One flesh.

images one flesh

(Proper 22. Yr B. Genesis 2, 18-24. Mark 10, 2-16)


In the discussions the churches are having over whether to approve blessings of partnerships or even marriages between people of the same gender, there are certain passages (colloquially known as ‘clobber passages’), which are often quoted against gay marriage. Then there are others which, although they don’t mention homosexuality, are often quoted to support the idea that marriage must be between a male and a female. The passages in the lectionary for today are two of the latter, so it’s useful to be able to look at their background, and what they actually tell us about human relationships, and particularly, about marriage.

The Old Testament passage contains part of the second creation story in Genesis. This one came from the Judaean tradition, and was probably written down in the time of King David. In contrast to the story in Genesis 1, written much later, after the exile in Babylon, where God is distant, and creates by word of mouth, in this creation story God is much more ‘hands on’, and creates like a potter, forming things out of the clay of the earth. First God creates a human being, an adam or earth creature, and breathes life into it. Then God makes a garden for the adam to live in, and trees and streams to enjoy, and commands the adam to cultivate it.

womanThen as we heard, God decides that it is not good for the adam to be alone. God in this creation story seems to work by experimentation. So first God creates animals to see if any of them are a suitable ‘helper’ for the adam. But none of them is. So then God creates a woman from the rib of the adam, and brings them together, and the man acknowledges with delight that she is a suitable companion for him.

An understanding of Hebrew makes this story read quite differently from the way it has often been understood. Adam is not a personal masculine name: until the creation of the helper, it just means ‘earth creature’, who doesn’t have a gender. The language of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘male’ and ‘female’ doesn’t come into the story until after the creation of the helper from the adam’s rib. Then the man, ‘ish’, recognises the woman, ‘ishshah’, as being a suitable helper and companion for him. The Hebrew also makes it clear that she is not his inferior; the term used, ‘etzer’, is also used in the Psalms about God as the helper and saviour of humanity. The woman is not actually given her name ‘Eve’ which means ‘life of all’ or ‘mother of humanity’, until after the expulsion from Eden.

Like so much of the early part of Genesis this story is a myth. Myths are not history (few creation2_1people nowadays believe there was originally one male and one female from whom all humans are descended) neither are they science (women are not created from men’s ribs!). They are explanatory stories, evidence of how people tried to make sense of what they observed about human life, and related it to their understanding of God.

The first creation myth deals with the observation that humans are somehow similar to the divine, “made in the image of God”. The central point of this creation story, however, seems to be that human beings are sociable creatures, who need to be in relationships, especially intimate ones. Although animals can provide companionship, they can’t provide the deep intimacy that a lifelong marriage relationship does, when one spouse recognises the other spouse as the same, yet different, and their union makes them in some way ‘one flesh’.

In the passage from Mark, Jesus quotes this passage in a conversation with the Pharisees about divorce. There is another version of the conversation in Matthew 19. In Mark, the question the Pharisees ask doesn’t make much sense. Everyone knew that according to Deuteronomy 24.1 a Jewish man could divorce his wife. In Matthew, the Pharisees’ question makes more sense, since there they ask about the grounds for divorce. This reflects a disagreement between two influential rabbis at the time of Jesus, about whether adultery was the only grounds for divorce, or whether a man could put away his wife for trivial reasons, like being a bad cook, or a nag, because she hadn’t produced children, or simply because he’d gone off her.

This mattered to both husbands and wives. Only a woman (and her lover) could commit adultery against a husband in Jewish law. A married man having an affair with a single woman was not adultery. A wife convicted of adultery could be stoned to death, or the husband could divorce her without forfeiting her dowry or the marriage settlement in goods she brought on their marriage. If he divorced her for another reason, he had to return her dowry and her marriage settlement to her family. The certificate of annulment, specified in Deuteronomy, was therefore an important document, which assured an innocent woman of her rights and property, gave her some protection and might allow her to remarry (though she would always be ‘damaged goods’ and therefore not an attractive wife).

Jesus answers the Pharisees by asking what “the law” contained in Deuteronomy specified. He doesn’t, in Mark, pronounce on the controversy over the grounds for divorce, or disagree with the standards set by the law. As so often happens, he goes beyond the legal position to talk about deeper questions of human relationships. By quoting from the two creation stories, he takes the question back to the situation in the Garden of Eden, to that myth of perfection, to God’s original intention for human beings, to the ideal society that we long for, and which we believe will be realised in the new creation; to a relationship that is permanent, faithful and stable.

as one

His answer recognises that the intimacy of marriage creates a deep bond between the spouses, and that family breakup inevitably leads to pain for all the people involved. Divorce may be necessary, given that human beings are fallible creatures; it may be the least bad option; but it is not the ideal. Therefore, once people are married, no ‘man’ (i.e. no husband) should be eager to break the bond. Divorce, according to Jesus, is not to be regarded as a ‘right,’ as many Jewish men thought of it; it is always a concession, a result of ‘hardness of heart’, the failure on the part of husband, or wife, or both, to live up to the best that they are capable of.

The second part of the passage, describing when Jesus and the disciples go indoors and he explains things further to them, is something that commonly happens in Mark’s Gospel. Many commentators think it shows Mark expanding the original story to apply it to the situation of his community, and so does not contain the original words of Jesus.

This section doesn’t actually address divorce, but talks about remarriage after divorce. If it reflects Jesus’ thoughts, it shows him being very radical about marriage relationships compared with his contemporaries He says if a man remarries after divorcing his wife, he commits adultery against her. But in contemporary Jewish understanding, a husband couldn’t commit adultery against his wife, who was his possession. This statement places both man and woman on an equal footing.

Then, the second statement applies the same standards to a woman, if she instigates the divorce. This is likely to be a Markan extension, to cope with the situation in Roman society where women could instigate divorce, but still it pronounces absolute equality between the sexes.

The conversation indoors is with the disciples, and so can be seen to be setting standards for the Christian community. Jesus always sets higher standards for his followers, standards which go beyond merely obeying the law to living out the life of sacrificial love that he showed us.

The final section which Mark adds about children reinforces this. Children, like wives, had no rights in the society of his time. Everything they were given they received as a gift. This is what the disciples, who set themselves up as gatekeepers, deciding who could or couldn’t approach Jesus, had to realise. Nobody has a right to be part of God’s Kingdom, since we all fall short of the standards required. Nobody therefore has the right to exclude others. Only when we accept that being included in the Kingdom is the gift of a loving God can we truly be part of it.

Since the time of Jesus, his followers have struggled to live up to his standards, in marriage and sexual conduct as well as in other areas of life. We try to do so, knowing that we will fail, but also that Jesus showed us a God who loves us in spite of our failure, and who forgives, and always allows us to try again.

