Sunday, 13 October 2013

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes
to me will never be hungry ...’

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6: 35) ... bread in a Greek baker’s window in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 13 October 2013,

8 p.m., Annagh Church, Belturbet, Co Cavan,

Harvest Thanksgiving Service.

Philippians 4: 4-9; John 6: 25-35

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6: 35).

It’s wonderful to be back in Belturbet once again. I was last here two years ago for the ordination as deacon of one of my students, the Revd Naomi Quinn.

Now it is a pleasure to be invited back by the Revd Tanya Woods. Tanya and I were students together; then Tanya was back as a student in the Theological Institute for the past year; now we are colleagues once again.

It is wonderful to see a friend grow and blossom in ministry and mission, growing as a labourer in the harvest.

Coming here, I am enchanted not just by the 400-year history of this beautiful town, but by the landscape, the hills and the lakes.

Many, many years ago, when I was in my teens – I remember the year, it was 1967 – my father took me out rowing on Lough Ramor, trying to convince of the need to focus on what lay ahead of me in my adult life, and to prepare for a future career.

Little did he know, little did I imagine then, where my life was going, and where my priorities in life would eventually be focussed.

Our Gospel reading this evening is set on the shores of the Lake of Galilee, and after many accounts of rowing on the lake, this evening’s reading opens with an interesting question from the crowd on the lake shore:

‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ (verse 25)

In between all the rowing backwards and forwards, between Tiberias and Capernaum, the crowd were so busy with eating their fill, with their own small world, that they have missed the bigger picture – they have taken their eyes off Jesus.

And the question they put to him here is very similar in its thrust, in its phrasing, in its direction to another set of questions in another Gospel story. In the parable of the Goats and Sheep, or the Judgment of the Nations, in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25: 31-46), the righteous ask:

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you to drink. And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” (Matthew 25: 44).

And again, the condemned ask:

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” (Matthew 25: 37-39).

Sometimes, not just in parishes or dioceses, but in theological colleges too, we can be so focussed on our own agenda, our own practices of religion, that we can be in danger of losing sight of who Jesus should be for us.

Those questions in our Harvest Gospel this evening and that parable of the Goats and Sheep are very disturbing.

‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’

When did I last see Christ among the strangers and the unwelcome, among the ragged children and refugees, among the sick who have their medical cards taken from them, among those isolated in rural poverty and loneliness, prisoners in their own homes? When did I last see you drowining in the sea off the coast of Lampedusa or Malta?

‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’

When did I see to it that they not only received the crumbs from my table, but the Bread of Life? When did I moan about Europe being “swamped” by refugees, while I hoped America and Australia would give more visas to young Irish people squeezed out of the failing Irish economy?

‘The bread of God ... gives life to the world’ (John 6: 33) ... fresh bread in Hindley’s Bakery in Tamworth Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We find Harvest a very comforting time, and I do not want to take away from that at all.

There is a lot to be thankful for, and the words of our opening hymn, ‘Come ye thankful people come’ (Hymn 37, Irish Church Hymnal), are particularly appropriate this year, given the wonderful summer, the beautiful autumn and the rich harvest many farmers have been blessed with.

Yes we should be, we must be, thankful.

But just for a moment imagine how difficult those words are to sing for many people living in our midst today. If you are an asylum seeker living on what is cruelly called “direct provision” and facing the winter storms in a mobile home, told without choice what food you and your children must eat, it may be difficult to “raise the song of harvest-home” with the same joy and enthusiasm that we are sharing here this evening.

And yet that hymn goes on to implore God that all will be free from sorrow, goes on to trust that God will provide.

In our Gospel reading, we hear how God still wants to provide for us, no matter how we behave, no matter what our circumstances.

And Christ’s words are addressed not to the Disciples, who later are going to find his teachings difficult (see John 6: 60), but to the crowds, the multitude, the many, those who are on the margins and the outside, the very people the disciples first thought of sending away.

First, Christ feeds the many, the crowds, the 5,000, with bread on the mountainside that is multiplied for the multitude. And then in this passage, even though they took their eyes off him, Christ now continues to promise them real food, he promises them “the true bread from heaven” (verse 33) and tells them:

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (verse 35).

Care for the body and care for the soul go together to the point that they are inseparable.

The Samaritan Woman at the Well ... a modern Greek icon in an exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete, last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The promise Christ gives the crowds on the shores of the lake re-echo the promises he gives earlier in this Gospel to the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4: 5-42).

The promise of the “the true bread from heaven,” the promise of the “Bread of Life,” come immediately after the promise to the Samaritan woman of “Living Water” (see John 4: 10, 11, 14). We can even link those promises with the promise of the banquet of life in the Miracle at the wedding in Cana (see John 2: 1-11).

Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Living Water, the best wine, the true vine.

So often he talks about himself in Saint John’s Gospel in terms of food and drink, bread and water and wine. We are invited to the banquet that follows the harvest, we are invited to the wedding with the Bridegroom.

But so often too he emphasises that his invitation is to the outsider too: those in the highways and byways who are invited to the wedding banquet (see Matthew 22: 1-14; Luke 14: 15-24).

The Gospel message is especially for those in the wilderness. Where do you think the wilderness places are today in our society, on our island, in the world? For it is there that God seeks to provide the blessings that come with his manna from heaven, and seeks to give life, not just to us but to the world:

“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (verse 33).

The Gospel reading in the Lectionary for this morning (Luke 17: 11-19) is the story not just of ten lepers who are healed, but a Samaritan – marginalised because of his religion, his ethnicity, and his health – who is healed. And in being healed in that wilderness area between Galilee and Samaria, in having his physical and social needs met, he comes to worship Christ as the Lord God Incarnate.

The Samaritan woman at the well – marginalised because of her religion, her ethnicity and prejudices about her marital or sexual status – is brought to a wholeness of life. And as a consequence she becomes one of the most effective missionaries in the New Testament, bringing the Good News of Christ to her town.

Saint Paul tells us in our Epistle reading this evening:

“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4: 9).

When you rejoice in the harvest, remember those who are the margins, but who are invited by Christ to rejoice in the harvest too, to experience him as the Bread of Life, as Living Water, as the True Vine, who seeks to feed them in the wilderness, wherever the wilderness places are in our world today ... it may not make you prosperous or popular, but “the God of peace will be with you.”

And so, may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Parish Church of Annagh stands on a prominent hilltop in Belturbet, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Service in Annagh Church, Belturbet, Co Cavan, on 13 September 2013.

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