2 August 2015

Bread from Heaven

A Sermon for Proper 13(18)B

Even those of us who, like me, have never been on a wilderness trek, know that it is a bad idea to run out of supplies in the middle. But such was the hurry and danger in which the Israelites left Egypt that we find them in this morning's reading deep in the wilderness of the Sinai desert without any food. No meat or veggies, no bread, and needless to say no cellphones! No way to order in out there. And suddenly what they remember about Egypt is no longer the forced labour and cruel treatment. They long to go back and once again enjoy the plentiful bread of slavery and the greasy stew pots by which they sat when the work was done. Nostalgia is powerful, and often a traitor -- I would not be 16 again for anything in the world, but you would not always know it from my iPod.

Swayed by fear and nostalgia, the reaction of the people is about what we would expect -- all they can think about is the danger of death from starvation or thirst. The people lose faith in Moses. They lose faith in God.

But Moses has not given up on them, and neither has YHWH. The Lord did not bring a people out of Egypt to allow them to die in the desert. So the Lord tells Moses, "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'" Thereafter, they were nourished by quail by night and manna in the morning. When the people ask what the manna is, Moses tells them it is the bread the Lord has given them. The Lord, however, calls it bread from Heaven. Later the Psalmist calls it the bread of angels.

The Lord's providing food for the people is part of a larger project on God's part, whose object is to teach them to rely upon God and trust in God's providence and plan. It is not something that happens quickly or easily, as we learn from the rest of the Pentateuch.

The crowd that follows Jesus into the hill country around the shore of the Sea of Galilee around Passover time, whom we first hear about in last Sunday's gospel, are in much the same situation. They too have come out into wilderness, not in search of freedom from slavery, but in search of healing and wholeness. It was hearing about what Jesus was doing for the sick that brought them. There they too were suffering from lack of food when Jesus fed them with bread and fish, making a handful of loaves and fish into a plentiful meal.

Such miraculous provision of food in abundance would have made many think about the Messianic feast, a time in which all will enjoy the plenty of the age to come, based on Isaiah's reflections on the banquet that YHWH will prepare for YHWH's people. They naturally saw Jesus as the Messiah. The wilderness setting and the Passover season, with its strong reminiscences of the Exodus, got others thinking about the manna, food for a desert journey and bread from heaven.

Today's gospel reading follows Jesus from the place where he multiplied the loaves and fish back to his home in Capernaum, where he goes to escape the over-enthusiastic elements in the crowd. Some at least of those who had been fed followed him there. They have one of those conversations with Jesus, so common in John's Gospel, in which everyone seems to be talking past one other in their questions and answers. In fact, that's not what's happening, because both are talking about doing the work of God -- what it is and how to do it. And from this conversation emerges suddenly the manna in the wilderness. This seems to be what Jesus was waiting for.

As the crowd adjusted to the idea that those who had over-enthusiastically tried to make a king of Jesus in recognition that he was Messiah and prophet were mistaken, some of them took in that what he was asking them for was not that, but to trust that Jesus was the one whom the Lord has sent. That's why despite having just been part of an extraordinary sign they are still asking for a sign, and why they speak of the manna -- if the meal provided so miraculously and lavishly was not a sign of the Messianic banquet, was it somehow connected with the sign of the manna?

And Jesus does not reject their request for a sign, as he rejects other such requests in the gospels. Instead he reminds them that it was God, not Moses, who gave the manna, and tells them that he himself is the sign, because he is the bread that comes down from heaven, the bread of life. Jesus is the manna. Our reading breaks off here -- we must wait for several more Sunday readings to hear all of Jesus' preaching about the bread of life, full of Eucharistic images, which follows. So today our key to the meaning of the bread of life is the Exodus gift of manna.

Outside of these passages from Exodus, the Psalms, and John, there are not many references to manna in the Bible. Perhaps the most important and helpful to us comes from Deuteronomy, where Moses reminds the people that the Lord "humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." So, at least to the Deuteronomist, who had meditated profoundly on the meaning of the first four books of the Bible, the point of the manna was to make humankind understand that we are not fed by material food alone, but the spiritual food of God's word.

In these two stories of manna, the grain of heaven, as the Psalmist says, we see that when God's people are lost in the wilderness, God does not abandon them. Whether it is the Israelites wandering in the wilderness of Sinai or a group of villagers bent on following Jesus into the hill country of Galilee, God is with us and God sends us manna. The word 'manna' is like the Hebrew for the phrase 'what is it': the Israelites gave it that name because they didn't know what it was or what to call it. In the same way we don't have the words for what God provides for us in this bread from Heaven.

We know however that under the sign of physical nourishment, the mysterious manna and the homely bread and fish, God gives us the spiritual nourishment of God's word. Indeed what Jesus tells us in our gospel reading is that through the bread of life we receive the spiritual nourishment of the Divine Word, the Logos by whom the world was made. I don't think that it's giving too much away of what comes next to say that this story of the manna and the meaning Jesus gives to us is exactly analogous to the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the reality of Jesus' abiding presence which it represents.

So what should we do with this gracious gift of heavenly bread? First and foremost of course we should accept it with love and gratitude. Once again God, our Creator and Parent, gives us what we need to nourish ourselves spiritually. But then we need to ask what we are being nourished for. It is not so that we can cultivate our own individual spiritual needs. No, we are being nourished spiritually so that we can do the work of God, as Jesus says. God's work in this world is as diverse as we ourselves: we must take hold of our share in this work and, nourished by the bread of life, do it with loving enthusiasm and diligence.

To put it another way, as Paul does in the epistle, we have received God's gifts for building up the body of Christ. Jesus and Paul both use organic metaphors to describe God's gifts and their effects on us; Jesus speaks of the heavenly bread that nourishes us, Paul speaks of men and woman forming a spiritual body. But the point is the same. The spiritual gifts we receive from God are meant to empower us to do God's work in the world and to build up Christ's body. Paul reminds us to use our gifts to become the leaders and servants of the community that God desires "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ". That is a very big job for us as God's people, and we each as Paul teaches bring different gifts and abilities to the task, though we are all taught by God, recipients of God's gracious gifts. We need the heavenly bread of God's Incarnate Word, taken, blest, broken, and given out among us as it will be in just a short time, to do the job, to build up the body of Christ and to believe in Jesus, on whom the Father has set his seal.

May God grant us God's gift of heavenly manna and the grace to use it to fulfil God's will for us and all God's people. Amen.