As we seek to apply his teaching based on these passages in our own lives, we carry before us the perfect vision of human relationships contained in the story of creation, to which we aspire. But we also remember the warning contained in his admonition to the disciples when they tried to prevent God’s children from coming to him, that no-one has the right to set barriers which prevent God’s children from receiving the divine blessing on their deepest relationships.

“What God has joined together, let no human separate.”

two hearts


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Who’s the Greatest?


(Proverbs 31.10-31, James 3.13-4.3, Mark 9,30-37)

Twenty-nine years ago today, I was licensed as a Reader in the Church of England. Over those twenty-nine years, one of the questions I’ve most frequently been asked is, “Are you going to go on to become a priest?”

The assumption behind the use of the words ‘go on’ seems to be that in ministry, as in all other spheres of work, everyone is on a career path, in which everyone’s aim is to rise up the hierarchy.  You may start off at the bottom, in a role which has little status, power or influence, but your aim will be eventually to ‘progress’ to a position with more status, more power, and more influence. And in the church, lay people (and lay ministers) are at the bottom when it comes to power and status, and ordained ministers are at the top.

The answer to the question, for me, has always been ‘No’ (even before the time when I became too old to be considered for ordination, which I am now!). I feel no call to ordained ministry. I feel I have a vocation to lay ministry, and to be a lay preacher and theologian. I value the position of an unpaid lay minister as a bridge person between the world of church and the everyday world – even when one frequently has the experience (only to be expected of a bridge!) of being walked over!

I also value the fact that, in Reader ministry, there is no hierarchy – you cannot become a senior Reader in any way, and there is no difference between men and women Readers. That unfortunately is not the case is in the world of Anglican clergy, in which there continues to be distinctions based on gender, and differences of power and status.

When I was licensed, 29 years ago, the question about becoming  a priest would only have been asked by selectors, as they did of me at my selection. Women were unable to be priests, and the first women weren’t ordained as deacons, the lowest level of clergy, until the following year. Until 1969, mind you, women were not even allowed to be Readers. These rules were based both on the Victorian middle-class image of woman as the one whose true sphere of influence was in the home; but even more on centuries of Christian misogyny, which, drawing in particular on a very partial reading of St. Paul and other sections of the Bible, characterised women as unspiritual creatures, totally unsuited for religious leadership or any public activity.

There is a passage in the book of Proverbs, chapter 31 which gives a very different picture of the activity of women. The Good News Bible entitles this section, ‘The Capable Wife’ but actually the woman described there is active in business, investment and commerce as well as in the home She is a woman of power and responsibility. Perhaps some people would find her an intimidating figure – an impossible act to follow; but, as elsewhere in the Bible, she may have been drawn as an ideal figure, a perfect example to aspire to. But actually the reality for many women in Biblical times was that they had little power or status; they were the property of men, first their fathers and then their husbands.

Another interpretation of this passage is that it is a description of the divine Wisdom at work; in this sort of literature, Wisdom is almost always described as a female. However we interpret it though, this passage doesn’t at all support the idea that the female cannot be spiritual and cannot reveal what God is like.

In the context of our other readings today, it is important to note that the woman of Proverbs exercises her considerable talents, not in the interests of a career of her own, but in the service of others for whom she is responsible, her husband and family. This is still the way of life for many women in the Third World today. Women are often  the ones who work to provide food and clothing for their families, as well as carrying out the practical tasks of caring for children, but have no power or authority.


We find it very difficult to prevent ourselves from projecting human ideas of leadership onto God. In the Gospel reading, Jesus is again telling his disciples what sort of a Messiah he is: one who came to serve, to suffer and to be killed. The disciples can’t take it, either with reference to Jesus or for themselves. Instead, they turn to arguing about which of them is the greatest; who will have the positions of  greatest power, status and influence in the coming Kingdom, whether it be established in this world or the next. And if we read Acts and the epistles carefully, we see that this sort of quarrelling about ‘who is the greatest’ continued in the early church, with rivalry between those following Peter and James, those following Paul and those who looked to the Beloved Disciple, and ever since!

Jesus could have taken a woman as his example of a person of little power in his society; instead he took a child. Some commentators think that he did so in order to make a play on the Aramaic word ‘talya’ which means both ‘servant’ and ‘child’.

We, who live in such a child-centred, even child-indulgent culture, find it hard to recapture the full impact of what Jesus was saying. We need to remember that in the ancient world, children were the property of their father: property which could be misused and harshly disciplined, who were expected to work as hard as slaves for the benefit of their father,  who could be sold if necessary to augment the family income, and who would be married off to the family advantage. We only have to look to other parts of the world to see the same things, child labour and early marriage,  happening today.

Child slave images

We have heard the teaching of Jesus about children so often, that it has become commonplace – but do we take it seriously? We tend to laugh at the story of the disciples jockeying for position – but it still goes on today in the church. People are still often seek positions of influence for themselves. Within the church there are many who insist on the distinctions of different orders and offices. In the Church of England it can be seen most obviously during worship, where there is a clear order of precedence in processions, an order which says the most important person (the priest or the bishop) has to be at the back. This is ironic, since, as Paul points out in Corinthians, that was the position where the slaves and captives came in a procession – but now in church it is the place of honour!

Even if we don’t hold office ourselves, we may rank people who minister to us in a hierarchy, and feel offended if we get a visit from a lay person rather than a member of the clergy, or if an ordinary member of the congregation, rather than a trained minister, takes a particular part of the service.

We all of us, clergy and lay, licensed minister and person in the pew,  find it hard to accept that the call to Christian service is a call to do whatever is asked of us, no matter what. In the words of the Methodist Covenant Service, which are so difficult to say and mean:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or laid low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing.


The reading I referred to from the Book of from Proverbs comes at the end of a section containing teaching about Wisdom. The reading we heard from the Epistle of James is also about wisdom. It contrasts two sorts of wisdom. First, the wisdom that comes from above, which is shown in right living; and second worldly wisdom, which, taken to extremes is demonic.

None of us can escape being exposed to both sorts of wisdom; but we, as individuals and as a church, have to choose which to follow. If we choose to follow the path of heavenly wisdom, the result will be right relationships with God and with each other.  If we choose the path of worldly wisdom, the result will be strife and quarrels in our relationships with others; it will also distort our relationship with God.

We heard this week that the Archbishop of Canterbury is planning to invite the Primates of the Anglican Communion to a meeting next year, in a last ditch attempt to hold the quarrelling Communion together. Canon Giles Fraser wrote yesterday that he thought it was too late; it was already too divided, since the world wide web had allowed people across the communion to share ideas and build alliances at a grass-roots level, without passing through some sort of central control – a second Reformation, which would finally do away with hierarchy.

Who knows whether he is right. The struggle to follow Christ’s way is ongoing. We have constantly, as individuals and as a Church , to remind ourselves of Christ’s challenging definition of Christian service:

Whoever wants to be first must be last, and the servant of all.

