From July 29, we have come. On that Sunday, we recounted the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with barley bread and fish with twelve baskets of bread leftover.(1) Since then, for the past three Sundays, sans fish, we’ve had a steady diet of bread. Relentlessly, Jesus has expanded on the ancient revered story of God feeding the Israelites with manna from heaven during their journey from Egyptian captivity to the Promised Land,(2) paradoxically by narrowing, intensifying his focus on himself as the true bread of God…
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger.”(3)
“I am the bread that came down from heaven.”(4)
“I am the living bread…Whoever eats of this bread with live forever.”(5)
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”(6)
And today, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”
This is a lot of bread! And we must like it, for we are still here, which makes us different from many of those who gathered around Jesus 2000 years ago. He started at the top with five thousand. Then the numbers dwindled. The people questioned, grumbled about his identity: “Is this not the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”(7) “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”(8) And slowly, surely, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Leading a dispirited Jesus to ask his chosen and closest disciples, “Will you also go away?” Peter reassures him of their belief in him, for Jesus has “the words of eternal life.”
These words, all that Jesus has been saying and teaching – “I am the bread of life…that came down from heaven…whoever eats of this bread will never hunger…will live forever” – are the truth of which his feeding of the five thousand was the outward sign.
These words are the heart of our Christian proclamation.
These words constitute what the Apostle Paul refers to as “the mystery of the gospel,” summarized in what we recite as “the mystery of faith” (impossible to perceive through human reason, but only received, believed by faith): “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”(9)
These words Jesus calls us to embrace and embody in a world where we, in our words and deeds, on any given day, at any given time, to paraphrase Francis of Assisi, may be the only sermon some will hear and see.
Therefore, it is imperative that we, as disciples of Jesus, those who continually come to him to learn from him and of him, take up the mantle of his apostles to be sent by him into the world to proclaim the gospel. And this our Christian task, our Christian job, our Christian life is not easy! For we, in the words of that olden hymn, are “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.”(10) Not to battle and defeat non-Christians, much less to batter them into surrender, dragging them into the church. No, never! Rather our fight is against what Paul calls “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” and “the spiritual forces of evil.” What are they? They, sadly, terrifyingly are innumerable and include hatred, discord, doubt, despair, inequality, injustice, sorrow, and violence, all of which, yes, can take form and shape in the physical things of this world, even in people, even in us.
Therefore, says Paul, we need spiritual armament; his elucidation of which he draws from the typical equipment of a Roman soldier of the first century, which I summarize as the truth and righteousness of our proclamation of Jesus’ gospel of peace, which we, by faith, trusting in our salvation, must be ready to declare with the word of God.
Therefore, to paraphrase the hymn:
Onward, then, we people, joining the valiant throng,
Blending…our voices in the triumph song;
Glory, laud, and honor, unto Christ the King;
This thro’ countless ages we with angels sing:
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before!
(1) John 6.1-21
(2) John 6.31-33. See Exodus 16.4-5 and Psalm 78.24
(3) John 6.35a
(4) John 6.41b
(5) John 6.51a
(6) John 6.53b
(7) John 6.42a
(8) John 6.52b
(9) The Book of Common Prayer, page 363, my emphases
(10) A reference to the hymn, Onward Christian soldiers (1865); words by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), my emendations