Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 5th August 2012
5 August 2012 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Summer brings many joys, amongst them the joy of warm weather, though, if you are a visitor to England you will be sharply aware, not always or consistently warm or sunny. Perhaps above all the joys of summer is the joy of holidays and leisure. If you are from overseas here in London or for the Olympics, you are most welcome. I hope you can feel the pride. Generally you should be finding it surprisingly easy to get around. Though, with the women’s Olympic marathon taking place so near here, I should congratulate you on reaching the Abbey this morning.
One of the particular joys of the summer for me only comes round every three years. This summer is one of those years. Every three years, at the Eucharist, in Anglican and Roman Catholic churches as well as in many others, during Ordinary Time at the Gospel reading we work our way slowly verse by verse and chapter by chapter through the Gospel according to St Mark. In the first year of three we read St Matthew; in the second year, St Mark; and in the third year St Luke. St John’s Gospel has no year of its own but is mostly read dispersed through the other years and out of Ordinary Time.
The particular exception that always delights me, when it comes round in St Mark’s year, is that the sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel is read through on the last Sunday of July and the four Sundays of August. Today, we heard the second of five portions of that chapter.
The first, the beginning of the chapter, last week, was the account of the feeding of the 5,000. This is one of the seven great signs in St John. Our Lord feeds 5,000 people from the five barley loaves and two fish brought forward by a young child, a boy, and there are twelve baskets full of scraps left over. Today St John helps us to interpret the sign. All the miracle stories recorded in this Gospel point beyond themselves. They all have a meaning of profound importance for the life of people seeking to follow the way of Christ, for the life of the Church.
So, what for St John is the point of this sign, the feeding of the 5,000? Let’s look at what is happening. When the 5,000 have been so impressed by what Jesus has done that they have tried to take him by force to make him their earthly ruler, he has escaped with his disciples and gone to Capernaum. In today’s Gospel, we see that the crowd has caught up with Jesus. They ask him a question, which he ignores. Instead of answering, he accuses them, or perhaps teases them, with only following him because they want more food to fill their bellies.
‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’
Jesus goes on to give the crowd an instruction that points towards the meaning of the sign: some food perishes but there is a food that endures.
‘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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’
Food that perishes – that we can understand: the bread that fills our bellies. But what is the food that endures for eternal life? St John builds the tension. The crowd only gets there slowly. First, they want to understand what they must do to perform the works of God. Jesus is direct with them. ‘This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom he has sent.’
Consistently through his Gospel, St John explores the question how different people come to believe in ‘him whom God has sent’, in Jesus Christ our Lord. The disciples believe in him at Cana of Galilee – but only up to a point. Later in the Gospel, we see first the beloved disciple and later St Thomas seeing and believing, this time in the risen Lord. In chapter 20 we hear, ‘Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first,’ that is the beloved disciple, ‘also went in, and he saw and believed.’ Then later we hear our risen Lord say to St Thomas, doubting Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas replies, ‘My Lord and my God!’ What St John recounts Jesus saying next is really important, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ [St John 20] That is of course for us who have not seen. How have we come to believe?
Back to chapter 6. The crowd wants to know that too. Why should they believe in Jesus as Lord and God? After all, they remember the great sign of the feeding of their ancestors, the people of Israel in the desert, about which we heard in the first reading this morning. ‘What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness.’ It’s not easy for them to come to believe in this new wonder worker as a man from God. They have their Moses. But Jesus makes it clear that the gift of bread in the wilderness passed away. The gift he brings is eternal.
‘It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’
The sign points to our Lord. He is the gift of bread that is unlike the five barley loaves and two fish the crowd ate, that is unlike the bread their ancestors ate in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. This bread, this gift, will satisfy us always and never leave us hungry. Jesus is the food that endures to eternal life.
How do we receive this food? Later in the chapter it becomes ever clearer that for St John as for the early Church, as for the Church through the centuries, the means above all by which we come to receive Christ, and to be fed by him with the food that leads to eternal life, is through the Holy Eucharist, through the bread blessed and broken and the wine blessed and poured, through the Blessed Sacrament.
In a few moments, we shall be invited to receive the bread and wine which are the Body and Blood of Christ, the food of eternal life. Shall we turn away like the disciples for whom this was too difficult a sign? Or shall we come to believe, perhaps afresh, like the beloved disciple, and St Thomas, like so many Christians faced with the Eucharistic mystery through the ages? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
In the second reading this morning we heard St Paul encouraging the Ephesians to see the wonderful variety of gifts God had given the Church in that place. He describes the purpose of the gifts as being ‘for the building up of the Body of Christ’, one of his most powerful images for the Church. The Church, which is the Body of Christ, of which our Lord Jesus Christ himself is the Head, is formed of those who receive by the grace of the Holy Spirit the Body and Blood of Christ through the Holy Eucharist. The sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel develops our understanding of this mystery. May we all enjoy hearing it unfold this August!