I am the bread of life

A sermon at the Eucharist for the Centenary of the Diocese of Sheffield
8th June, 2014
1 Peter 2.1-10 and John 6.27-40
On Monday, Bishop Peter and I had tea with eight people who were more than a hundred years old.  We were at the Mansion House in Doncaster.  It’s a great place to have tea.  All eight ladies were born in 1914 or earlier in the very year the Diocese was formed.  It was a pleasure to listen to their memories of time gone by.
I took a picture on my phone and said I was going to post it on twitter.  I expected to have to explain myself very carefully to one of the guests who was a hundred.  “No”, she said, “ I can’t be bothered with twitter.  But post it on Facebook and I’ll have a look”.
There is so much to remember and so much to celebrate in this last one hundred years of the Church family in this place, for what else is a Diocese except a family.  We remain a very young Diocese, one of the youngest in the Church of England until very recently.
Through the last one hundred years in these places, the Church has proclaimed and lived the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what we celebrate today. There have been seven Bishops of Sheffield and six of Doncaster.  It’s good to welcome some of them here today, especially Bishop Jack Nicholls and we send greetings to others, but a Diocese is far more than its Bishops.
The story of the Diocese is the story of thousands of parish clergy serving in urban and rural areas with skill and courage and faithfulness.  It’s the story of chaplains in hospitals and prisons, universities and schools.  It’s the story of pioneering industrial mission and planting new congregations.  It’s the story of faithful, steadfast, gifted lay people giving generously to their local churches of their time and talents and treasure.
It’s the story of prayerfulness and moments of renewal and resourcefulness and love of God and love of neighbour. It’s the story of countless hours of service offered through the local church to the wider community through food banks and lunch clubs and play groups and scouts and guides and a hundred other ways.  It’s a story of the church’s involvement in education, in social work, in care for the needy, in changing the world.  It’s a story of partnership with our precious sister churches, with other faith communities, with other agencies across the region and we welcome their representatives here today.  It’s a story of the creation and renewal of church buildings like this one.  I want to pay tribute today to all who have worked so hard and given so generously to the magnificent refurbishment of this Cathedral.
The story of this Diocese is the story of evangelism, of passing on the faith from generation to generation.  It’s a story of tens of thousands of ordinary but extraordinary Christian disciples, for that is what you are,  living against the grain and offering their lives back to the living God.  It’s a story of worship offered to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit every single day of those one hundred years in every place across this Diocese to God’s glory and God’s praise.
Whatever your part in that great story, thank you for all you have given and all that you give.  May God bless you for hearing his call, for joining your story to the story of this Diocese in the past, in the present and, God willing into the future as we move forward together.  Thank you.
It’s not always been an easy story.  Bishop David Lunn wrote this in 1982, “Our history is not just a success story….Neither hard work nor vision and insight have always borne the fruit they seem to deserve”.  There have been challenges and difficulties in abundance.  There have been mistakes and wrong turnings and weaknesses and pain, sometimes very great.  We are an imperfect Church and an imperfect Diocese and we will remain so into the future, however hard we try.
So it’s as well then that, in St. Paul’s words, we are never called to proclaim ourselves.  Even on a day like today.  We are not the message.  We are not the good news.  We are not the solution to the problem.  We are not the Saviour of the World.
“For we do not proclaim ourselves;” write Paul,  “We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4.5).
If we focus in our centenary year or in any year on ourselves or our story or our achievements or our significance, very soon we will nothing to offer those around us who are hungry and thirsty for life.
The Church is called to speak the message of hope and salvation.  But that message is never about proclaiming ourselves.
The Church bears good news only as she speaks of Jesus Christ and bears witness to her Lord, crucified, risen and ascended.  That’s the heart of our message today as it was yesterday and as it will be tomorrow.  We are called to proclaim an eternal gospel in the midst of a changing world.  “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord”.
Where there are things to give thanks for over the last one hundred years and today it is because we have proclaimed Christ in word and action.  Where we have stumbled and fallen short, it is because we have proclaimed ourselves.
As this year unfolds at different events in different places, we will be proclaiming Jesus Christ as the very core of our gospel message.  We will explore together seven remarkable sayings in the Gospel of John where Jesus describes himself in words beginning “I am….”.
In all these sayings, Jesus is claiming here the name and nature of God.  In the Old Testament, “I am” is the very name of God (Exodus 3.14).  That name became so holy to the Jews that it cannot be said aloud.
When Jesus says “I am”, he is telling us, over and over again, that he is the Son of the Living God, that he bears the nature of God, that he demonstrates the compassion and mercy of the living God, that in him all the fullness of God dwells.
