DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sermons from the margins


Use It Or Lose It

John 6.51
Jesus said, I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread he will live for ever.

Small wonder that the Jews murmured against him and disputed among themselves what Jesus might mean by these words. And if we are not equally disturbed by them, then it can only be because we have not really thought about what they mean and how they might be true. 2000 years of familiar use have insulated us from their power to shock.

Jesus is making the following claims, worded slightly differently at different points in the passage we had read, but summed up in this final verse:

He is bread, he is living bread; he is bread come down from heaven; he is bread which confers immortality.

What does it mean and how can it be true? Let us briefly consider each of these four points in turn.

  1. Jesus is "the bread": This is one of many "I am" sayings of Jesus found in John�s Gospel - I am the vine, I am the light, I am the resurrection, I am the way, I am the shepherd, I am the truth, I am the door, I am the life.

    They are not static statements of Jesus�s identity. They are dynamic descriptions of his function and purpose. Taken all together they describe a provider of guidance and protection and sustenance and renewal on life�s journey.
  2. Jesus is "living bread": This reinforces the point just made. Bread is of no use sitting on the baker�s shelf. It has to be eaten, digested, made part of us, in order to give us the strength to live. In the same way Jesus is no use just sitting on the mountain, or sitting on a page of the Bible. That would be dead bread. He is living bread, and he has somehow to be taken into our lives if he is to make any difference to us and the world in which we live and move and have our being.
  3. Jesus is bread "come down from heaven": In the Old Testament story of Israel�s wandering in the desert after escaping from Egypt, God provided food in the form of a wafer-like bread that appeared each morning as the dew evaporated. The people called it manna - the food of angels, bread from heaven - because they did not know what it was or where it came from.

    And Jesus is likening himself to this divine food, which had had one very important property: it had to be used the day it was harvested. If anyone tried to hoard it, to keep it overnight, it went revoltingly mouldy. Only on the eve of the Sabbath were they able to gather two days� supply, in order not to do the work of gathering it on the Sabbath itself.

    Again the previous message is underlined: use it or lose it. Jesus cannot be hoarded, kept by for a rainy day when we decide he will be useful. He comes to us as the living bread today, and it is today we must live in his strength.
  4. The bread confers immortality: We have seen one important way in which Jesus is like the manna in the wilderness. He is for today. Now we are shown an important way in which our bread from heaven is unlike that of olden times. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. What are we to make of this? What does it mean to eat this bread? What does it mean not to die?

    There are two interpretations of eating the bread, both of which were probably in John�s mind, and which are not mutually exclusive. One is sharing in the bread of the Eucharist, called by one of the earliest post-biblical writers "the medicine of immortality", on account of Jesus�s words here in John.

    The other is a metaphorical understanding. Eating the heavenly bread is taken to mean hearing and acting upon the words and teaching of Jesus. The Hebrews already had a similar interpretation of the manna, taken to represent the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses, given by God to guide and protect and sustain his people.

But the crunch question is, "What does it mean not to die?" Faithful Christians have been reading the Bible and receiving the sacrament and living godly, righteous and sober lives for nearly 2 000 years. And like the ancient Israelites they have all died.

There is evidence from various parts of the New Testament that some first-generation Christians did believe that with the death and resurrection of Jesus all that would change, that Christians really would not die. But we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that they were wrong. However the words are to be understood, they cannot be taken in the simple literal sense that those who eat the bread will avoid the death of the body.

John himself thought in terms of two deaths. This death we all go through.

The second death comes after the resurrection at the last day, when it was supposed that the damned would die eternally. It was this second death from which he would have understood the heavenly bread to secure salvation.

That never quite became the official standard Christian view. In fact there is no single agreed Christian view on this matter.

But however the words of Jesus in John's Gospel are to be understood, we can rejoice that the loss of a literal interpretation has not destroyed their power to speak of Christ�s victory over death.

And we should take this lesson to heart when we are tempted to accept too quickly the literal interpretation of any biblical text.

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