This weekend we have had our Flower Festival. This year the theme was the “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel, and our new vicar (who didn’t arrive till after we set the theme) got us to start a new sermon series on these same readings this weekend.
As both a flower-arranger and preacher/service leader, I was in the wonderful position of being able to wait till we’d finished most of the arrangements on Friday morning to create our early Morning Prayer service to fit what had been done in our chapel. With a fountain and many candles in addition to arrangements, and the chairs moved so they were ‘in the round’, the atmosphere lent itself to ditching our normal Morning Prayer excerpts from Common Worship, and dipping our toes into a more celtic and reflective form of worship. The service I devised and used is here: CelticMorningPrayer_8am_ServiceSheet
My sermon dwelt on the question of what we do with the gifts we are given. It also suggests that for us to really understand how Jesus can be SO nourishing as to the bread of constant life, we really need to understand and BELIEVE in the fullness of who Jesus said he was among all the “I am” sayings.
The text of what I said is below. It concludes (before a period of silence) with a few words from a book I won this week “The Monastery of the Heart” by Joan Chittister which I won in an SPCK Twitter competition last week, and which I will be taking to the Benedictine monastery of Alton Abbey this week! (They have a new website.)
What have we been given this week?
My husband G has been given lists; lots and lots, of lists. As many of you know he is a secondary school teacher, and so not surprisingly in the first week of September he has been given lists of children for all his classes; lists of the medical and educational issues that the children in his classes have; lists of results for the children of the exam classes he had last year.
C, our son, has just started in Year 10 at school, the real beginning of his GCSEs, the point where being educated turns into something rather serious that involves proving he knows things. He’s been given books: mostly nice shiny new fresh notebooks, each in a different colour, full of pages of empty lines. He’s had lots of other things as well, including a nice new ring-binder, with dividers for music. But I think the best thing he’s probably been given this week is a new oboe, one of his very own, one that is lighter and easier to play than the school instrument he’s had for the last 7 years.
But what have we been given this week?
When we are given something, it is for a purpose.
If G doesn’t use the lists of children’s names to fill out his mark book and his classroom seating plans, he won’t learn who the children are. If he doesn’t take seriously the information he’s been given about their medical and educational needs, then he won’t be fully equipped to plan his lessons appropriately, or to react swiftly to a known medical condition.
If C doesn’t write something in those lovely new notebooks he’s been given, then he won’t retain as much of the knowledge that he is being offered at school, which he will later be able to apply in whatever he does later in life. If he doesn’t play his new oboe, he won’t be able to explore and extend his repertoire of music, giving pleasure to both himself, and to others.
So, what have we been given this week, and what is its purpose?
Each gift we are given, offers us a future that is changed from what it would have been without that gift. We have an opportunity to do something with what we’ve been given that will change our future, perhaps even change the future of others. Sometimes that gift might seem to be easily used up. It may be that it’s not the gift that is important, but how we apply what we do with it; only through what we do with it, will it’s greater purpose be revealed. Just filling a school notebook or markbook with words or numbers isn’t really the point, it’s how that information is used to gain an understanding of the world: that is the real gift.
The thousands of Galileans who had been fed miraculously by Jesus the day before this morning’s reading, had been given a gift. They thought it was bread and fish, and they had used it to fill their stomachs. They were hungry again. They wanted another miracle. They had an expectation that, like the manna that through Moses God had provided to their ancestors in the desert, they would be filled each day with what they needed to sustain them for that day.
They had not understood the real purpose of the miracle, or how it could be applied to their future lives. They were looking to the example of a past gift to understand the present one, rather than seeking the future in what was in fact a fresh gift.
The miracle of the loaves and fishes wasn’t really the gift the people were being given at all. They were, if you like, the notebook, the easily used up gift that if it wasn’t applied and used for its real purpose, only lasted for a short while. Instead, the loaves and fishes were really a gift that should have led their eyes to a better understanding of the person who gave it to them; to the biggest gift of them all; the gift of Jesus himself, the bread of life.
Jesus, the bread of life, was not a gift that simply fulfilled their needs for a day. He was not an instant fix to fill the stomach, or even a notebook of wise words. He offered them a future, a new life that would be constantly full of his presence, a gift that provided a purpose to their lives.
Just like G and his lists, and C with his notebooks, the gift Jesus represented required them to do some work to reveal the real breadth of what the gift could offer them, the fullness of life.
On the face of it, the work that was required doesn’t sound like particularly hard work. It didn’t involve algebra or a spreadsheet, or even writing an essay to prove their knowledge. All they had to do was believe: to believe in the one who had sent this bread of life to them; to believe in Jesus, the Son of God.
And yet, believing in Jesus can be so very difficult. It is so easy to be short-termist, to believe only in what we can see, or in what fills our stomachs or our minds, or perhaps in the wealth that enables us to keep ourselves warm. To believe in Jesus, to really be filled to overflowing with the living bread of life, we need to believe in all that Jesus gives us.
I think there’s a reason why “I am the bread of life” is the first of the famous “I am” sayings that we find in John’s Gospel. To really understand how Jesus can be that nourishing to our being, so life giving that we can all plumb the well of his life giving water, then we have to understand, and believe in, all the other “I am” sayings of John’s Gospel.
This morning, we’ve been given a gift. Part of that gift is this reading; the reminder that whatever else it is that we’ve been given, the most important gift of all is the bread of life, Jesus. But to make the most of Jesus, we need to believe in the fullness of all he brought us, and did for us; all that he said he was.
This chapel is also part of the gift that we’ve been given this morning. In it, we have represented some more of the “I am” sayings of John’s Gospel that we will be considering in the coming weeks. Here we have
“I am the resurrection”
“I am the life”
“I am the true vine.”
This place is also where we are invited to stop, to look and to listen to what God is saying to us about this Jesus who gives us life in all its fullness… A place, and a space, to pray and to accept again God’s gift to us.
This week I’ve been given a book. Well, I sort of won it, accidentally but that’s another story. Among other things, this book invites us to silence. Sometimes I think that it is only in silence that we can really accept what we have been given, to understand both the simplicity and the complexity of the gift that we have been given by God in Jesus.
So, I’m going to read an excerpt from this gift, and then leave us in silence, probably for several minutes, so that we can once again accept and believe in the gift we’ve been given: the bread of life.
“Silence protects us from our noisy selves
And prepares us for the work of God in us….
we become able
to hear the voice of God calling us beyond ourselves…
It is silence
that prepares us to hear God.”
From John 6:
“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (v28)
“It is the Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” (v32)
Jesus declares:“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (v35)