The quote under the picture on the front of the Order of Service could be a bit confronting for some: "Religion is meant to be bread for daily use, not cake for special occasions." Personally I interpret it not as saying that one should go to lots and lots of church services, or that I must act more like a truly religious person, but that I would do much better in my life if I appropriated the resources and the wealth and wisdom that religion and spirituality can offer.
One of the great theologians of the 20th century was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many will know that Bonhoeffer was executed two weeks before the end of WW2. He was a Lutheran Pastor and was involved in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was eventually arrested and was imprisoned for 18 months during WW2. One of the great contributions he made to the 20th and to the 21st century was the idea that the Christian faith had to become less religious and separate from life and more integrated into human experience of life. Thats really the only kind of religion that will have a voice in our culture and I think, and some may not agree with me, thats the kind of religion that Jesus was on about.
An interesting survey recently looked at the religious beliefs of those in the USA. We always seem to be looking at American religiosity. Anyway, they discovered that many people had little time for the church, many still held a view about the existence of God, but most admired and respected Jesus and his message and his teachings. They may not have been religious but they saw in this man a truth that was worth listening to and perhaps following.
The Paradoxes of Life:
I have talked somewhat in the past about how important in the religious/spiritual life it is to have an understanding of paradox. It is a peculiar word and difficult to understand. In fact, the definition of a paradox is that it cant be reduced to a simple understanding. A paradox is where two apparent opposites are in fact telling the same truth or rather when held in tension are telling the whole truth. Many of the teachings of Jesus followed this way of holding truths in tension. Perhaps love your enemies is a kind of paradox, when we have all been taught to hate our enemies and love our friends; and also the notion that comes through this passage about the bread of heaven - bringing together the seeming opposites of the physical, bread, and the non-physical, heaven.
So in a religionless way, how do we gain some nourishment for lifes journey from this story of Jesus and the bread from heaven? As an aside, I spent a month in Papua New Guinea when I was in my mid-twenties while I was a theological student at Queensland University. It was a mission trip to build a church a church building that is in the highlands among the Huli people. I was surprised, although I shouldnt have been, that as we celebrated the communion service the pastor of the congregation held up a piece of sweet potato and said something like "This is the body of Christ." When the staple diet of this people was 16 different types of sweet potato then it makes all the sense in the world to say this is what sustains and nourishes us physically, so it can represent what sustains and nourishes us spiritually - perhaps another of the paradoxes of life: bread as sweet potato.
So back to my point: its not so much religion that sustains and nourishes us, but a relationship, and in this case the relationship we have with the source of life, with God. So in the story read earlier, the crowds had flocked to this itinerant preacher because they had heard that he would feed them:
Then they asked Jesus, "What must we do to do the works that God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: have trust in the one God has sent." So they asked him, "What sign then will you give us so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat."
Like most of us, we want some proof that this person is worthy of our trust, of our faith. They saw him as a kind of miracle worker, so they gave him a challenge, "Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; Moses gave them bread from heaven to eat." But while bread/food is important to life and in some sense the most important thing in life - water, food, shelter - Jesus takes them deeper. He leads them into an understanding about nourishment, the food we eat, on two levels:
Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven, for the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
Jesus takes the ancient story, so powerful in the imaginations of his audience, the manna, the bread falling from the sky to feed the starving Israelites in their desert wanderings, and offers it as a way of understanding what nourishes all of us: "For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
This is where I think the quote from Mother Theresa in the Order of Service comes in: "The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread." And these words have legitimacy because the little mother of Calcutta spent her whole life feeding the empty stomachs of the most wretched of the streets of Calcutta. The bread of heaven feeds our lonely hearts; brings us closer to the source of life, to the ground of our being, to the heart of a loving God.
We dont need to get caught up on the image of a heaven out there where God dwells. Heaven is the deep realms of true life that surround us every moment of every day. It is the "More" of life; the place where we find our spiritual nurture and nourishment.
Jesus and the Bread of Life
For Jesus this isnt just an ethereal place unconnected to life and the earth. Someone once said, "The only religion that is really worth having is one that is rooted in the soil of the earth, nourished by the love of lifes companions and challenging enough to cause us to reach for the stars." Those who had come to Jesus, like many others, may have missed the centre of what he was on about:
"Sir," they said, "always give us this bread." Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
"Sir," they said, "always give us this bread." We have heard these words before in the Gospel of John. The Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well says to him: "Sir, give me this water so that I wont get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." As fundamental to life as water and bread/food are to life, Jesus puts forward the claim that there is something even more valuable, more precious, and that is the bread of life, that which will nourish our souls, the centre of our being.
Some years ago while I was the minister in my first church I heard the story of a woman who had delivered some groceries to a family who were leaning on hard times. They had contacted the church, embarrassed by their situation and asked for help. The woman from the church arrived with two large bags of food. She was welcomed in and she placed the plastic bags on the kitchen table. The family were grateful and somewhat humbled. The woman from the church said to the struggling family, "This will feed you for a week." Then she reached into one of the grocery bags and pulled out a clutch of red roses and said, "And this will feed your soul for much longer."
There is a strange paradox there that those who feed their souls are more likely to be healthy and whole than those who only feed their bodies. So seek the bread that will satisfy your deepest hunger and then the rest will look after itself.