St Michael’s 26th September 2010
Reading – John 6:53-71
Have you ever felt hungry? I mean really, really hungry. With that big aching feeling in your tummy, maybe feeling slightly light-headed, and definitely, totally fixated on when you can next eat. Do you know the kind of hunger that I mean? Well, if that’s how you feel right this moment, then we have lots of lovely cake to eat at the end of the service … but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait till then.
But today I want to talk about a different kind of hunger. Not a physical hunger, a feeling of “I’ve got to eat something and I’ve got eat it now” but a spiritual hunger, a sort of real craving to meet with God, a kind of inner emptiness that goes beyond mere words, a passionate desire to be filled and filled again with the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Do you know that kind of hunger?
Because, unless you do, you won’t really get the full sense of our memory verse this morning. Can anyone remember what it is? That’s right: John 6:35: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. When Jesus is talking about going hungry and being thirsty, he isn’t talking about eating and drinking. He is talking having a deep hunger to find answers to the questions we carry around inside us, a passion to find meaning purpose in our lives.
And I can’t help thinking that even as we meet here on this Sunday morning, there are people all around us who are trying to satisfy that answer with all kinds of things – with drugs, with alcohol, with witchcraft (look in the window of the Psychic Shop if you don’t believe me), with pleasure of every kind. I think one of the tragedies of the English church in the 21st century is that we seem unable to show those around us that we are only deeply, truly satisfied when we meet with Jesus. Folk have long ago given up looking to the church for the answers to their questions because all they can see is a building filled or at least slightly less than empty once a week with lukewarm believers who don’t really want to be filled with the blessings of the Holy Spirit.
So this morning I want to think about what it means for us to come to Jesus.
The first, and the most obvious point, is that to come to Jesus means to believe in Him. As Jesus says to the restless and impatient crowds in verse 29: The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. And again in verse 47 he makes this very simple yet very wonderful promise: I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. All the way through the passage Jesus makes it clear that to come to Jesus means to believe in Him. Not simply to know about Him, or even to acknowledge Him as some great teacher or miracle worker, but to put your faith and trust in Him.
Now I guess there are many people here who would quite rightly say that they already believe in Jesus and that they have claimed His promise of eternal life. But let’s examine what this word, “Believe” actually means. Because I put it to you that to believe in Jesus isn’t just about making a decision to follow Jesus at one particular point in our life, but rather to have an ongoing, living, and deepening relationship with Him. After all, it seems to me that there are plenty of Christians who have a wonderful story of what Jesus used to do in their lives, or who can give a testimony of how many years ago they made some kind of commitment. But you ask them what Jesus is doing in their life now and there is this kind of embarrassed silence.
This is why Jesus uses what may seem to us rather strange language about feeding on Him. We’ll discuss in a little while why Jesus uses this particular image, but for now we need to note the picture is about having an ongoing, growing relationship with Him. I wonder if you’ve ever come across a person who won’t discuss what they believe but simply says, “I have my faith”. As far they are concerned, faith is something you either have or don’t have, something kept in a drawer for special occasions or Sunday best. That’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He is talking about a living, growing relationship where month by month, year by year we know Him rather better. So may I ask: is that what your faith is like?
And that leads on to my second point, that to come to Jesus is to spend time with Him regularly.
Let’s return again to our memory verse and that part where Jesus declares I am the bread of life. Wouldn’t it be good if someone invented a food that meant we didn’t have to eat again, at least not for a long time? OK, it might put the slimming clubs out of business, but it would save so much hassle and inconvenience. No more waiting in the supermarket queue, or if you shop online, losing your order as the system crashes. No more large grocery bills that swallow up your monthly pay packet. No more plastic bags littering the streets and polluting the world’s oceans. Unfortunately, such a food hasn’t been invented and it isn’t likely to be any time soon. We need to eat and drink at regular intervals to stay healthy and fit.
And isn’t that true also of our spiritual life? If Jesus is our bread of life, then presumably we need to feed off Him regularly. We can’t simply come to a service and declare our faith in Christ, then simply go on living as before. Just as we need regular meals where we eat and drink, so we need regular times where we can read the Bible and pray and find out more about the one who promises us eternal life.
Of course this isn’t always easy. Being a Christian still means living in the real world. We still have to get up and live our busy lives, and I don’t need to remind you of the jobs you have to do this week. And if we’re not careful we can so easily get distracted away from the faith we claim to follow, or find that other priorities become more important than doing Jesus’ will. So coming to Jesus also involves a change of lifestyle, of making space and time each day where we spend maybe even just a few minutes discovering more about our wonderful Saviour who longs for us to discover fullness of life in Him.
