Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; John 6.24-35
Jesus said, ‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’
Our Gospel reading from John’s Gospel this morning follows on from his telling of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that we heard last week. The crowd have gone looking for Jesus, this provider of bread, and, in the very characteristic style of John’s Gospel, Jesus reflects, and invites his hearers, then and now, to reflect, on what just happened.
As Paul in his sermon invited us to see last week, this feeding of the 5,000 – where Jesus took bread, gave thanks and shared it so that all were fed – this feeding is the Gospel of John’s Communion meal. In John’s account of the Last Supper on the night before Jesus died, we are told about the foot-washing of the disciples, but there is no sharing of bread or wine. This feeding, much earlier in John’s Gospel, is where Jesus takes bread, and blesses it and shares it. And if we were in any doubt about the significance of that, then today’s Gospel reading, this reflection on what just happened, makes it abundantly clear: ‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,’ says Jesus. Sir, give us this bread always, say the crowd. ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’
If today’s Gospel offers a reflection on the significance and meaning of the feeding of the 5,000, on John’s Communion meal, then we might best respond to that Gospel by reflecting together too, on what we think is going on when we gather to be fed, week by week. For it is surely the case that our prayer and practice is changed by seeing our communion meal not just as a re-presentation of Jesus’ Last Supper, but of this unlikely feeding of 5,000.
The most radical change is that it immediately places our communion in the context of scarcity. As we heard last week, the feeding happens as the disciples question the availability of food, and express their fear that they will never have enough to feed everyone. In the midst of that anxiety and fear about a scarcity of resources, the disciples, and the crowd, suddenly experience an abundance: that there is more than enough. And in today’s gospel, the crowd and Jesus reflect together on the feeding of the people of Israel in the desert, with bread from heaven. In the desert, the place of scarcity and anxiety, the people have to learn to trust in what will be provided each day. And that will be enough.
And so this meal, and the abundance it offers in place of scarcity, is not about being given something to be hoarded for a future date: it is about encountering what is enough for today, what feeds us today, what we need for today. It is why that moment when Jesus takes the bread, and give thanks for it, is central. The Greek word for that action of giving thanks is of course, Eucharisto, from which we get Eucharist. This is not simply about giving thanks, as a polite response to a gift. It is about recognising that this sharing, this meal, is what transforms our scarcity into abundance; that thanksgiving is what re-orients our world, so where we thought there is never enough for everyone, we suddenly recognise that actually, there is – if we learn to live, not by hoarding, but by faith and thanksgiving in God’s daily bread. Around this table, scarcity is transformed into abundance, not because there is suddenly masses of food, but because we recognise that what we need, God’s good gift for the life of the world, is available here for all. In a world where it is all too easy to be anxious about how there is going to be enough for everyone, particularly in a world where the climate is in crisis, this meal asks us to look again; if we live in thanksgiving for the provision of what we truly need, then we are transformed, and there is enough, more than enough.
For the gift given is, of course, Christ himself. Over my years of Christian faith, I’ve received communion in many different ways: as oatcakes and orange juice; in a loaf of bread and a common cup; as cubes of processed white bread and thimblefuls of grape juice; on a beach, up a mountain, in houses and churches, by a hospital bed. In large crowds, and in the intimacy of 2 people; gathered around an altar, processing in a long line. Even in recent months, we’ve had to get used to receiving it here in one kind only, or simply visually, online. And looking back over 2,000 years of Christian tradition that variety only increases. The point is not a sterile argument about which communion is valid, but about the fact that in each act of communion and thanksgiving, Christ comes to give himself for the life of the world; to transform our scarcity into his abundance. Whenever Christians have gathered, they have taken bread, and blessed it, and shared it – Christ broken and shared for the life of the world. And we do that because he did that – by a lakeside, in an upper room, with an intimate few, and in a massive heaving, pressing crowd. And each time Christ gives of himself, and the new creation that is seen in him comes into being.
And so we give thanks, and break and share the bread, not simply for ourselves, but, as he did, for the life of our world. The transformation we celebrate in every act of communion, in every abundant meal, is not simply of the bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood; it is of that transformation also being ours.
Hear us most merciful Father, we pray, and send your Holy Spirit upon us, and upon this bread and this wine, that, overshadowed by your Spirit’s life-giving power, they may be the Body and Blood of your Son, and we may be kindled with the fire of your love and renewed for the service of your kingdom.
That prayer deliberately intertwines the transformation of bread and wine with our transformation; Christ’s giving of himself, with our becoming his body; the sharing of this meal with the kindling of love and the service of Christ’s kingdom. The kingdom where scarcity becomes abundance. It is into that transformation that we are invited by the power of the Spirit each time we gather to share communion.
Christ gives himself, so that we learn that that is enough. What we most truly need is here. And what is here transforms us. Bread is taken, and blessed and broken and shared; and we are gathered, and blessed, and broken and shared. The transformation of bread is both the new creation in Christ and the ongoing transformation of us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.