Thursday, 29 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 4: “I am the Bread of Life” (on Maundy Thursday)

Reading: John 6.32-40
In these Holy Week addresses we are looking at Jesus’ I AM sayings in St John: I am the Door, I am the Resurrection and the Life, I am the Light of the World. On Maundy Thursday, we come to “I am the Bread of Life”. The words are from St John’s story of the feeding of the crowd with the five barley loaves and two fish from a young boy’s basket. “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’.” Just as Jesus the bread of life feeds the crowd, “as much as they wanted”, so tonight, Maundy Thursday, bread is our focus we celebrate this sacrament, this supper of the Lord that feeds the faithful until time shall end. 
St John’s account of the last supper focuses on how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and taught them about service and self-giving love. He doesn’t give us Jesus’ blessing over the bread and wine and the command to “do this in memory of me”. Instead, the author gives us the feeding of the five thousand and the teaching that follows it. Jesus explains how those material loaves that satisfied the people’s hunger represent “the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives light to the world”. He tells them not to become enslaved to the sign itself, but to focus on what it points to. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life which the Son of Man will give you.” “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” That’s St John’s way of reframing the words of the institution narrative in the eucharistic prayer: this is my body, this is my blood
When Jesus fed the crowd, it reminded them of how God had fed the Hebrews in the desert. “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’”. One of the Psalms recalls the Hebrews complaining, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Mortals ate the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance.” So St John imagines Jesus as a new Moses responding to the people’s need and giving them the food they craved. “I am the Bread of Life” – I am to you what Yahweh was to your ancestors in the desert. I give you what you ask for. Even if you do not know what to do with the truth that comes with this gift, for you have not yet learned how to recognise the Giver, not yet recognised that the bread with which I nourish you is nothing less than “God’s presence and his very self, and essence all divine”.
St John tells us that the feeding of the crowd took place near Passover time. The blessing and breaking of bread played a central part in the Passover meal, as did the sharing of wine. So when Jesus feeds the five thousand, he is symbolically reaching back to that Passover story of deliverance and redemption. Which is why he speaks repeatedly about God raising the dead and giving them eternal life, no longer coming under judgment but passing over “from death to life”. 
Maundy Thursday is inextricably linked in the calendar to the season of the Jewish Passover. These three days of the Triduum, Maundy Thursday evening to the Vigil eucharist when we greet Easter only makes sense if we grasp how the Passover underlies them and gives them meaning. For this journey from death to resurrection has its origins in that story our Jewish brothers and sisters recount every spring time, how an enslaved people were redeemed, given back their lives, were brought out into freedom as new possibilities opened up before them. 
All these layers of story and association are embedded in those simple words “I am the bread of life”, or as I think it’s better translated, “I am the living bread”. To eat of that bread is to be taken directly to the where Jesus’ body is broken on the cross, laid down for his friends, for us here tonight, and for all humanity. Tomorrow will take us to the place of the skull where we shall gaze once again on the spectacle of sacrificial love. But throughout the Passion, whether it’s tonight in the upper room or tomorrow at Golgotha, resurrection is always in view. “This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” Which is why this meal is not only a last supper but a first. Even though it is overshadowed by the cross, it nevertheless looks forward to the banquet of God’s kingdom when the whole creation, liberated from bondage and pain, will feast before God in glad celebration. 
We have the symbol, but not yet the reality it points to. In a thousand different places of famine or warfare, the hungry still cry out for their food, just as the Hebrews did. “Where to get bread?” Will God, can God spread a table in these wildernesses? The answer this eucharist offers is, yes he can, and he will, but it is we human beings who must be the agents of his tender mercy. “Give us this bread always!” is the plea from that day to this. Our paschal celebrations that begin tonight only have integrity if we hear their cry. “Bread for myself is a material question” said Nikolai Berdyaev; “bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question.” The word Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, a command. The command is that we love one another. At this last supper with its washing of feet, the risen Jesus is among us as one who serves. We eat and drink together, and he calls us his friends. But not without asking us what it must mean for us to be friends to those who still cry out for daily bread. 
Malcolm Guite puts it like this.
Where to get bread? An ever-pressing question
That trembles on the lips of anxious mothers,
Bread for their families, bread for all these others;
A whole world on the margin of exhaustion.
And where that hunger has been satisfied
Where to get bread? The question still returns
In our abundance something starves and yearns
We crave fulfilment, crave and are denied.
And then comes One who speaks into our needs
Who opens out the secret hopes we cherish
Whose presence calls our hidden hearts to flourish
Whose words unfold in us like living seeds
Come to me, broken, hungry, incomplete,
I Am the Bread of Life, break Me and eat.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission

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