. The angel of God even explicitly tells him so, sounding a bit like our mothers when we are away on a work trip: remember to eat, or you won’t be strong enough to travel. Elijah is an important part in God’s greater plan of salvation, but in the here and now his material needs are also important, and God provides to them first. It is thanks to that food and drink that Elijah can complete his trip, and come to play his part in God’s plan.
Even though we may not be journeying through a desert, we too can come to a point where we feel weary and incapable of going on, feeling like the pain we suffer or the pressure that is imposed upon us is simply too much. The people who are our companions on the road that is life may also be tired and in need of rest. We can be to them what the angel of God is to Elijah, telling them to stop and gather their strengths, helping them to be equipped for the rest of the road. Very often what those people are in need of so that they can go on is really something very practical: a real plate of food, a real glass of water. A small gesture like cooking dinner for someone who is hurt, or scared, or grieving, can be an important, material help to that person in a difficult moment. Helping a depressed friend wash the dishes, inviting someone who is short on money over for dinner, buying a coffee for someone who is fearfully awaiting a legal decision that might change their life, are all ways in which we bring the Kingdom of God to life on Earth, here and now, the concrete representation of the promise made by Jesus.
We live in a country that at this moment in time does not always easily manage to feed its people. More and more people live below the poverty line, food banks are feeling the strain, and fearmongering in the newspaper concerning brexit and potential food shortages are not helping the situation. I have only recently learnt about something truly appalling called holiday hunger, where families are struggling to feed their children who during the rest of the year would be entitled to school meals. These are all situations in which we can intervene and play our part, however small, in literally feeding those who are in need. We too, like the angel, can say: sit and eat, because you need it for your trip. The bread of Heaven never feeds us as much as it does when we help others be fed with the material bread of Earth.
Chiara Strazzulla’s Sunday Sermon 12th August 2018