2 August 2015 TRINITY 9   Proper 13 Year B

 Exodus 16.2-4, 9-13; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6.24-35

Longing and completion, desire and fulfilment are inevitable experiences in human life. From the instinctive cry of the baby for milk and for love, answered in the Mother’s embrace, to the longing that Chapter will soon be over... but as soon as we put it in this way we are immediately a little uneasy, for surely this is not quite our experience. It is not that longing and desire lead inexorably to completion and fulfilment. Is it not much more true that what appears the fulfilment of one desire only opens the door to another? The ability to see that end of year exams mattered enabled us to put effort in - with the thought that there would come reward and rest - but no: there was always next year. Thus, so on.

We all are familiar with the story of the man who, walking along a cliff path, lost his footing on some loose scree and before he could regain his balance had slipped over the edge. Immediate disaster was averted by a handily placed shrub which he clutched thankfully. Naturally, he shouted for help - you would, wouldn’t you? - and this was not unreasonable, for there had been other walkers on the path. Yet no-one answered. His grip on the shrub was not very secure and he was tiring. Though only a couple of minutes had passed he was becoming desperate. As have many before, he found himself praying: ‘God, if you are there, please help.’ Again nothing seemed to be happening but just as his foot slipped again a voice said ‘Yes, my child. Trust me and let go’. In an instant, he was cheered up and dashed down. One glance below was enough to reinforce his conviction that letting go was the last thing he could afford to do. Despair now gripped him tightly. He was silent for a moment, then cried out ‘Is there anyone else up there?’.  

In its own way, this is a profound reflection of human experience. Situations awaken need, longing, desire in us. There are solutions, responses, moments when desire seems to have found its goal - but too often the sense of resolution is overcome by the challenge of yet deeper desire and longing – or, God forbid, boredom. Of course our own pursuit of vocation maps onto this pattern. We came, yes, to answer a call - and that call was itself made known to us and in us by a longing and a desire. As we have sought to answer the call we have, all of us, had to come to terms with the way in which so much of our own picture of the longing has turned out to be only a tiny part, only a first step, perhaps even a misapprehension - and where we hoped to find repose we have been driven to search deeper and further.

It is no accident that journeying, being ever on the move, is so central to the biblical record of the Hebrew people; nor is it accidental that Jesus’ own relationship with the disciples is worked out in the context of journeying. The story told is a very human one. At Mattins today we heard of the Israelites making that journey out of Egypt. Compared with the appalling stories of so many migrants today, the trials of the people of Israel seem comparatively mild. Nonetheless, they are on the move and there is no food supply and they are starving. This is not some aesthetic desire but a visceral need. Food is a necessity for survival. The Lord, without any prompting, tells Moses that bread is going to rain down from heaven. What happens? This stuff appears - and the Israelites who are up early in the morning see it and say, ‘Ooer, what’s this?’ To have Moses tell them this is the bread the Lord has given them to eat does not represent a moment of resolution but puzzlement. We know that, despite the fact the manna does keep them from starving, the people are not content for long and soon they complain that they don’t want this worthless food.

It is in this context that Jesus addresses those who have caught up with him and the disciples. Perhaps to be polite, perhaps just out of curiosity, the crowd ask, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus, not being polite, cuts through their flannel and says, effectively, you’re only here because you got a free lunch and see me as the source of free lunches... - but that is to miss the point: ‘the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’.

Here is both challenge and hope. Challenge to our unquenchable tendency to keep reducing life to realisable goals of our own making and hope - for in Christ we meet both the true goal of all our desiring and the means of moving beyond our distorted longings. Challenge, because we are gently brought to see that our boredom - even with the Eucharist - is of our making: God's infinite gift of Godself remains ever new, ever true. Challenge, because we begin to realise that participation in the Eucharistic mystery entails an opening of the rest of our life to the transforming grace we encounter there; allowing Christ, the fulfilment of all our hopes, to break into the endless cycle of our longings turning to dust. This presence of the risen Christ is the mark we long for, gracing us with hopefulness and contentment to replace the grumbling and anxiety - whether it is about the next meal or the realism of Plan A or Plan B. We were all struck by the picture of the Little Sisters of Jesus being so quick to laugh. We cannot decide together to become hopeful and contented: it is a gift and grace of the Spirit of the risen Lord. Then we see that this is indeed something to hope for, for it frees us to recognise the Lord’s call and to be eager and ready to do his will.

After a Chapter in which we have given some focused attention to the demands of holy poverty and given some thought to those millions of migrants, both free and unfree, we also recognise that our reaching for the bread of life demands of us a special recalling of all who suffer. The great thinker Julia Kristeva puts it thus: “When the Church celebrates this communion in Christ, it ought to be mindful of all that people have suffered. At the Lord’s table we need to be particularly mindful of those who have perished through violence, hunger and illness, or through deprivation of their cultural heritage”. The more we are able to enter into the needs and plights of others the more transparent our own longing for final blessedness becomes. Then we shall find ourselves believing more simply when Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’

Peter Allan CR