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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13B)
2 August 2009

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church, and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:1-25
Ephesians 4:1-25
John 6:24-35

This may be the summer for food sermons. Two weeks ago we examined Mark’s story of the feeding of the five thousand and I focussed upon that detail of the narrative in which we learnt that there was copious food left over from the meal that was collected afterwards. We discussed, for want of a better term, the spirituality of left overs: both what it means for there to be food left over from a meal and what we do with them. We connected that meal in which Jesus fed the crowd after he taught them with the meal that we eat here each week after hearing the Word of God, the Gospel, told and preached. We discussed how at this table there is always more than enough to eat, always enough for one more to arrive at the table and leave satisfied. We discussed how in taking up the left overs, keeping them safe in the tabernacle, Jesus is always present with us in this place in a special way, in the form of that nourishing meal, how Jesus is always available to the sick and the needy in the form of the reserved sacrament, and finally, how we have in this place a constant reminder that God’s love is abundant, overflowing, and available to us at all times and in all places.

In this week’s gospel we are given another vantage point from which to see the feeding stories. Today we hear a portion of John’s monumental version of Jesus feeding the people, a portion of the conversation that seems to have taken place after Jesus had fed the people. Jesus asks, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” Jesus wonders whether the people have become so keen on him because he gave them a square meal or because in and through the meal they have now come to a new understanding of those things that are supremely important.

This is a difficult passage, more difficult than one might think on first examination. In a way it is easy to agree with Jesus that we should not simply think about stuffing our faces with food that is consumed and gone, but rather we should focus upon that which is ultimately important, eternal life. Indeed, The admonition in today’s Gospel, “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life,” certainly rings in my ears having spent a good part of yesterday morning at the Union Square Green Market hauling thirty-five pounds of beef in our stroller and then spending several hours later that morning in my kitchen butchering it. As you can imagine that this was not the first time that I had focussed so much attention on my food. Have I been labouring all this time for the food that perishes and not thinking about eternal life, my life with God? Perhaps. The food will be eaten and it will be gone and in this way food, no matter how nourishing, can be seen as ephemeral. Even when considered as fuel for our bodies, it is expended in a never ending (and physically necessary) search for more and more. And there’s the rub. Food is not empemeral, but necessary for us to live and there does not seem an easy way around what Jesus is saying. I do not think we can simply brush off Jesus’ remarks as being about champagne and caviar and, for that matter, local, pastured, naturally raised, grass finished, beef straight from the farmer. Jesus seems to be talking about food, simple nourishing food like bread and fish and water.

Living in this city today, and for that matter living in any city at any moment in human history, teaches us that there are people who are hungry, who do not have enough to eat, who do not have enough to sustain their bodies. It may be easy to tell me, your corpulent foodie rector, not to labour for the food that perishes. It is very hard for me to tell that to the dozens of people on our soup line each Saturday and Monday evening, to the dozens of men and women who come every day to the soup kitchen that Goddard Riverside, our local community service agency, runs in our own church basement. And yet, this is what the Gospel seems to be saying and this is what many preachers over the years have had the nerve to tell poor and starving Christians: do not worry about feeding your bellies, worry about ‘Eternal Life’ and everything will be OK after you are dead.”

But the reality is that Eternal Life is also what we live out in the here and now. Eternal life, is real life, lived in the Spirit, live lived with the power and love of God coursing through every nerve in our bodies. It is something we receive from God as a gift in baptism, through the gift of living water. It is something that is sustained in community, sustained over the sacramental meal of bread and wine, and reinforced over every other meal we share with our fellow human beings. Eternal life happens for us in the encounter over bread and wine, over peanut butter and jelly and juice, and, indeed, over steak and a good bottle of Burgundy.

We need not forget about feeding the poor, we need not forget about nourishing our bodies, for Jesus did not forget to feed his people. Jesus gave the crowd the bread just as God gave the people Mana in the wilderness. He did not merely give them some moralising lecture and leave them hungry. No, Jesus satisfied their hunger and their physical need first and he then told them that God did this out of love for them. We incarnate this love every time we offer a meal to a friend or a stranger. We offer food, nourishment out of love, flowing from the gift of eternal life. This love is the nourishment that sends us forth to help feed the poor, heal the sick, clothe the naked. This is the love that sends us forth to show our love to God by loving our neighbour.

If our use of food is oriented towards the satisfaction of our selves alone, then this may very well be the food that perished. If, on the other hand, our use of food, of the fruits of the earth, is oriented towards the love of God, the doing of God’s will, which includes the proper care of our own bodies, then it is the good that brings eternal life. Jesus tells us: “‘... my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.’” Jesus is bread and all bread, all food, all nourishment that gives life, shares in his divine reality.

Andrew C. Blume+
New York City
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, 2 August 2009

©2009 Andrew Charles Blume