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By your Word I am invited: Reaching for the Bread of Life

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A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at a Cantata Service as part of the Australian Deans’ Conference at St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney, on 5 August 2018:

Johann Sebastian Bach, Erschallet ihr Lieder, erklinget ihr Saiten (BWV 172)

Reading: John 6.25-35

 

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Thank you, Dean Kanishka, for your kind invitation to preach here this morning. I bring you all greetings from the Primate, Archbishop Philip Freier, and the people of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne. It’s a great joy to be with you this morning and to share together in our celebration of the gift of God’s Word, and the gift of music to encourage and inspire our journeys of faith.

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I was brought up in the ‘old’ South Wales, and came to Australia nine years ago to take on – or so my wife Katherine and I thought – a five-year stint as lecturers, she in the Faculty of Arts, and I in Theology. Six years ago, that time scale changed somewhat when I was elected Dean of Melbourne. At the time, the Senior Canon took me to one side and said: ‘Don’t worry’. I was hoping for words of encouragement, but instead heard a reflection on my relative youth: ‘Don’t worry, you won’t be the youngest Dean of Melbourne’. ThatDean was the illustrious Stuart Barton Babbage, great great grandson of the inventor (with Ada Lovelace) of the Calculating Machine, scholar of English puritanism, war-time air-force chaplain in Persia and Palestine, who became Dean of Melbourne aged 37. Of course, you know well that prior to his taking on that role he had already been Dean of Sydney for six years.

I had the privilege of meeting Stuart at the end of his life, and hearing about his ministry of opening the doors of St Andrew’s to this city, a ministry he would continue with great energy and commitment for nine years at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne. Stuart’s hallmarks were his love for the gospel, his love of people, and his love of music. At St Paul’s he would lead Choral Evensong every Thursday, knowing that it was not only the people in St Paul’s, but all who had tuned their radios to Radio National, that would be in attendance to hear and reflect on God’s Word through sublime music. And not only those who worshipped in St Paul’s, or listened to the service on their wireless. But also, and especially so, the choir.

People often speak of ‘preaching to the choir’, and imply that the musicians that enable our worship all share faith in Jesus. I myself was a chorister before I became a Christian, and I know that I am not the only one to have found faith through music-making.

I came to faith when I was a choral scholar in Oxford. There I not only shared in leading choral worship but, as you can imagine, heard a good many sermons. But it was music, and more specifically, the music and message of Johann Sebastian Bach, that drew me closer and closer to Jesus. For me, Bach’s music choral was an invitation to lived faith.

The more I sang his works and later, as I reflected on them as an academic, I came to realise that Bach’s Cantatas and Oratorios were nothing other than sermons in sound.

It was one such sermon in sound, on a frosty night in Advent (a frosty night in Advent!) at the end of my first term, that began my journey of faith. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. As I joined the glorious opening chorus, ‘serve the highest with glorious choirs, let us honour the name of our ruler’, for the first time I consciously recalled owning Bach’s invitation. I was not only a part of a glorious choir – though our director of music always felt that there was room for improvement – but that night I believed that I did sing in service of the highest. Through music I began a journey of faith that led me to experience the freedom that can be found in service of the highest: in music and message, lived faith and fellowship.

If any among you, especially fellow music makers, have yet to experience that liberating, life-giving freedom that comes from lived faith, please talk to me, or any of my decanal colleagues, over morning tea. And if you already follow Christ, I encourage you to think back to that moment, or that gradual journey, that led to your own commitment of faith. And to think what it might be that you need to take on, or which barriers you might still need to take away, so that you may be enabled to share this invitation to faith joyfully with others.

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What did I expect when I found Jesus Christ? I guess, I was hoping for shape and guidance for my life, was expecting that my prayers would make life easier, more secure. That expectation was only partially fulfilled. Yes, knowing and loving Jesus has given shape to my life. But finding Jesus hasn’t made my life any easier, nor more secure. In fact, I think the reverse is probably the case. Knowing Jesus has made my life more unsettled, less predictable.

The realisation that coming to Jesus and knowing him may be different from what we had expected, I think, is what the people in our gospel reading also found so hard to understand. Knowing Jesus, following Jesus, may not be what we had first thought. Later in the chapter from which our reading is taken, Jesus’ close circle of followers will talk among themselves: ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’, they say in verse 60. And Jesus will ask them outright: ‘Does this offend you?’ The Greek word skandalizei puts it even more strongly: does this scandalise you, does this form a stumbling block for you? Yet the scandal of following Jesus will lead them to see ‘greater things than these’, he promises them.

The people who had just seen 5,000 people fed by a couple of loaves and some fish will see far greater things. They will see the ‘Son of Man ascending to where he was before’, Jesus tells them in verse 62. Ascend to the Father who sent him and, before that, ascend to the cross. And the knowledge that Jesus is God’s Son, and will suffer and die, will cause offense. At the end of the chapter in verse 66 we read how ‘because of this many turned back, and no longer followed him’. This rupture is one of the many breaking points in John’s gospel, where people turn away from Jesus because his teaching confronts them with a reality that is too challenging to their own preconceptions.

