THE FOOD THAT ENDURES
Sermon delivered on the Ninth Sunday After Trinity the 2nd August 2015 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban’s Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15 Ephesians 4: 1-16 S. John 6: 24-35
John 6: 27 Jesus said “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on Him has God the Father set His seal.”
While eating breakfast or some other snack from our kitchen table, I used to watch the behaviour of some ching-chings (grackles to those who don't use the local term) and ground-doves on our back verandah. They had worked out, at levels of difficulty that were distinctive to each of the species, how to take advantage of the dry food and water that we put out for our dog. The ground doves used only to drink the water, but the ching-chings did better that that. Not being able to swallow the dry dog-food directly, their procedure was to take up a piece in their beak and drop it into the water, and then after it had softened, take it up again and eat it. Dr. Jane Woodall is said to have undermined the current distinction that was made between ape and man by her observations that the apes made and used tools (an ability that was supposed to be the human distinguishing feature) and so I can perhaps claim to have undermined the distinction between bird and man for the same reason... because there can be no doubt that the ching-chings were using water as a tool for softening the dry food. However, as Jesus said, the birds neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, that is to say, they don’t, on the whole, use their energies to store what they reap for some future time, but actually they do find ways to labour productively for their current needs, making use of whatever they are provided with.
LABOURING FOR THE FOOD THAT ENDURES
At first sight the Lord’s injunction to his audience in today’s Gospel reading not to labour for the food that perishes seems difficult for those of us who in one way or another need to earn to feed, house, protect and entertain ourselves and perhaps a family, and, indeed contribute to the needs of others and work in one way or another for the good of the community. However, we need to bear in mind the manner of thinking that was current when biblical expressions such as this one were used. The meaning is not that one should not be employed, but that one’s priorities should be right. The way we would express the thought would be: If we have to labour for the food which perishes, how much more should we labour for the food that endures! And as so often with the Gospel of St. John, we have to employ more than one level of thinking to be able to get at an adequate meaning of the teaching. On the surface the teaching here is about labouring, but at a deeper level, the teaching is about the reality of an eternal provision that goes beyond what we normally think about when we say “bread” or “food”. This is confirmed by the phrase “the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give you.” So we have to think about how we are supposed to “labour” for something that is “given” to us. Is this a different sort of labour? Mostly we think of “labouring” for something as earning it, and being “given” something as receiving it unearned. The line of thinking is developed in the following verses, when the people say to Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” - or in other words, "How must we labour?" Jesus’ answer is “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” Jesus does not teach that there is no labour involved. But what He teaches is that this special kind of labour is a labour of belief - to believe in Him who was sent and therefore given. This labour involves a transformation of the mind such as what in principle would have been given to us at our Baptism. This transformation of the mind involves a continuing labour throughout one’s life, when for instance one is called for the Lord’s sake to renounce a state of complaining or depression or indeed a temptation of any kind, which are all signs of incipient unbelief, and take upon oneself a state of belief in Him who was sent, indeed was given, to us.
LABOURING TO BELIEVE
Look at the state of mind of the children of Israel as told in the beginning of today’s Old Testament lesson: “The whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full.’” They expressed a state of unbelief, because although they may have appreciated that the Lord had exercised power for them, they had no appreciation or understanding of His purpose. There was no food to gather and they did not know how to begin to believe that the Lord would continue to provide for them, just as He had provided for them when they left Egypt. As the account proceeds, we note however that they were provided for, not just in an ordinary way, but in a special way. “When the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground. ... They said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.’” So for them to believe that the Lord would provide for them in their need was a labour of the mind, and as the account proceeds we see the same thing in regard to their need for water, to protection against enemies, and in regard to their very faithfulness to the covenant with God and its commands. To believe actively and persistently in the God who had led them to this point was not easy; it was a serious labour, and it involved at every point a transformation of the mind. Though our circumstances nearly three and a half thousand years later and on the other side of the globe are very different, we are not much different in how very hard we also find it to apply what God has taught us to our practical state of believing. What for instance, is our state of believing in the context of the future of the church, the building of the proposed new place of worship, the provision of the ministry and so on? What is our state of believing in the context of our own individual or family finances? Yet to believe in “the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give you” is for us, just as it was for the Israelites, God’s gift to us. God has given us the true Bread from Heaven, the Son of God Himself. We are called to receive that gift without reservation - in every context.
GIFT OF ABUNDANCE
St. Paul in our second lesson today shows us that God’s gift in His Son is not only a gift of survival, but a gift of abundance. St. Paul says that each of us in the Church is gifted with a measure of grace. “And His gifts (to us) were ... to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Now, as we have noted before, we are called too to have a transformed understanding of abundance, and not one that is governed by the general world-view or the media. The transformed understanding of abundance is the "food that endures to eternal life", which is God’s gracious gift to us. We obtain such a gift by a continuing labour of belief, and a continuing transformation of the mind that is conferred upon us in principle - in power and beginning - in our baptism, the transformation that is conferred upon us in prayer and the regular participation in the Eucharist: the transformation of the mind and heart that is the gift of God, that we are called into continually throughout life, day by day, moment by moment, and challenge by challenge. Let us thank God that by such faithful transformation, even we may, as St. Paul says, attain to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. ... Amen and Alleluiah!