Sunday 16th August 2015, Trinity 11, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
Get volunteers to hold up three foods: Pomegranate, Oyster mushrooms, and green tea.
What do these three foods have in common? They are co-called ‘superfoods’, foods we’re meant to think are especially healthy and good for us.
One website tells me that a pomegranate is a ‘phytochemical powerhouse’, whatever that means. If you replace the chicken in a chicken pie with oyster mushrooms, then you get half and calories and a fifth of the fat – and nothing of a chicken pie. Green tea, I read, is ‘high in anti-oxidants’ – I don’t understand that either – and it helps prevent cancer – I do understand that.
Of course ‘superfood’ is a marketing tool, a category created to sell. The NHS webpage about ‘superfoods’ is particularly sniffy about the superfood fashion. And the EU demands that only health claims with robust scientific backing actually get onto the packaging of food – so most of the alleged benefits of superfoods are found in the pages of magazines instead.
So I wonder where the health claims in today’s Gospel reading would stand:
‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.’
Food from heaven offering eternal life! That’s a big claim and it may be seen as artistic licence if it stays in soft focus. But Jesus and the church also have the audacity to put these words into sharp focus in the Eucharist. Some churches give communion with the words, the body of Christ keep you in eternal life, the bod of Christ the bread of heaven.
So I want to ask what we mean by these claims. How can we make sense of Jesus’ words? Because, despite my introduction, I don’t think Jesus the bread of life is just the extreme good end of the superfood scale. There are two points.
First, with these words Jesus is inviting us into relationship. A sacrament is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’ The outward sign we receive in communion is bread and wine, but the inward grace is to know and love Jesus. On Jesus side this is a relationship of love and self-giving; it is never coercive. The relationship we have with Jesus is footed in the relationship Jesus has with God the Father, the relationship at the heart of the Trinity. When we think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we think of persons in relationship, so much loving each other that their relationships define who God is. We have relationships, but God is the relationships he has.
The Eucharist, Jesus the bread of life, also joins us into relationship with each other, breaking down hostility and competition. The words we heard in today’s Gospel come after the story of the feeding of the 5000, in which a young boy had the courage not to hide or guard his lunch, but offered it for the good of all. The Eucharist, celebrated each Sunday by millions of Christians is the ultimate feeding of the 5000, in it we learn to share as Jesus shares with us.
And all this ‘relationship’ is summed up in the word we use: communion, from the Greek koinonia, or fellowship.
Then second, what does Jesus mean when he says we ‘will live for ever’? What is eternal life? Just as Jesus is not the extreme good end of the superfood scale, so eternal life is not the extreme good end of longevity.
The phrase ‘will live for ever’ is misleading. The Greek is ‘will live unto the age’.
I think at the root of this is the Hebrew idea that time is divided into two ages, the present age and the age to come. The present age is marked by sin, pain, and violence. But the age to come, the age of the Messiah, will be marked by fellowship with God, faithfulness, and peace.
Jesus – and the New Testament writers – modify this scheme somewhat though. They believe that the age to come break into the present age, so that the two ages overlap in our experience. And things like the coming of Jesus the Messiah, his resurrection, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the sacraments, are tangible manifestations of God’s coming age in the midst of the old world.
To eat Jesus the living bread is to trust God’s vision of value, of peace, of hope, rather than to be motivated by violence, fear, and the need to control, that characterise the present age. And for this reason eternal life – or more properly the ‘life of the age’ – is our vocation now, and not merely our reward in the future.
Some final thoughts. Superfoods are a marketing ploy, a promotional strategy. But the reality of Jesus the bread of life is his life generously given. The cross shows that Jesus is not about acclaim, worldly success, or long life. His relationship with God, his living already in eternity liberate him from these things. His resurrection is the announcement to the universe that God vindicates his way of being – and God invites us to join in.