And we need constantly to be reforming ourselves and our institutions, to reflect the image of a God who was revealed to us as a servant and a child.


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Watch Your Language!


(James 2, 1-10 & 14-17; Mark 7, 24-37)

There’s been a lot of comment in the media recently about the use of language. David Cameron and Nigel Farage were roundly condemned for talking about ‘swarms of migrants’ and the need to ‘protect’ our borders from them, as if they were a plague of wasps or locusts. The Defence Secretary referred to towns in the East of England being ‘swamped’ by migrant workers’ and feeling themselves ‘under siege’, as if they were facing an armed incursion. And only on Thursday, the death of a small Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, drowned while trying to reach Kos on an unseaworthy boat, was blamed by UKIP PPC Peter Bucklitsch on his parents being ‘greedy for the good life in Europe’ and ‘queue-jumping’.

Many people were profoundly shocked by the use of such language about people who are, most of them, fleeing from countries torn apart by civil war, where education, health care and justice have collapsed, and where they are constantly at risk of violence and death because of their ethnic background, or their religion, or their gender or their sexuality.

I wonder if we are equally shocked by the language Jesus uses in the passage from Mark we heard this morning. The Gentile woman in the story also came from Syria. Like the refugees we have been hearing about in the news, she was at the end of her tether, desperate to find help for her sick child. She lived in an area where there was a mixed population, but where ethnic groups kept strictly to themselves, but in her desperation, she decided an appeal to someone from another community was her only option. So she approached a celebrated Jewish healer with her request for help.

Not only was her request refused, but she was rebuffed with insulting language. To put it bluntly, Jesus called her a bitch, comparing her people to the dogs who scavenged for the scraps thrown out after the meal, animals that the Jews regarded as unclean.

Any church leader who used such language today would immediately be exposed and condemned in the media. But I doubt any of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would have found it shocking. That was simply the way they thought. All Gentiles were unclean, just like the animals Jews were forbidden to touch or eat. God wasn’t actually concerned with them. The salvation that the Messiah would bring, the new creation that arrive after this world was destroyed would be for faithful Jews to enjoy, not any other people; and, from this exchange, it seems that Jesus initially thought the same.

The woman’s persistence and her witty answer, which acknowledged that his own people must be his first priority, but asked for a share of the left-overs, seems to have changed his mind. So Jesus extended some of the benefits of the Kingdom to her daughter; and the gospels record a handful of other occasions when he healed Gentiles, almost always at a distance.

The second miracle story in the Gospel is less striking, but still speaks to the human fear and exclusion of those who are different. No doubt the man who was deaf and suffered from incomprehensible speech was difficult to cope with. As someone who suffered from a disability, he would have been excluded from full participation in Jewish religious rites, which were closed to anyone who was considered imperfect. When Jesus healed him, he was restored to a full and honoured place in the community.

The lesson that the benefits of God’s Kingdom were meant for all, that the divisions of race and status and gender and ability did not apply in the divine economy were lessons that the Early Church had to learn again and again. We hear James reminding his community not to give the best place and the warmest welcome to the well off. We hear about Peter being taught in a prophetic dream that the division his religious tradition made between clean and unclean people was not one that God subscribed to. We hear about Paul’s arguments with the leaders of the Jerusalem church about how far Gentile converts had to adhere to Jewish food rules, and admission ceremonies before they could be included in the community of the saved.

And this is a lesson that the Christian Church has had to relearn again and again as it has grown, and moved into new situations and new parts of the world. Again and again, the Church has fallen back on what seems to be a natural human instinct, to prefer and prioritise ‘people like us’ and to demonise and exclude those who are different.

Migrants on boatsThe Church has not only tried to exclude those of a different race or different religious tradition. It has also excluded those of different genders from leading in the church; it still tries to exclude those of different sexualities. It has even excluded those who are sick or handicapped from full participation in church, preferring those who are ‘perfect’ according to worldly standards.

God speaks to us today, through the miracle stories which Mark records and through the letter of James to his early church community, as God speaks to us through many of the Old Testament prophets, reminding us again that this is not the way the heavenly Kingdom works. And this message is not just theology or theory, it demands practical action from us.

The Old Testament prophets were forthright in their condemnation of religious practice that wasn’t accompanied by practical action to relieve the suffering of our fellow men and women, both those of their own community, and aliens and refugees. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy urge the Israelites to give food to the aliens within their land, and not to discriminate against them and apply different legal standards to them, reminding themselves that they were once aliens in Egypt. Isaiah and Micah preach that God is not at all interested in religious rites and sacrifices; what God wants of us is that we love kindness, seek justice and walk humbly before our God.

James reminds his community, and us, that faith without works is useless. He reminds them, and us, that the heart of God’s law is loving our neighbours as ourselves, and that demands practical action to meet their desperate needs. It’s no use, in God’s eyes, to say “Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill’ and do nothing to provide those in need with peace, shelter, clothing and food.”

migrant on railwayAnd the Gospel stories remind us that in God’s economy it’s not acceptable to say “My first priority is for my own people. No matter how desperate your need, I can’t do anything that means they get a smaller share of the good things of this life”. It’s not acceptable to leave people without a voice or unable to hear the Christian message of reconciliation. It’s not part of God’s plan to exclude people from full participation in community and religious life because of physical or mental handicap.

In God’s kingdom, there is no such thing as ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘our people’ and ‘others’; no one has a higher status, or a superior claim to be be first in the queue, or to occupy the best seats; there are no such things as aliens, migrants, illegals; nobody is a threat, nobody is to be compared to an invasion of insects, nobody is to be regarded as unclean. Nobody is to be left to suffer, or denied human love and companionship, simply because of where or how they were born. Everyone is simply a child of God, everybody is a brother and a sister, everybody is entitled to a share in all the good things of life that God has provided for us.

As we look at the pictures of that small boy lying lifeless on the shores of the Mediterranean, and boatloads of refugees crossing the oceans of the world, and desperate men and women fighting to board trains to get to places where they can build a new life in peace and security for themselves and their families, may the words of the Scriptures echo in our ears and influence our thoughts. May our worship this morning prompt us to watch our language as we comment on the situation; and may we be be prompted to show our faith in works to help the least of these, our brothers and sisters; and may we demonstrate that our faith is living and life-giving, not dead.

Humanity-washed-ashoreWays you can help:

Map of drop off and crowdfunding points for aid

Facebook page for help to Calais and Kos

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Escaping the ‘Finger-pointing’ God

(James 1, 17- end. Mark 7, 1-8,14-15, 21-23)


How do you imagine God?

When you worship, when you pray, what picture do you have in your mind of the Being you are addressing?

I have spoken before about a book by Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”, which has had an influence on the way I think about God. It is all about how Borg moved from the image of God he was taught in his childhood, which became increasingly unsatisfactory as he grew up and studied, to a way of thinking about God and living with God that he never knew as a child, a way that was consistent with the Bible and the tradition, but which made sense to a 21st century mind.