Because the sad truth is, as Paul says in the verse just before our first reading: Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs and that is as true today as it was then. I can think of plenty of people who seem no longer to be walking with the Lord because they decided it was more important to pursue their career, or to work overtime, or invest in property. And the tragedy is that they did not set out to wander from the faith, indeed they had every intention of following Christ, but when it came to make hard-edged choices about their daily lives they put their pay-packet and their financial security first.
Now I guess when we hear Paul’s command to Timothy to fight the good fight of faith we have this rather romantic picture of Christians slaying demons and overcoming the forces of evil. But in point of fact the real battle is joined in the decisions which we make each day that reveal just how much or how little our relationship with Jesus means to us. Are we feeding regularly off Jesus? Do we have this desire to come into His presence? Or, to put it more directly, if I were to ask you, “What is your prayer life like at the moment”, how would you reply?
And the third point about coming to Jesus is that it involves other people. Now in theory, it is possible to spend all our time eating alone. We would get all the nutrients we need to stay healthy and we would remain fit and active. But food is so much more than vitamins and proteins all the rest. You see, food is meant for sharing. Meals should be social occasions where we share news and enjoy company, where we have a good time together.
It should be no different really when it comes to feeding on Jesus, the bread of life. Of course, it is just about possible to have some kind of private faith where we never meet with other Christians, or share in fellowship. But Jesus never meant our faith to be solitary, private affair. He meant us to live our life together, sharing with one another the joys and sorrows of each day, showing one another genuine Christ-like love and compassion, and, yes, sometimes simply just having a good time together – like we did on Friday at the quiz night.
And at the heart of our life together is of course our Sunday worship. But what does it actually mean for us in practice to share together in Jesus as our bread of life? Let me just sound a note of caution here. We picked up our reading of John 6 at verse 53 where Jesus says I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. And over the centuries countless Christians have assumed that Jesus was talking about Holy Communion, that eating His flesh and drinking His blood refer to what we do when we gather around the Lord’s Table.
Now don’t get me wrong. It is vitally important that we do take part in Holy Communion. It’s what Jesus commanded us to do, and it makes Jesus’ death on the cross real and alive to us. But Jesus is not talking about Holy Communion here. First of all, as John makes clear in verse 59, Jesus said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. He was in other words addressing not disciples but a whole group of people, both believers and non-believers, who could not possibly have guessed Jesus was referring to a sacrament He had not yet instituted. Besides which, if Jesus really was talking about Holy Communion, he would be saying that unless we take bread and wine we do not have eternal life, which clearly cannot be correct. It is perfectly possible to be saved and yet not receive the sacraments – think, for example, of the thief on the cross. Yes, it is desirable that we receive bread and wine, yes Holy Communion can and does strengthen us in our faith, but it does not of itself give us eternal life.
So what is Jesus talking about here? Well, there’s an important clue in verse 63: The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. In practical terms that means, whatever form our Sunday service takes, the most important thing is that as we are gathered in Jesus’ name is that we are open to the work of His Holy Spirit. Whether we have a beautiful, formal service with, let’s say a robed choir and processions, or an informal service with lots of singing and hands raised high in the air, the most important thing is that the Holy Spirit is working in us and through us. I think sometimes Jesus would have us be less concerned about the words we use, or whether we stand up or sit down or whether we raise our hands in worship rather than whether we are prepared to changed and renewed by His Holy Spirit.
How then do we open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit? The answer comes in the second half of the verse: The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. And indeed throughout the whole of Scripture the message is the same. That if we are to receive salvation and to grow in our relationship with Jesus we need to hear and respond to the word of God. Because when the word is read, and when the word is preached, the same Holy Spirit that caused it be written speaks into our hearts and knocks on the door of our lives asking to come in. So whatever form our worship takes, indeed whatever form of worship you or I might prefer, the most important thing is that we allow God to speak to us through His Holy Word. Because that in the end is what it means to feed on Jesus. It is, in the words of the old prayer book collect, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture so we are touched and transformed by the very words of Jesus.
So what are you going to do with our memory verse today? I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. Don’t just memorise it today and then forget about it when Monday morning comes around. Think what this verse means for you. Talk about this verse with your family and your friends. Let this verse challenge you. Are you spiritually hungry? Is Jesus what you desire? Are you feeding off Jesus and growing in your faith? Spend some time reflecting what it means for you to believe in Jesus, to spend time regularly with Him, to involve other people in your faith. And do all this, not just for your sake, but for the sake of the many people right here on our doorstep who are living and in some cases dying without the knowledge that Jesus is the bread of life, who alone can truly satisfy.