A Sermon from Sherborne
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 12 August 2018 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest
Great Wishford, in the Wylye Valley near Salisbury, has been my home for the last fourteen years. It is a beautiful village, and it attracts many visitors and holidaymakers, especially in the summer months. It is the churchyard boundary wall that attracts the visitors first. They congregate near a corner wall, where one street joins another. The reason for this strange behaviour is that they have heard about the ‘Bread Stones’. The stones date from the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century to modern day. They catalogue the changing price of bread, especially in time of war or its aftermath.
Why should this be? What is so important about the price of wheat that it should feature on sizeable stone tablets on a Churchyard wall? Is it not because the price of wheat was the life-blood of that society? Without a regular supply of bread, villagers would die.
We know that bread is the staple diet of many societies around the world, even today.
Bread would also have been of profound importance to Jesus and his fellow countrymen and women. To eke out a meagre existence in Roman-occupied Galilee would have been an enormous challenge.
John’s Gospel, Chapter 6 is all about bread. We first heard about the feeding of the five thousand. Five small barley loaves fed ten to fifteen thousand people (if we include the women and children). The remaining bread filled twelve baskets! Clearly, John is wanting us to see that a wonderful Sign has been given here. The people believed that a prophet had come among them.
In today’s Gospel [John 6.35, 41–51], Jesus proclaims that he is the bread of life, and that this bread has come down from heaven. This heavenly food, once eaten, will provide unending sustenance to those who receive it, in faith.
Jesus is at pains to insist that this bread, unlike the revered ‘manna from heaven’ from the time of Moses, will never perish or be corrupted. Those who ate the manna in the wilderness died. Jesus claims that those who eat his heavenly bread will never die. The bread of which he speaks is nothing other than his flesh.
This morning, we have the opportunity to focus on three things:
Firstly, to recognize that our Christian Faith is one which emphasizes the earthiness of our existence, and the way in which the Church uses the things of earth to nourish and sustain us through the bread of the Eucharist. The divine Jesus is also a human being, who knows about hunger, and the pain and weakness which come with it. He knows that in the society in which he lived, bread was necessary for life.
Secondly, that Jesus, the bread from heaven, gives us this bread continuously, by giving himself. We are invited to eat his very flesh! It is this action of giving, which causes us so much anxiety and difficulty. In the Western world, we have it drummed into us from our first moments that we must always earn what we receive. The idea of receiving anything without working for it or paying for it fills us with much discomfort.
Which brings me to my third point. Today’s Gospel confronts us with the reality, that we are bidden by the Church, we are commanded by Christ, to accept the free gift of himself. If that happens, and we truly consume him in the intimate act of Holy Communion, then our lives can be transformed into the Eternal Life of which St John speaks – not everlasting life (which seems to be the popular understanding of that phrase), but the current, enhanced and Spirit-filled existence which can come when we are fed and energized by the body of the Lord himself.
Theologically, the Christian Faith can be extremely complicated. I am the last person who would claim that Christian beliefs are simple and straightforward – they’re not.
But to enter into a relationship with the living Lord, and receive the life that he offers us is, at heart, beautifully simple. We take bread, we thank God for it, we break it and we share it. Essentially, that is all we have to do. Then, our worship is lifted up by Christ, and is joined with his eternal offering of himself to the Father, in that eternal offering of love.
Can we accept this wonderful, eternal act of love, which our heavenly Father longs for us to accept? I believe that it is the eternal prayer of Jesus that we will accept this free gift, and be in Communion with our Father, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I conclude by quoting some words from the Anglican priest, Fr. Briscoe, written in the early 1930’s, as the threat of Nazi Germany loomed over Europe; words fit for our own troubled times. His chapter is entitled ‘Holy Communion’.
The heavenly food gives strength and courage and joy and peace: it is the medicine of healing and refreshment; it is the security and the guarantee of everlasting life. However hard may be our lot, however difficult our path, however perplexing may be the present, however dark may seem the future, the heavenly food will be our provision for the way, and its virtue will not fail to bring us safe through that last and most hazardous adventure. (Catholic Sermons, p. 193f).