The concept of God with which Borg (and perhaps many of us) grew up was of a supernatural being ‘out there’ far away, who created the world a long time ago. The best metaphors for this being are  an authoritarian patriarchal father, or King or Judge, totally different and separate from us, all knowing and all powerful. Sometimes, he (this being was always thought of as masculine) intervened in the world, in the sort of events described in the Bible. But essentially this God was not here, but somewhere else. If we were good enough, and believed strongly enough, we might be allowed to be with this being after death.

Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘supernatural theism’ or ‘the monarchical model’. Because human beings need something concrete to speak to, when he worshipped or prayed, his picture of God was based on the Lutheran pastor who led the services in his church each Sunday – a big man, with grey hair and a black robe, who always shook his finger as he preached. So Borg saw God as the big eye-in-the-sky, always watching, always disapproving, always judging.

finger wagging

But as he grew older, and studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, Borg came to a different understanding of God, panentheisim. This thinks of God as all around us, within us, but also more than everything. What is more, we are within God. God is constantly creating, constantly nurturing, constantly present in the world, but is infinitely more than the world. In this model, the best metaphors for God are Abba/Daddy, lover, mother, Wisdom, companion on the journey. Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘The Spirit model’. The concrete image which sums up this picture of God for him is of his wife, a priest, bending down to give a small child who is kneeling at the altar rail the consecrated bread. He wrote: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.(p.71)


Our image of God matters! It affects not only what we believe about God, but also what we think the Christian life is all about, how we think about sin and how we think we achieve salvation. Borg emphasises that both the monarchical model of God and the Spirit model are true to the Bible and to the tradition, and have nurtured Christian belief and worship through the ages; but he also says that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view.

In our readings today, from the Epistle of James and from the Gospel of Mark, we get two different pictures of the requirements of the religious life, of what constitutes sin, and how we achieve salvation.

For the Pharisees who challenge Jesus in the Mark passage, the religious life is about keeping the rules. Over time, the basic rules of the 10 Commandments and the Torah had expanded into a multiplicity of rules about every aspect of life and worship. Salvation is only possible for those who manage to keep all of these rules, or who make proper sacrifice to appease the ‘finger-shaking God’. This view of the religious life became one which was adopted by Christianity, with the added refinement that salvation was possible for many who couldn’t manage to keep all the rules, because the sacrifice of Jesus had been provided to make up for their disobedience – but this was only possible if they acknowledged their sinfulness, and believed all the precepts of the Christian faith without doubt or question.

For the writer of the Epistle of James, the Christian life is less about keeping the rules, and more about living in the right relationship with God and with each other. It is not beliefs that are important but actions. People can study religion and think themselves holy, but unless that results in a life lived for others, their religion is worthless. James ends with a statement that echoes the prophets Micah and Isaiah, saying that what God requires of us is to care for the weak and vulnerable, and not to adopt worldly values. James indicates that the way to salvation is to live a life of compassion, in imitation of the God who gives us birth and who nurtures us with gifts.

There is a danger in taking this view of the Christian life, which is that we can end up believing that we earn our place in heaven ourselves through our good works. It is what Luther seemed to be arguing against when he condemned the idea of justification by works. The counter balance to this is the teaching that our salvation comes as a gracious gift from God, regardless of how good we are. All we have to do is to accept that, and to demonstrate that we are ‘doers of the word, not just hearers’, by living in the light of that belief. This puts us in a right relationship with ourselves and with our neighbours and with God, such that we begin to experience salvation in this world.

With the monarchical model of God, religion is all about sin. Sin is disobedience to God and breaking his rules. In this model, Jesus came and died so that we could escape punishment for our sin. Our part is to believe that, to acknowledge ourselves as miserable sinners, to feel guilty and to repent.

The problem is that the dynamic of that way of religion is hard to live with. It just becomes impossible to keep all the rules, or even to decide which rules we ought to be keeping in different circumstances. We end up not loving ourselves, and so cannot love others, The only way to escape the overwhelming sense of our own unworthiness is to project the nasty bits of ourselves onto others, usually those who are somehow different from ourselves, people of another race, religion, culture, class, gender or sexuality. This results in a fracturing of society and church, and to the blame culture, which seeks to apportion responsibility for our own unhappiness to others. It can also lead to a conviction that everyone needs follows our particular way to God if they are to be saved.

With the Spirit model of God, sin is about unfaithfulness, or idolatry in Old Testament-speak, putting other things like the desire for money, power, prestige, possessions, food or physical gratification before our desire for God. Sin is also failure in compassion and inflicting harm on God’s creatures (human and other species) and on God’s world. Sin is not breaking laws, it is betraying relationships, and what it results in is not punishment but estrangement – from our fellow beings and from God. As such, we feel the consequences not in the life to come after death, but in this world.

The central dynamic is not guilt and blame with the Spirit model, but nurturing relationships. If we do not say sorry, and do something to mend the hurt and show our change of heart, the relationship will be harmed.

One element in every service of Christian worship is the Confession and Absolution, when we say sorry as individuals and as a congregation. Some confessions are difficult to say. I always disliked leading the confession in the Prayer Book Evensong service, in which we called ourselves ‘miserable sinners’ and asserted that ‘there is no health in us’ – largely because I just didn’t believe that was true. God made us, God’s Spirit lives in us, so of course there is health in us! I remember the priest who was my tutor when I trained as a Reader, disapproved strongly of what he called ‘grovelling before God’ and sometimes omitted the Confession from services altogether, in the belief it was unhealthy!

I agree, confession can be unhealthy if you are working with the model of the ‘finger-wagging God’, if you are trying to earn God’s approval and avert punishment by wallowing in a sense of unworthiness and guilt.

But if you are working with the Spirit model of God, then reflecting regularly on where we have fallen short of reflecting the image of God within us, as individuals and society, saying sorry and resolving to do better, can only be good for us and for our relationships. And hearing what Methodist liturgy calls ‘the Word of Grace’: “Your sins are forgiven” does, I believe, make a real difference to our ability to live the Christian life. This assures us that, no matter what we do, we are loved the way we are, by a God who is with us, around us and within us; and that makes a real difference to the way we see the world and other people. This model of confession and absolution is not a power relationship, but a dynamic of mutual support, expressed most obviously in the confession of the Iona Community, where both minister and congregation confess and are absolved by each other.

Knowing we are forgiven and accepted enables us to forgive and accept others. Knowing that our failures do not condemn us enables us to be less quick to condemn others. Experiencing the compassion of God prompts us to be compassionate to others.

There is a great deal in the media over the past weeks that demands that we don’t just hear this message but live it. At the moment, the allegations about abuse by former politicians and celebrities; the actions of terrorists in Syria and Europe, and people traffickers across the world; the enquiry into the runaway refuse lorry in Glasgow,  all face us with the question: do we believe and trust, and live our lives in the Spirit of the God who is all compassion; or do we continue to be representatives of the finger-wagging God?

