• Tenth Sunday after Trinity
    Published: Tuesday 17 August 2021 09:18:AM
    Author: The Revd Jane Millinchip

    Ephesians 4:25-5:2
    John 6:35,41-51

    Before our younger son Ben went to university, he spent 6 months teaching in a boarding school in India, and it was a very formative period of his life. I remember him telling me, when he came home, that his time in India had taught him that there is a big difference between the things which we as humans need and the things which we want. He had developed a clearer idea of what his priorities in life should be, and how to make the right choices.

    So what is it that humans really need?

    Some of you may be familiar with Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, which is a five-tier model of human needs in the form of a pyramid. You can see a simplified version of the model on your service sheet. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic needs – food, water, rest, warmth and safety. As humans, this is what we need to survive. Without these, we will die.

    In many cultures, including both our own, and the middle-eastern culture of Jesus’ day, it is bread which in part fulfils our basic need for food. Bread is a staple food, something which most people eat pretty much every day. As those of you who have travelled to France will know, there is a boulangerie on every street corner, and someone in a French family will go out every morning to buy fresh bread – aller au pain. In some parts of Morocco, there are still communal bread ovens, where they bake the loaves of bread for the people living in the surrounding streets. And I remember when we were walking in the mountains in Switzerland that we didn’t take a complicated packed lunch with us – just plenty of bread and cheese. That was all we needed.

    Bread then has always been, and still is, an important part of the diet of many people all over world, and so it is not surprising that the image of bread is one which Jesus chooses when he is teaching his disciples.

    He refers them back first to the story in Exodus 16 of the Israelites in the wilderness, on their way to the promised land, and facing starvation. God miraculously provides food for them in the form of manna. It is a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground, we are told, like coriander seed and it tastes like wafers made with honey. The fact about manna however is that, as Jesus reminds them, although it is a miraculous food sent by God to save his people from starvation, it not only goes mouldy like any other food, but it is just that – food – nothing more. It makes no difference to the people’s relationship with God, and to their part in his plan for the salvation of the world.

    The point which Jesus is trying to make of course, is that life is about more than our physical need for food, or a baguette from a French boulangerie.

    Have another look for a moment at the pyramid on your service sheet. Maslow recognises that, as humans, we also have psychological and personal needs which go far beyond the basic need to survive. We need to love and to be loved, and we need a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. Maslow is of course a psychologist, speaking in a secular context, and so it is perhaps not surprising that he makes no mention of any spiritual needs which we might have. I would like to suggest however that our spiritual needs, and in particular our need for God, are really fundamental to our lives, and deserve a place well towards the base of the pyramid.

    In 1670, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal published his Pensées, as a defence of Christianity. In that book, he says this:
    “What does our craving, and our helplessness, tell us? It tells us that we once had true happiness, but that now all we are left with is an empty print and trace? We try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us, looking for help in these things, but nothing can help, because this endless emptiness can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.”

    There are certain questions which I have been asked regularly over the years. The questions go a bit like this.

    Am I a good Christian? Am I even a Christian at all?
    Am I good enough for God? What does God think about me?
    I have made such a mess of my life – God won’t be interested in me, will he?

    What is interesting is that I am very often asked these questions by people who are on the face of it not part of the church, and who appear to have no particular connections with Christianity. It has always seemed to me that these people are asking me these questions because they have a sense of something missing in their lives. In an inarticulate and muddled way they are expressing their need for God. They expressing this endless emptiness. I believe, as Pascal did, that all humans have then in them what you could call a ‘God-shaped hole’. We are created by God, to be in a relationship with him. There is therefore a part of ourselves which needs God, which craves God, just as a starving person craves food, and which will only be satisfied by a relationship with him.

    This then is what Jesus means in our gospel reading when he says

    I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

    It sounds simple enough doesn’t it …

    But ….

    Absorbing and accepting what this means, that is believing in Jesus, and following him, is actually not easy, nor is it easy to understand our relationship with God, and his plan for our lives. We still always have a lot of questions about what it means for us to be a Christian. Those same questions are still there:

    Am I a good Christian? Am I even a Christian at all?
    Am I good enough for God? What does God think about me?
    I have made such a mess of my life – God won’t be interested in me, will he?

    So that brings us to our epistle passage this morning. In this passage, St Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus to help them to answer these questions – to understand about their relationship with God, and his plan for their lives, to understand what it means to come to [Jesus].

    On first reading, St Paul might seem to be giving us a long list of rules and regulations, of things which we have to do in order to be good Christians. He might seem to suggest that we need to tell the truth, to avoid anger and bitterness and arguing, to be kind and tender hearted and so on … in order to be good enough for God.

    Now, if we go with that interpretation, there is a danger of us using this passage to convince ourselves that our relationship with God depends on what we do or don’t do, that we are saved – that is put right with God – because of the sort of people we are. In theological terms, this is called salvation through works.

    Over the last few sermons, however, I have spoken a lot about our relationship with God, and about the fact that we are not saved through anything which we ourselves do, but instead through his unconditional love for us. As I have said many times, God is just like the father in the story of the prodigal son, watching and waiting and longing for his son to come home. This is salvation through grace.

    What then is the correct interpretation of this passage? What is St Paul actually saying to the Christian believers in the early church in Ephesus about being a Christian?

    Well, as is often the case in the Bible, the context is really important. At the beginning of the chapter St Paul says this I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. And then in verse 30, he reminds the Ephesians that they are marked with a seal for the day of redemption. They have been put right with God, through their faith in Jesus. That comes first. That is the first step. Salvation comes first – the new way of life comes second. It is not the other way round. It is not a case of being better behaved, if you like, in order to earn their salvation.

    I’ll not spend too long on the details in the passage from Ephesians, You have it there in front of you on your service sheet, and it is fairly self-explanatory. Perhaps take it home and read it through quietly later. Pick out all the negative behaviours which St Paul lists, and ask yourself whether there is one of these which you are more prone to. Anger perhaps? Or bitterness? And then focus on the positive behaviours, and think how you can be more kind and tender-hearted and forgiving.

    There is however one piece of advice which jumps out of the page for me, a piece of advice which is a much-used, although I wonder how many people know that it comes from the Bible: Do not let the sun go down on your anger. What good advice! It is all about reconciliation and healing. It is about building bridges not bearing grudges. It is about working hard to make our relationships work. An important message, don’t you think? And a message which is at the heart of our Christian faith.

    So let’s draw the threads together a bit as I close.

    We are created by God to be in a relationship with him. We each have a ‘God-shaped hole’ deep in our being, and without God to fill that hole we have a sense of endless emptiness. At the same time, God our creator loves each and every one of us, with an unconditional love, and he welcomes us back time and time again, no matter what we do. It is through believing in Jesus, and following him, that we are put right with God, and our craving for God in our lives is satisfied. It then follows that, once we have this restored relationship with God. once we have been marked with [his]seal, the next step is for us to reflect this change in our lives and in the way we behave towards each other.

    Listen again to the words of Jesus:

    I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

    This is the good news which sustains us as Christian believers, and which influences the way we live our lives. This is the good news which we are called to share with others. This is the good news in these words from a much-loved hymn

    Guide me O Thou Great Redeemer
    Pilgrim through this barren land
    I am weak but Thou art mighty
    Hold me with thy powerful hand
    Bread of heaven - Bread of heaven
    Feed me now and evermore - Feed me now and evermore