Today’s is the third of four Gospel readings we are having for as many weeks from Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to St John. Today’s text is part of a dialogue Jesus had with fellow Jews about his identity and his claim to have a unique relationship with God, greater than any other person’s on earth.
To appreciate what Jesus meant when he spoke these words and what they came to mean 70 years later when they were written down, you need to be aware of the following.
- Jesus and his fellow Jews understood that God had saved their ancestors from oppression and brought them into a special relationship with Him. Thus they referred to themselves as the Chosen People.
- When their ancestors wandered from one country to another in search of a land of their own, they believed that ‘their’ God had nourished and sustained them until they found a place of their own, what they still call the Promised Land.
- They believed that while in search of this Promised Land God had sustained their ancestors with physical food on their journey (‘manna in the desert’).
- That God had given their ancestors and them the unique moral code – the Mosaic Law – by which they were to live out their relationship with God.
- These two forms of sustenance coming from God – the ‘‘manna in the desert” for their ancestors and the Law by which they still lived – was what they called ‘bread from heaven’ – it was all that God had done in the past and continued to do for his people.
Thus our Lord’s fellow Jews were scandalised to hear Jesus claim that He was now the ‘bread come down from heaven’. He said their relationship with God just through keeping the Law could not give them the ‘life in abundance’ that God was offering them now through Him. Only through me, he said, could they have a relationship with God (‘eternal life’) that would last forever. It would only be through Him, not the Mosaic Law, that God would draw ‘all people to himself’.
So if you come to me, Jesus said, I will feed, sustain and nourish you with my very being. The ‘bread’ that I shall give you, he said, will sustain you through life; you will be in communion with me and, through me, in union with God the Father.
In the Communion hymn we will sing today – O Bread of Heaven – we speak directly to Jesus as this ‘bread of heaven’, the One given to us by God. The hymn celebrates how in the Eucharist the Lord himself feeds us with the ‘food of life’ under the form of bread (and wine).
The second verse celebrates how Jesus gives us the ‘pledge of immortality’ i.e. a life of unending happiness with God. It uses a lovely sentence from St Paul that says when I am in communion with Jesus “I live; no, ‘tis not I that live; God gives me life, God lives in me”.
The final verse ends with the most consoling thought. It was first brought to my attention by a friend who was terminally ill. When I asked if he was afraid of meeting God, he simply quoted the last two lines of the hymn:
For how can He deny me heaven, who here on earth himself hath given.
May it be so for all of us.
Holy Name, Jesmond
12 August 2018
O bread of heaven, beneath this veil
thou dost my very God conceal;
my Jesus, dearest treasure, hail;
I love thee and adoring kneel;
each loving soul by thee is fed
with thine own self in form of bread.
O food of life, thou who dost give
the pledge of immortality;
I live; no, ‘tis not I that live;
God gives me life, God lives in me:
he feeds my soul, he guides my ways,
and every grief with joy repays.
O bond of love, that dost unite
the servant to his living Lord;
could I dare live, and not requite
such love then death were meet reward:
I cannot live unless to prove
some love for such unmeasured love.
Belovèd Lord in heaven above,
there, Jesus, thou awaitest me;
to gaze on thee with changeless love,
yes, thus I hope, thus shall it be:
for how can he deny me heaven
who here on earth himself hath given?