Which image of God drives your life?


(The God We Never Knew. Marcus J Borg. Harper One. 1998.)

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The Bread Man.


(Readings John 6, 56 – 69)


Preparing for today’s service has felt a bit like watching one of those endless Hollywood sequel films – you know the sort of thing – Jaws lll and Police Academy VI. I don’t expect many of you have the Common Lectionary as your bedtime reading, so you may not have noticed that we have been having readings from chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel for the past 5 weeks. Today is the last – Bread of Life V!

One might ask why the compilers of the lectionary thought this chapter of John so important that they used up 5 weeks worth of Gospel readings on it, especially in a year when the focus is supposed to be Mark. One reason may be that this is the only passage of eucharistic theology in John; his account of the Last Supper has no narrative of the institution of Holy Communion, merely a description of the feetwashing and discourses about the vine and the Holy Spirit; but all the Christian churches now place great emphasis on the Eucharist.   But this passage also contains a detailed exposition of Johannine Christology,the Gospel’s understanding of who Jesus was; and since most Christians, even if unconsciously, have had their views of Christ shaped by John’s Gospel, it is not surprising that it is given a central place in this year’s lectionary.

Many people, however, assume that John’s understanding of Jesus is that of the whole New Testament; but this is not so. If we think of the human and the divine Jesus as two sides of a balance, in John’s Gospel the balance is tipped very much to the divine side, to the extent that his humanity almost disappears. Jesus is not only shown as the pre-existing Son of God, he knows he is, and talks freely about his life before his physical birth into this world. He also talks constantly about himself and his relationship with God the Father, and about the Holy Spirit, in Trinitarian terms. He speaks in a way far removed from the language patterns of a Galilean Jew, such as we find in the Synoptic Gospels. He talks in eucharistic language, even before the Last Supper. And, in contrast to Mark’s Gospel in particular, in John, Jesus is always in control of events and has superhuman knowledge, especially of how people will react, and what will happen in the future.

In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, where Jesus uses picture language in the form of parables to speak about the Kingdom of God, in John’s Gospel, Jesus uses picture language in the form of metaphors to speak about himself. Many of these begin with the formula “I am… “ (in Greek “ego eimi’,) which both John’s Jewish and Greek readers would recognise as a formula used by divine beings; so making even clearer John’s understanding that Jesus was divine, and knew it.

Several interrelated themes run through John’s Gospel, and in chapter 6, many of them appear. John wrote his Gospel as something like a film script, where the plot is advanced by action and dialogue, by misunderstanding, explanation and allusion. We sometimes find it hard to understand, because we no longer share the culture of Jesus’ world, nor of the world of John’s community, so we miss many of the allusions.

John’s community appears to have consisted of people who were equally at home in the Jewish and the Greek worlds. More than any other Gospel writer, he gives us a Jesus who can be understood through the cultures of both Judaism and the Hellenistic world. The Logos (Word) imagery of the Prologue, which can be interpreted both in terms of Jewish Wisdom theology and Greek philosophy is but one example of this.

One major theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus is the giver of life. This is referred to in the Prologue: “in him was life”, and it is expanded in the Gospel using several images which refer to the basic necessities for life: water, light and in this passage, bread (food). This would have made sense to both Jews and Greeks.

In his telling of the story of the feeding of the 5000, John clearly refers back to the significant events of Jewish history, especially the Passover and the Exodus. This reference is expanded in the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse which follows, where there is reference to Moses and the manna which fed the Israelites in the wilderness. But there is also reference forward, to the Last Supper, a Passover meal, and to the Christian community’s experience of the Holy Communion, when Jesus takes bread, gives thanks (eucharistaysas) and distributes the bread and wine personally to his followers.

For the Jews, the Law given to Moses, and the prophecy and Wisdom given in the Hebrew scrolls were the Bread of Life. In John’s understanding, Jesus not only gave Law and Wisdom and Prophecy, he was them. He was The Word, he was The Bread of Life. His coming meant the end of the old order of Law and Temple and festivals. John’s Gospel constantly shows him reinterpreting these things and replacing them with an emphasis on belief and faith in himself. Those who could not accept this, like the leaders of the Jewish people, remained in the darkness and were destined to die. Those who did believe, however, walked in the light, and were already experiencing eternal life.

This talk would have seemed blasphemous to the traditional Jewish believers who heard it. Even more horrifying to a people who drained the blood from the meat they ate, would have been talk of ‘drinking my blood and eating my flesh’. If we do not find it so, it is only because long years of hearing eucharistic language have inoculated us to the overtones of what Jesus is shown as saying.

Scholars believe that John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century. It was written for a community facing a crisis of confidence. The first disciples, including the beloved disciple around whom the community had gathered, were dying, and there was a risk that the Christians who remained would lose touch with the memory of what Jesus taught. Jesus had not yet returned in triumph, as they expected he would. After the fall of Jerusalem, the exiled Jewish community was drawing lines around itself, demanding strict adherence to the Pharisees’ understanding of Judaism, and excluding as heretics those who saw things differently, including Christians.

In response to this situation of crisis, John’s Gospel provides a picture of a supremely confident Jesus, who was misunderstood by the Jewish leaders of his time, but knew he would replace their religion with one centred on himself. It provides a picture of a community which is united to the source of life through faith, and which continues to be taught by the Spirit as it was taught by the human Jesus. It provides a picture of a community that does not have to wait for the Second Coming in order to enjoy eternal life, because through baptism and the Eucharist, it has entered into eternal life already.

It is not surprising that this understanding of Jesus appealed to the Church, which adopted it in its creeds and hymns. It is also an understanding of Christ that continues to appeal to many Christians, especially to those who are undergoing times of trouble, for whom John’s confident assertions provide comfort.

But many Christians today find John’s Gospel difficult to take. There are always three contexts in which we read the Gospels (or watch a film, for that matter.) First of all there is the context of the original event, what actually happened. The Jesus of John is far removed from the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, and scholarly opinion inclines to the view that the Synoptic Jesus is likely to be closer to the real historical Jesus. This, for some Christians would disqualify John’s Gospel as a source for belief about Jesus.

Secondly, there is the context of the evangelist and the community for whom he wrote. Scholars can make educated guesses about this community. In many ways, what they describe has parallels with our own. They think it was an urban community (because of the emphasis on the Jerusalem ministry of Jesus ); they think it was a community of many cultures; they think it was a Christian community set in an alien or hostile environment. This should help to make its message relevant to us. But, the Old Testament and Greek cultures to which it constantly alludes are less and less familiar to the people of our day, and its emphasis on the divine rather than the human side of Christ, and its certainty, are alien to many in our society.

