We look forward to welcoming Gabrielle for her final week with us! Her enthusiasm and wisdom is such a joy! Gabrielle is very active in her home church in Langley participating in everything from pastoral care and prayer shawls to leading worship in other church communities and seniors’ homes. She also likes gardening and enjoys trying to keep up with her five grandchildren! Welcome back, Gabrielle!
“Being the Bread of Life”
John 6:22-35 ~ August 1, 2021 ~ Northwood United Church ~ Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld
When I was at VST, we had a visiting lecturer from Brazil. Her name was Sister Maria Teresa Porcillo-Santiso. She came to share her stories, and to open our eyes to new ways of seeing God. In one story, she described her work with a group of women from a poverty-stricken area. She would visit them to pray, and to lead a bible study each week. As is usual in this kind of ministry, there never seems to be enough time to do everything, or enough energy to meet all the demands. And so, after many months of faithful leadership, Sister Maria Teresa decided she would have to give up a few of her activities. She met with the group of women, for the last time. “You will have to continue on your own. I just can’t keep up with everything anymore.” Some of the women were disappointed. Some were sorrowful. They wanted her to stay. She had to refuse. Then one of them asked her: “When did you eat last?” “Well, I had breakfast before I came here” she answered. The woman went around the group and asked the same question.
One person said she had eaten a meal the day before. Another had given all her food to her children. One woman had had no food for two days. And so it went. There was never enough to go around. “Don’t you see, Sister, you are our bread. It is your leadership here that sustains us, gives us faith to keep going. You cannot leave us. You are the bread of life.” And so Sister Maria Theresa stayed. Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.” They had followed him, across the water, to Capernaum. Groupies, we called them a few years ago. You know, the ones who run after rock stars, to get autographs, or a thread from their clothing. Mobbed together, enchanted by the charisma, the glitter, the wonder of a leader who will entertain, give them satisfaction, take them out of their dull lives and feed their hunger for novelty. But this was no star. Jesus didn’t want to be a king. He saw through their shallow adoration, and told them the truth.
“You didn’t come to me because you saw signs of the Kingdom approaching, you came because you had been fed. Stop spending your time and money on expendables, and get down to the business of finding eternal life.” “OK, what do we have to do?” “Believe in the One whom God has sent.” “How do we know, prove yourself to us. Do some fancy miracles again. Entertain us, change our lives, give us, on a silver platter, the real meaning of existence - that Bread from Heaven that God sent to our ancestors.” And Jesus said “I am the bread of life.” But they were no longer listening, because what he said was too difficult for them. It carried no prestige, no glamour. He couldn’t autograph their bits of paper, and his simple clothing was not worth tearing up to take home and frame. Not a spangle or a sparkle to be seen, anywhere.
Jesus didn’t offer them what they thought they wanted; only hard work, and a call to discipleship. They wanted signs – a big thing in John’s gospel. They wanted something out of the ordinary. They wanted the easy way, and Jesus offered them a story of suffering and death. They wanted free food, and Jesus told them to care for one another. They had eaten their fill, but somehow, they were still hungry. John is trying to explain who Jesus is, and he does it in a pattern that is spread over this gospel for the last few months. You have probably heard some of these passages, either this year, or in the past. And the people he talks to often misinterpret his message. In one story, Jesus talks about the temple of God, and the people think he means a building. In one of the Easter readings, he talks about being born anew, or from above, and Nicodemus asks how one can be born from his mother’s womb a second time. In a third story, Jesus says he is living water, and the woman at the well thinks of the effort of carrying water, and how he could help her. And now, Jesus talks of the bread of life, and the people think only of their next meal. They want specifics, things they can do. Jesus is telling them how to be.
In this chapter, John leads us from the feeding of the 5,000, to talking of the bread of life, - today’s reading - and in later parts will tell of the bread of eternal life, then about partaking of his body and blood, and finally offers some difficult words about true belief and discipleship. It is an orderly progression that pulls us further and further into the meaning of his mission and our relationship with God. This week, look at chapter 6 of John’s gospel, and see where you fit in. We sometimes get overcome and overwhelmed by the gospel message, and we take it at face value, and leave it there. It’s easy to think of this gospel story as saying that when you are no longer hungry, you must rise to higher levels in your relationship with God.
Today, I would like to suggest that when we are no longer hungry we need to reach down and bring others up to the level of sustenance that we have enjoyed as the privileged people of the world.
Reach out and make an attempt to equalize resources, education, opportunities, security. We need to offer everything that we can, so that others maybe enriched by the privileges that we have. This, to me, is sound Christian witness. This is doing and being the people of God. It is in this sharing that we will find what is of real value in our life and our community. There is a spiritual transformation that comes to us when we feed others. There is a learning and a wisdom that we gain when we open ourselves to the suffering of our neighbours. Yes, Jesus is our bread of life. And Jesus calls us to be bread to others. We can offer basic bread, food for survival, as we contribute to the food banks, send donations to First United Church, open our doors to organizations that need space for their programs. We can offer extra bread, to make life full and joyful, by giving what goes beyond the basics.
And, finally we can offer to walk with people on their journey, to accompany them so that they know the touch of God and the promise of salvation. By working for justice and reconciliation, we can empower people to take control of their own lives. Not for our own gain or satisfaction, but because it is our call to righteousness. God does not ask us to deny ourselves the basics of life. But after we have enjoyed them, we look again at the call of Jesus, to work for a better world. God challenges us, indeed, trusts us, to be the bread of life to others. To feed their hunger for food, and act out the good news of Jesus Christ. During this long time of restricted worship, and lack of contact with family and friends, we have had to find ways to keep up our spirits. At the United Churches of Langley, we have a whole group of people who just phone others weekly, or occasionally, to say “hi” and keep in touch.
Last week, I called a woman on my list who is in an assisted living senior’s complex. She’s in her eighties, confined to a wheelchair. Her family live in other parts of B.C. Like many others in senior’s facilities, she has been isolated, yet she is the one I call when I need a lift. She is bread for the soul.
When everyone was confined to their room, even for meals, she organized the people on her floor to get together for tea each afternoon. They sat in the doorways when tea and biscuits came around, and chatted from there. She was unfazed by the idea that when they could go down to the dining room in shifts, for meals, they had to sit a separate tables. “We just talk a little louder.” She was delighted when activities resumed, even though people had to take turns with some popular events. She had nothing but good things to say about the staff; even when others complained, she realized how hard it was to work in those conditions.
I told her that one of the things that gave me strength during the pandemic was the stories I have been told by people in London during the blitz, and how resilient they were. She shared a memory of living in central England as a child, and how the rationing allowed each child three bananas a month. At the age of eight, she considered an elderly neighbour who had no family, and always gave her one of the bananas. She offered, not only ordinary food, but food for the spirit. Jesus said “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus invites us to come to him. Jesus invites us to bring others to him. Jesus invites us to become the bread of life for those in need, and in doing so, to be filled with the food that endures for eternal life.
Today, as we celebrate communion, as you hold in your hands a piece of bread, as you take a sip from your cup, remember what this sacrament is all about. Together, we are participating in the great story of salvation, we are taking up the challenge to work together to bring in the Kingdom.
Are you ready? Will you follow? Not for your own gain, but for the sake of the world, and the beloved Son who came to save.