Those of us who are Anglican have heard a series of readings about the bread of life from John chapter 6 in church over the past few Sundays. The readings begin with the fish and loaves miracle and end with Jesus claiming to be the bread of life, and claiming that people who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life. Many Christians who would not dream of thinking that Jesus is literally some bread and that his disciples should have literally tied Jesus down and started to eat him(!) nevertheless take the ‘will have eternal life’ part very literally indeed. I don’t mean that they believe in heaven- believing in heaven is not a problem. The problem is that they believe that it is only Christians who will have eternal life. But if Jesus was being metaphorical about himself, should we assume he was being literal about the other part? Let’s look at the whole section in John again and link it all up.
First of all, Jesus performs a miracle by using the generosity of a small boy and multiplying that generosity by five thousand. A generous spirit is all that is needed for none of us to go hungry. Jesus says to the disciples: ‘Let nothing be wasted’. This is a very important command for us to remember in a world where, on the one hand so much is wasted, and on the other hand, a great many go hungry due to a devastating lack of generosity. Jesus then says that he is the bread of life. Many who have been worried about money can understand that there is really no point in Jesus only talking in spiritual terms here, because we all need actual food to live. Jesus does seem to say at this point that only spiritual food matters, but if we take this section of John as a whole, he quite clearly also cares for people’s physical needs, because he provides food for the crowd. Jesus shows that even a small amount can go a long way if people are generous and behave as a community should. Poverty is not just about a lack of money: it is also about a lack of friendships and networks. When Ellie and I had one very precarious income between us, our friends, family and the community of our church helped us with everything we needed. The bread of life is communal generosity.
Jesus shows by his actions that generosity in a community is the bread of life. But he also speaks in spiritual terms about himself as the bread of life. He does not mean, as some may think, that Christians suddenly have no illness and no depression once they profess faith in Jesus. He is speaking more about the spiritual sustenance that come from having faith. It is not a magic spell you cast when you say ‘I believe in Jesus’, any more than eating the loaves and fish that day meant that the people in the crowd never had to have another meal again. There is a spiritual sustenance which comes from prayer, meditation and worship. Faith does not do away with pain and suffering, but it sustains us through everything that we experience in life and gives us hope which goes on even beyond life, into what Jesus calls ‘eternal life’. God is the ground of all being. Knowing that we are in relationship with the ground of all being gives us a confidence that ‘all will be well’ (in the words of Julian of Norwich).
But there is a third type of sustenance that it is important to remember at this moment in time, as we think of all those who are being punished by the church currently for marrying the person they love: the sustenance of relationship. Not all of us are called to marriage, but for those for whom it is a vocation, marriage is a form of sustenance. We are sustained by the relationship we build and nurture with the other person. A marriage takes effort and work, but it is the type of effort and work which brings joy and feels immensely worthwhile and life-giving. This is also the bread of life. The fact that the church is trying to take marriage away from LGBT people and punishing LGBT people for marrying just shows how spiritually poor it has become. We need to pray for the lay ministers and the ordained ministers who are having their licenses revoked, and for those who feel called to lay or ordained ministry and who are not being allowed to go forward; but we also need to pray for the church, because it has truly lost its way.