The third context is that of the reader. We always read a text from the point of view of our own time, and reinterpret it according to our own assumptions. As I have said, the work of Biblical scholars has meant that many people can no longer read John’s Gospel as a record of the historical Jesus. It may still, however, appeal to those who prefer to explore their faith intuitively, through metaphor, poetry, symbolism and allusion.

But for those who do not find that John’s symbolism and allusion means much to them, perhaps we just need to follow the example of John’s freedom with the original script of Jesus’ ministry, and to rewrite it for our own time. As an example of how this might look, I’m going to offer you three pieces of writing, what we might call the outlines for ‘Bread of Life VI and VII and VIII’. The first is a worship song, that I learnt many years ago when I taught in a Roman Catholic school;  It’s called ‘The Bakerwoman’ and it looks at the Bread of Life image from the point of view of Mary; perhaps you can understand why I like it.



The Bakerwoman


The bakerwoman in her humble lodge

received a grain of wheat from God.

For nine whole months the grain she stored:

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord”

Make us the bread, Mary, Mary,

Make us the bread, we need to be fed.

The bakerwoman took the road which led

to Bethlehem, the house of bread.

To knead the bread she laboured through the night,

and brought it forth about midnight.

Bake us the bread, Mary, Mary,

Bake us the bread, we need to be fed.

She baked the bead for thirty years

by the fire of her love and the salt of her tears,

by the warmth of a heart so tender and bright,

and the bread was golden brown and white.

Bring us the bread, Mary, Mary,

Bring us the bread, we need to be fed.

After thirty years the bread was done.

It was taken to town by her only son;

the soft white bread to be given free

to the hungry people of Galilee.

Give us the bread, Mary, Mary,

Give us the bread, we need to be fed.

For thirty coins the bread was sold,

and a thousand teeth so cold, so cold,

tore it to pieces on a Friday noon,

when the sun turned black and red the moon.

Break us the bread, Mary, Mary,

break us the bread, we need to be fed.

And when she saw the bread so white,

the living bread she made at night,

devoured as wolves might devour a sheep,

the bakerwoman began to weep.

Weep for the bread, Mary, Mary,

weep for the bread, we need to be fed.

But the bakerwoman’s only son

appeared to his friends when three days had run

on the road which to Emmaus led –

and they knew him in the breaking of bread.

Lift up your head, Mary, Mary,

lift up your head, for now we’ve been fed.

Words: Marie Noel. Additional words, translation and  music: Hubert J Richards. Copyright Kevin Mayhew Ltd.

Then there’s a poem that sees God as a Bakerwoman, forming us humans and testing us in the fire.


Bakerwoman God

Bakerwoman God, I am your living bread.

Strong, brown Bakerwoman God.

I am your low, soft and being-shaped loaf.

I am your rising bread,

Well-kneaded by some divine

and knotty pair of knuckles,

by your warm earth hands.

I am bread well kneaded.

Put me in the fire, Bakerwoman God,

Put me in your own bright fire.

I am warm, warm as you from fire.

I am white and gold, soft and hard,

Brown and round. I am so warm from fire.

Break me, Bakerwoman God.

I am broken under your caring Word.

Drop me in your special juice in pieces.

Drop me in your blood.

Drunken me in the great red flood.

Self-giving chalice, swallow me.

My skin shines in the divine wine.

My face is cup-covered and I drown.

I fall up, in a red pool in a gold world

Where your warm sunskin hand is there

To catch and hold me.

Bakerwoman God, remake me.

Alla Renée Bozarth

Womanpriest: A Personal Odyssey, Paulist Press 1978,
rev. ed. Luramedia 1988, distributed by Wisdom House;
Gynergy, Wisdom House 1990;
Water Women, audiocassette, Wisdom House 1990;
Moving to the Edge of the World iUniverse 2000;
This is My Body~ Praying for Earth, Prayers from the Heart,
iUniverse 2004.To listen to the musical composition of “Bakerwoman God” by retired Northern Illinois University professor of music, Tim Blickhan, performed by the Augustana College Jenny Lind Vocal Ensemble, Michael Zemek, director, on All Saints Day 2013, go here:


Last is a poem by the Cornish poet, Charles Causley, called ‘The Bread Man’. It is a retelling of the story of Jesus in modern dress, and with modern doubts and ambivalence. You may find the imagery used shocking; if you do, remember how shocking the words which John shows Jesus using, in Bread of Life I-V would have been to his contemporaries, and then see if this sequel appeals to you more or less than the previous scripts!


Ballad of the Bread Man

Mary stood in the kitchen

Baking a loaf of bread.

An angel flew in through the window.

‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.

‘God in his big blue heaven,

Sitting in his big gold chair,

Wanted a mother for his little son.

Suddenly saw you there.’

Mary shook and trembled,

‘It isn’t true what you say.’

‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel,

‘The baby’s on its way.’

Joseph was in the workshop

Planing a piece of wood.

‘The old man’s past it,’ the neighbours said.

‘That girl’s been up to no good.’

‘And who was that elegant fellow,’

They said, ‘in the shiny gear?’

The things they said about Gabriel

Were hardly fit to hear.

Mary never answered,

Mary never replied.

She kept the information,

Like baby, safe inside.

It was election winter.

They went to vote in town.

When Mary found her time had come

The hotels let her down.

The baby was born in an annexe

Next to the local pub.

At midnight, a delegation

Turned up from the Farmers’ Club.

They talked about an explosion

That made a hole in the sky,

Said they’d been sent to the Lamb and Flag

To see God come down from on high.

A few days later a bishop

And a five-star general were seen

With the head of an African country

In a bullet-proof limousine.

‘We’ve come,’ they said, ‘with tokens

For the little boy to choose.’

Told the tale about war and peace

In the television news.

After them came the soldiers

With rifle and bomb and gun

Looking for enemies of the state.

The family had packed and gone.

When they got back to the village

The neighbours said to a man,

‘That boy will never be one of us,

Though he does what he blessed well can.’

He went round to all the people

A paper crown on his head.

Here is some bread from my father.

Take, eat, he said.

Nobody seemed very hungry.

Nobody seemed to care.

Nobody saw the god in himself

Quietly standing there.

He finished up in the papers.

He came to a very bad end.

He was charged with bringing the living to life.

No man was that prisoner’s friend.

There’s only one kind of punishment

To fit that kind of a crime.

They rigged a trial and shot him dead.

They were only just in time.

Bread man

They lifted the young man by the leg,

They lifted him by the arm,

They locked him in a cathedral

In case he came to harm.

They stored him safe as water

Under seven rocks.

One Sunday morning he burst out

Like a Jack-in-the-box.

Through the town he went walking.

He showed them the holes in his head.

Now do you want any loaves? he cried.

‘Not today,’ they said.

Charles Causley.


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Real Bread


(Eph. 5, 15-20; John 6, 51-58)

Today we come to week four of the lectionary readings from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, which contain the story of the Feeding of the 5000, and the reflections on them by the gospel writers around the theme of The Bread of Life.