“I am”, says Jesus, over and over again.  Think about it.  In the entire history of the world, no other person has claimed to be the fullness of God in human form.   This is the good news we bear.  This is why we are here.
Jesus’ words speak to us about who Jesus himself is and who God is.  They are sweet and beautiful and profound images.  “I am the bread of life” (6.35, 51); “I am the light of the world” (8.25, 9.5); “I am the door” (10.7,9); “I am the good shepherd” (10.11, 14); “I am the resurrection and the life” (11.25); “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14.6); “I am the true vine” (15.1,5).
A sevenfold window on Jesus.  A seven faced diamond reflecting God’s nature.  A seven course banquet to nourish the soul.  Seven answers to the most important question in the universe: what is God who made us like?  He is like Jesus: bread and light and good and living and true.
And the first answer?  “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6.35).
There are whole stories behind that word bread.  The story of the manna which God fed to the people of Israel in the wilderness for forty years and which kept them alive.  The story of the feeding of the 5,000 on the hillside which took place the day before in John’s gospel.  The story of the law given to Moses, which is like bread and wine and milk and honey. God’s word and God’s wisdom is nourishment for the soul.  The story of the Last Supper when Jesus will take bread and give thanks and break it and give it to his disciples as he did on the hillside and when he will say:  “This is my body, given for you”
There are whole stories to explore.  But the point of them all is this.  Here is something greater than manna and greater even than the law given to Moses. Here is the person at the heart of the Holy Communion which we celebrate today.  Here is a gift beyond price from God to you.  Here is the bread of life who will satisfy you when you are hungry and nourish you so that you can grow, and sustain you in the darkest times, and who will be there in every season of this life and who will call you and draw you into life eternal.  Here is the bread of life.  Here is Jesus Christ.  Come and see.  Come and eat.  Come and follow.
We give thanks today that for this last one hundred years, the churches of this diocese have proclaimed that Jesus is the bread of life, in Word and Sacrament, in love and in deeds of discipleship and generosity.
They have proclaimed that Jesus is the bread of life in the face of the immense suffering of two world wars.  Within months of Bishop Burrows standing in this pulpit for the first time, the young men of this Diocese were marching to the trenches in their thousands and the world was turned upside down.  Within months of his successor, Bishop Hunter, taking office, Germany had invaded Poland and the world was plunged into conflict.
The Church proclaimed that Jesus is the bread of life through the decades of reconstruction which followed.  Imagine the changes of the last one hundred years in technology, in science, in culture, in the roles of women and men, in the waves of migration, in the economy.  Through the women’s movement, through the depression, through the miners strike, through the growth of the universities, through rising and falling standards of living, through poverty and inequality, through migrations, through hardship, through the expansion of education and the health service.  The Church has been present.  The Church has invested.  The Church has cared.  The Church has prayed.  The Church has lifted up the bread of life.
Every age has its temptations and challenges.  In our own age, in our time, the greatest danger of them all is consumerism.  A whole machinery of advertising exists solely to convince men and women from childhood to the grave that happiness comes  from spending money and acquiring possessions.  That message is a lie but it surrounds us every moment of our waking lives.
This Cathedral stands in the centre of this city and Diocese today as a living sign of a different story.  Human beings are spiritual beings.  We are more than bodies.  We need more than material goods to be fulfilled and content.  Greed distorts us.  We cannot live by bread alone.  The unease and unhappiness around us is a hunger for the bread of life but a hunger which cannot always be named.
It should not surprise us that in a world infected by greed, the Christian faith is unfashionable.  To meet in a Church and to worship the living God and to love God and love your neighbour is deeply countercultural in 2014, more so than a hundred years ago.  To be a Christian today is live against the grain of our culture.  To share Christian faith is to invite people to explore a more demanding, more truthful way of living: to live for God and others.  To follow the way of Jesus.  To receive forgiveness through his death.  To receive life through his resurrection.  To receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  To be his disciple.  To come and eat the bread of life in word and sacrament.  To be God’s people together in this place.
Though the world does not know it, we are bearers of good news.  The Church is not the bread of life.  Jesus is the bread.  We are called to welcome others to his table, to break open the bread of the scriptures and the bread of the Eucharist, to offer signs of practical love and service.  We are called to point beyond ourselves.  To point to the one who is the fullness of God’s love.  To point to Jesus Christ, the bread of life.
We give thanks today for this last one hundred years.  We rejoice in all God’s gifts to us this day.  We commit ourselves to break the bread for others in this place in this next one hundred years and to God be the glory.  Amen.

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