The Bread of Love
Nineteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Timothy Radcliffe asks what it means to be truly alive.
This is the third week that we have been listening to St John’s discourse on the bread of life, and still the crowd are struggling to understand what he is talking about, and the preacher is probably also struggling to find something new to say!
And one can understand why the people find it hard to understand. What sense could they possibly make of someone who says that he is the bread of life come down from heaven? One small step towards understanding ‘the bread of life’ might be to ask what it means to be alive. In Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, this is the question which is put to the young Merry. She replies, ‘Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive.’ She does not give much value to life and so it is not awfully surprising that she grows up to be a terrorist.
Is life just a short time of biological vitality between conception and death? These people are looking for bread in this sense, that just lets you survive from one day to another. It is the bread just to keep on living rather than the bread of life.
Jesus says that he has come that we may have life abundantly. St Irenaeus famously said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Jesus offered these hungry people the bread of life in abundance. There is a wonderful excess, vastly more than is needed for mere survival, twelve basketfuls left over. It is like a banquet I was given in Guangzhou in China. There was course after course, and then when we were utterly stuffed, the rice is produced which it would have been an insult to eat. You are honoured by being offered a hospitality which vastly exceeds what is needed for survival.
Jesus goes on to say that this is the bread of eternal life. To be alive now for a Christian is already to share the bread of eternal life. Even now we are beginning to share the eternal life of the God. When I am asked at check-in for a flight whether London is my final destination, usually I cannot resist saying ‘No’. I hope that Paradise is my final destination.
But eternal life is not what happens after you die, like going to Oxford after you land in Heathrow, though some people confuse Oxford and Paradise. Eternal life is not pie in the sky when we die. It begins now whenever we manage to share God’s love and forgiveness with each other. Love is already a sharing in the eternal life of God. Pope Benedict describes love in his latest Encyclical as Christ’s ‘promise and our hope.’
The crowd ask for bread like the manna in the desert. This enabled them to carry on as they made their way to the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey. They were only given enough for each day. They had to trust that God would make sure that they would survive until the journey was over.
But Jesus invites us to make a more fundamental Exodus than leaving the slavery of Egypt. We have to die to ourselves and learn to love. If we are to live to the full, then we have to die to ourselves as the centre of the world. Love is not just a nice feeling. It is a radical loss of self-centredness, a transformation of our humanity. The Abbot of Glenstall, Dom Patrick Hederman, wrote ‘Love is the only impetus that is sufficiently overwhelming to force us to leave the comfortable shelter of our well-armed individuality, shed the impregnable shell of self-sufficiency, and crawl out nakedly into the danger zone beyond, the melting pot where individuality is purified into personhood.’
St Paul writes, in the second reading: ‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’ That is what it means to come alive. At this Eucharist, we receive the bread of eternal life. This is more than sustenance for survival. It is a share even now in love’s victory.