This week, the emphasis changes from looking back into Jewish history, linking the feeding with the Exodus and the manna in the wilderness, to looking forward into Christian liturgy, and linking it with the Communion. As the account of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel doesn’t have a description of the institution of Holy Communion, this is where we find John’s Eucharistic theology.


A line from today’s gospel: “My flesh is true food and my blood is real drink”.


In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for ‘true’ is also the word for ‘real’ and the ‘real’ is something that our age values highly. People are prepared to pay vast sums for works of art, whose value drops dramatically if they are discovered to be copies of an original, deliberate forgeries, or the work of less famous artists. They are then judged not to be ‘real’ or ‘true’.


With food also, we are engaged in a search for the real. We have campaigns for real ale, and manufacturers advertise their food as ‘free from artificial additives and colourings’, illustrating their belief that what we want is what is natural,what is real.


This morning we have come together to celebrate  Holy Communion. We will receive a wafer of unleavened bread and a sip of wine, in the belief that we are experiencing the real Presence of Christ; but how ‘real’, how ‘true’, how ‘genuine’  will that experience be?


To most people outside the church community, the answer to that question is obvious. The things we do in church have nothing to do with reality. Religion is at best an irrelevance, at worst a deliberate escape from reality, ‘the opiate of the people’ as Karl Marx called it.


But for those of us who do believe, who find that following Jesus enables us to make contact with that reality which is at the depth of our being, how can we judge if what we do, including a celebration of the Eucharist, is ‘real’ or not?


Traditionally, debates about whether a celebration of Holy Communion is valid or not have concentrated on the externals. Was the person who presided validly ordained and authorised to celebrate? Some years ago, when I belonged to a church that was shared between Anglicans and Methodists, I was distressed to learn that some Anglicans would not take communion if the rite was presided over by the Methodist minister: he was not acceptable as he was not ordained by a bishop; and of course there are still some in the Church of England who don’t believe a service presided over by a female priest is a ‘real’ communion, since women cannot (in their eyes) be ‘real’ priests.

Were the right elements used? Some of you may remember the situation a few years ago when there was a great fear of an epidemic of bird ‘flu, and churches were advised to administer elements in one kind, the bread, only. There was a lot of angry comment on this in the church press, since many believed that it was only a ‘true’ communion when they received both the bread and wine; in fact the rubrics make it clear that the whole of the Communion is contained in both elements, and is received even if you can only take one kind.


Other questions that churchgoers of different traditions tend to get worked up about are were the right words said at the right time; and were the right actions performed by the president and the communicants?


All this is really strange, because Jesus, who we believe we receive in the sacrament of Holy Communion, was a person who in his earthly life sat very light to externals. He was much more concerned with what was within, with people’s attitudes, motivations, beliefs and faith. He was constantly urging his followers to see beyond the externals, and penetrate the deeper meaning within.


So I want to suggest to you today that what makes a Eucharist real or unreal, true or untrue is not how close the externals are to what Jesus said or did, but how close these internal elements are to his practice.


The overriding characteristic of Jesus that comes across in all four gospels was how open he was to everyone. It was this that was such a stumbling block to belief in him for pious Jews. He was free with his time and his teaching; he taught people like Mary of Bethany (who really ought to have been in the kitchen, helping with the meal preparation), and the Samaritan woman at the well (who was doubly unclean), and he welcomed little children when the disciples wanted to send them away. He shared meals and accepted hospitality with notorious sinners like Levi and Zaccheus. He was free with his body, allowing himself to be touched by those whom others considered polluting, like the sinful woman who anointed him at Simon’s house, and the woman with the haemorrhage, and even Judas, who betrayed him with a kiss.


So I want to suggest that our Eucharists are ‘real’ and ‘true’ in as much as we experience in them the openness to others that Jesus showed, and are ‘unreal’ and untrue’ insofar as we use them to erect barriers – barriers between ourselves and others, between God and others, between God and ourselves.


In Acts and the Epistles, we see the first disciples having to learn this openness again and again: the truth that Jesus’ Body and Blood are available to all. Think of Peter’s meeting with Cornelius and his family, of Paul and others taking the gospel to the Gentiles, of James warning against discriminating against poorly dressed worshippers, of the Corinthians failing to treat the poorer members of the community with generosity in the agape meal.

Yet how many barriers do we present day disciples erect to prevent others sharing ‘the bread of life’ with us? Denominations bar one another from receiving; people have been, and still are barred from the communion rail because of their race, or age, or intellectual ability or marital status. People are excluded from taking certain roles within the Communion service because of gender or sexuality. Like the Corinthians and those whom James criticised, don’t we still try to ensure that those who share the communion elements with us are dressed properly, behave nicely, come from the same class as us, and hold the right theological beliefs.


We try to exclude those whose words or actions make us feel uncomfortable and disturb our peace. This is partly because the sort of openness that Jesus practised is very frightening, very disturbing. Such openness may bring us to face the death of what we have always believed was ‘real’ and true’.

It feels – and it is – dangerous. If we adopt such openness, we face the prospect that we might be, as Jesus was, broken, deserted, reviled, rejected. But Jesus’ example says that only when the ‘real bread’ on our supper table is open to all people, as his was, will our Communion be real.


And that openness includes being open to ourselves; not just to our good bits, but also to the unworthy bits that we would rather forget, and that other people didn’t know about. So often, when we come to church, we leave that part of ourselves behind, or cover it up with special clothing in the vestry. But Jesus accepted, and accepts people just as they are. He did not demand that people repent before he helped them or shared a meal with them. He received them as they were.


So if we set different standards from his, for ourselves or for others, when we come to receive him, how can we receive the ‘true bread’?.


George Herbert, the 17th century priest, pastor and poet, expressed this in his poem, called ‘Love’:


Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin;

But quick-eyed Love, discerning me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lacked anything.


‘A guest’, I answered, worthy to be here’

Love said, ’You shall be he’.

‘I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

I cannot look on thee’

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

‘Who made the eyes, but I?’


‘Truth, Lord, but I have marred them Let my shame

Go where it doth deserve’

“And know you not,’ said Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’

‘My dear, then I will serve.’

‘You must sit down,’ said Love, and taste my meat.’

So I did sit, and eat.

If our Communion is to be true, and real, and if we are to feed on the true bread that comes from Heaven, then we must come accepting others, good bits and bad bits, without conditions; accepting ourselves as God made us, and committed into growing into the people God meant us to be; and accepting the character of the God who invites us to sit and his table and eat with no conditions, no masks, no restrictions.


We come with only our trust in Christ’s promise, that he is the true bread of life. When we take him into ourselves, when we are strengthened and empowered by his presence within us, when we live as he lived, then we will be satisfied, and experience eternal life.


The table is set. The host awaits us. Come let us celebrate the feast.

