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9th Sunday after Trinity

22 July 2021

Proper 13: Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78.23-29; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6.24-35

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JOHN does not describe the instituting of the eucharist on the night that Jesus was betrayed. To be precise, he does not take the reader through a narrative account of it; for he does allude to flesh that is real food, and blood that is true drink, beginning before Jesus’s birth, and continuing into the future life of believers (John 1.13, 19.34; 1 John 5.6-8).

In this passage are two characteristic Johannine elements. One is the “I am” saying: “I am the bread of life.” Together with six others, it forms a gallery of images that reveal the full identify and truth of the Christ. The clue to this is in the verb “I am”, which links the human Jesus to God himself (Exodus 3.14). The listening crowd speedily identify the divine nature of the claim being made, and, suddenly, the mood changes (6.41, just outside the lection for this day) from enthusiasm to outrage.

The other expression is the distinctive doubled “Amen” that Jesus uses. This “Amen, Amen” phrase occurs 25 times in John’s Gospel. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus introduces key teachings with only a single “Amen”. What might not attract so much notice, though, is the fact that Jesus’s use of it is unique in all four Gospels. “Amen” is elsewhere a concluding formula: it was used in his time — as in ours — to end a prayer, or affirm support for one.

Jesus states the truth before the teaching itself (“Amen” indicates that a statement is “confirmed”, or “supported”, and that it is therefore “true”). Even the most sceptical commentator would find it difficult to deny the authentic voice of Jesus in this. What a shame, then, that so many Bible translations render that doubled “Amen” as “very truly” or “I solemnly assure you”, or the like. For that simple repetition takes us as close as anything else in the Gospels to his actual speech, and doesn’t even need to be translated; for we ourselves pray using the same word.

We tend to skate over the literal meaning in the term “bread of life”, making straight for the figurative one. This obscures the fact that — for most people, most of the time — the job of a strong leader, or of a powerful divinity, is to secure material prosperity (including food security) for their servants and followers. When the Israelites received manna in the wilderness, it was first not a spiritual gift, but a practical one. The manna seemed to form physically, like the frost that it resembled (Exodus 16.14). It came up as dew, not down like falling snow.

Moses had a part to play in the miracle of manna: God conversed with his servant, and explained his reasoning to him, so that he could make sense of it for the people. That “bread from heaven” was part of the exodus story in the ongoing life of Judaism, as the psalm bears witness. It was a physical substance with a spiritual grace attached to it — in other words, what we Christians would identify as a “sacrament”.

Moses did not live for ever. He went the way of all flesh, replaced in the life of God’s people by others who could carry on his work. Without a way of passing such parts on to new generations, Judaism would have disappeared from history. Without a way of authenticating those to whom such a role was assigned, Christianity could not have survived either.

This is where Ephesians comes to the fore. It weaves together the doctrine of God and the place of baptism in the Church. It describes the ideal shape of a Christian community. Essential to that community is the idea of the body of Christ, which (like the fullness of the Trinity) is both one and many. Some roles would be familiar from Judaism (prophets), others unique to Christianity (apostles).

All these limbs of the body of Christ, described in verse 11, were needed to share out the work of nurturing the Church, ensuring that no single individual became indispensable. The Christian faith may be named after the risen Christ, but it is not hero worship. Rather, it was — and remains — the opposite of what we would now call a “cult”. The job of its leaders is not to glorify themselves, but to guide others to “the measure of the full stature of Christ”.

Forthcoming Events

25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

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