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The Gift of Bread


(Exodus 16, 2-4 & 9-15; Ephesians 4,1-16; John 6,24-35)

If you invited me to dinner, and I turned up on your doorsteps with a loaf of bread as a gift, rather than the customary flowers, or wine, or box of chocolates, I don’t think you would be very impressed.

Yet today’s Gospel reading (along with that for last week, and those for the next three weeks) are from the long sixth chapter of John’s Gospel which is entirely concerned with a gift of bread: bread given to the multitude in the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, and the Bread of Life given to the world in the coming of Jesus.

That says a gift of bread is something special.

At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the saying: “I am the bread of life”, one of the ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel that are so comforting to many Christians. They are not, of course, words of the historical Jesus. John’s Gospel was probably composed by a community of Christians late in the 1st century, based around a book of miracles or ‘signs’ of Jesus. The ‘I am’ sayings are part of the discourses that the Gospel writers composed and placed on the lips of Jesus as a profound theological reflection on the person and mission of Jesus which the signs demonstrated.

In this, the writers of John were helping us to look at the miracles in what the Dean of St Albans says is the proper way. In his book ‘The Meaning in the Miracles”, Jeffrey John illustrates from his own schooldays our modern tendency to get hung up on explaining what happened in the miracles. He tells of two contrasting RE teachers: Mr Davies, who insisted the miracles happened exactly as described, and were demonstrations of Jesus’s divine power (i.e. the bread and fish were changed into enough food for everyone); and Miss Tomkins, who insisted nothing supernatural happened, but that the miracles were a demonstration of the influence of Jesus which brought out the best in everyone (i.e. people were prompted by the small boy’s example to share their food).

In contrast to these approaches, with their concentration on what happened, Jeffrey John guides us to look at the setting and background which informed the creation of the miracle stories, in order to try to understand what the writers are trying to tell us about what God is doing through Jesus, his words and his actions.

The Old Testament is the primary background for the Gospel writers, and, just as with the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, the stories of Jesus’s miracles are ‘midrash’ or ‘haggadah’ – writings which weave incidents from the Old Testament into the story of Jesus, to illustrate how he continues and perfects the work of God described in them. So the Feeding of the 5000 links back to the stories in Exodus of the manna in the desert, and in 2 Kings 4 of Elisha feeding 100 prophets with 20 loaves of bread, and shows that Jesus is both a new Moses and a new Elisha, but is also greater than both, and that his coming fulfils both the Law and the Prophets.

But there are richer meanings too.

In Deuteronomy, bread is used to stand for the Word of God, so the gift of bread for all also means the preaching of the Gospel to all. That is why the Synoptic Gospels contain two stories of the feeding of the multitude, one with symbolic numbers which show it refers to the preaching of the Gospel to the Jews, and the other referring to taking the Gospel to the Gentiles.

For the gospel writers, the bread in the miracle also refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, so the gift of bread is also the gift of the continuing presence of Jesus in the sacrament. For Christians today, depending whether their church tradition places more emphasis on meeting Christ in Word or in Sacrament, one or other of these will be more important – but both meanings are there in the richness of the story.

But the meaning in the scriptures is not confined to those that were seen by those who wrote them. As we continue to read them, inspired by the Holy Spirit and informed by two thousand years of Christian thought and study, we continue to find meaning in them related to our lives in the church and in the world today.

In the story we heard from Exodus, the Hebrews have been freed from slavery in Egypt by the power of God under the leadership of Moses. Their initial joy, however turns to grumbling when they realise they no longer have food and water readily available. So they complain, and wish themselves back under the yoke of their slavemasters, where they were at least guaranteed a regular food supply. God however provides for them in the form of quails and manna. The message for us too is that God will provide enough to satisfy our basic needs on a daily basis. There is no need for us to store up supplies, or exclude others to guarantee we have enough.

Spiritually, also, some of us are afraid of the freedom to study and interpret God’s word in the light of modern insights. Some would rather remain in  the comparative security of slavery to someone else’s interpretation, rather than risk the freedom of the unknown.

The letter to the Ephesians also talks about resources, this time for the Christian community. This writer, too, repeats the message that God has provided enough for the needs of each church community. All that is needed is for people to make the resources available, with generosity and humility, in a way that builds up the unity of the community. This is what it means to “live a life worthy of our calling”.

If we view this letter through the lens of the discourse on the Bread of Life, we can see how we offer ourselves, as ordinary people, ‘bread’, and God takes what we offer and transforms it into the Bread of Life for those we serve and share the Gospel with.

This message is not just meant for those called to ordained or licensed ministry. All of us have a Christian vocation, though, as the letter points out, for each of us it will be different. When we offer our gifts to be used by the Body of Christ, and allow them to be used as the body decides is best for all, then our gifts will help to build up the church, and bring it to that maturity, that total obedience to the will of God we see in Jesus Christ.

What bread do you have to offer to build up the body today?

The reading from John’s Gospel, as always, speaks to us on two levels. The story tells how God, through Jesus,   provided for the physical needs of the people. They come to demand, as did the Hebrews of old, that he does it again. But Jesus is reluctant to do so. Although in the gospels Jesus does do miracles, he is scathing about those who demand a supply of them before they will accept who he is.

So we can see that the bread of life is a metaphor for the complete trust we should have that God will meet all our needs  both physical and spiritual. Within the physical world, God has provided enough to meet the physical needs of everyone. We just need to share it.

The majority of wars are not fought  over religion (as so many people believe nowadays) but over control of resources: land and water, oil, minerals and transport routes. When we compete to control these resources, and keep them for ourselves and when we fail to care for the resources God has given us, some of us go hungry. It is only when we imitate Christ, in his life of simplicity, generosity and self-sacrifice that we find there is, in fact, enough to allow for everyone to flourish.

And in our personal lives, the gift of bread encourages us to reflect on what we need to satisfy us. We are encouraged by advertising to accumulate more and more ‘stuff’, the shiny technology, the latest thing, the newest miracle device. But do we actually need that? Could we not find more satisfaction in the simpler things of life, in simplicity of ‘bread’ and in sharing what we have with others, as Jesus did?

The Gospel also speaks of the way, through Jesus, God provides for our spiritual needs. The purpose of these signs is not to demonstrate God’s power over the physical world, but to bring people back into a relationship of faith, trust, and acceptance of God’s rule in their lives.

Through Jesus, God offers us a pattern for the way we should live in order to be satisfied spiritually. Jesus gives himself as the bread of life – an ordinary human being, transformed into something extraordinary and miraculous by the grace of God. He gives himself without limit. He gives himself without restriction, to the sinful and unworthy as much as to the faithful. He gives himself sacrificially, allowing himself to be ignored, abused and broken without retaliation.

If we adopt that way of living and believing, if we take Jesus into ourselves and feed on him in faith, then we will become like him, a gift to the whole world, the bread of life for others.

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