Why did the people come to Jesus in the first place? In verse 25 Jesus confronts them: ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate your fill of the loaves’. They came because Jesus had given thousands of people free food, fed them so generously that twelve baskets of left-overs were gathered in. They came, because Jesus had suddenly left them, and miraculously walked across Lake Galilee; had entered his disciples’ boat and sped it to the other side. When the people caught up with him, they knew themselves to be in the presence of a man full of power, and they wanted more of that power. They wanted miraculous power. Power to change things seemingly effortlessly. They came to Jesus not for Jesus’ sake, but for the sake of his power.

And Jesus told them that their efforts to be with him so that they may be filled with his power are in vain. They may have successfully raced around the Lake to catch up with him, but unless they come to him for his sake, they labour in vain. ‘Do not work for the food that spoils, but for food that will endure for eternal life’, he told them in verse 27. There may have been twelve baskets of left-overs, but those would not endure to eternity.

The food that Jesus gave them in this powerful sign will not endure. That miracle will become memory; that power will perish. Because, for John, the way to share in Jesus’ power is by sharing in his weakness and suffering. Yes, the people had heard Jesus’ words of invitation and shared in his meal. But unless they were also prepared to share in his suffering, all they will ever have experienced is a free meal.

Responding to Jesus’ invitation means coming to Jesus for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of living with Jesus. Responding to Jesus’ invitation means accepting Jesus as he is.

Acknowledge your motivation, Jesus tells the people (and us with them). Do we exert ourselves to race to him so that he might help us to consolidate a power that will not last? Or do we come to him as he is: come to remain with him, and share in his communion, and the suffering of his broken body on earth? We all called by God, whoever we are. Just as we all are invited to reflect on why it is that we seek Jesus.

‘By your word I am invited’, our cantata chorale concludes, and graciously calls us to Christ.

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‘Do not exert yourselves’, Jesus told the people. ‘Do not work for food that spoils but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you’. The food that the Son of the Father will give. The food that the one whom God personally has authorised and commissioned, on whom God has set his seal, will give. ‘For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’, Jesus tells us in verse 33. The bread that God gives is more than any other perishable nourishment. Christ is himself that life-giving food. And in the same way, in which he is the light of the world, or the way, or the water of life, in which he is life in its fullest abundance, so Christ will give life to the entire world. That life endures, lasts forever. Because the bread of life – the life-giving things that Christ gifts us – are lasting gifts from God.

When challenged by the people to perform another miracle – ‘what sign then will you give that that we may see it and believe in you? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness’ – Jesus told them that the manna from heaven was not the gift of a human mediator – Moses – but God’s free gift. There is an essential difference between the gifts, just as there is an essential difference between the givers, Jesus explains. The manna was miraculous bread from heaven. It fell like hail each night, and was gathered up in the morning by the people. But any that was left over perished – some of the people, not wanting to gather up the sweet morsels each day tried to store it, ‘and it bred worms and rotted’, perished, we read in the book of the Exodus (16.21).

Just as the heavenly manna perished, so the mediator who argued with God that the people would be fed miraculously in the first place – Moses – also died. ‘It was not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven’, Jesus tells the people in verse 32, ‘but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven’. God gifts the true bread. And with the true bread, God gifts the true mediator. Who will give his life so that death will die: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’, Jesus proclaims in verse 35. Christ himself is the true, the lasting mediator, who gives us himself as the gift of the Father: ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’, Jesus will tell the people in verse 54.

The one true mediator between God and humankind, who lives forever, gives the bread that is eternal. And he does so, by giving his own flesh and blood on the cross. In the end, the bread of life is much more than flour and water mixed and baked and given thanks for. Jesus’ bread of life is what sustains all life: is the food that sustains all faith. And the source of the life that is forever is found in Christ’s death.

Christ has come into the world so that the world may have life, and he gifts his own life for the lives of all people, he explains. ‘And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise them up on the last day’, we read in verse 39.

And the key to being saved and raised up, is by seeing and believing in Christ. Not because of the miracles, nor because of the food that may perish, but because of the fulfilment of the divine will.

In the gospel of John ‘true seeing’ often is a shorthand for ‘believing’, just as ‘superficial looking’ may stand for ‘unbelieving’. The people who have come to Jesus to share another meal are now invited to look beyond that which will perish – the loaves and fishes, the memory of the manna – and to see that which will last. And the ultimate act of seeing, and believing, is the moment of fulfilment, is the ultimate scandal that will make many people break away. When Christ himself is raised up on a cross, so that he might draw all people to himself.

Those who look to the perishable, Jesus knows, will see the ultimate tragedy: death destroying a powerful healer, teacher and miracle worker. But those who see and believe, will see God’s ultimate act of power displayed in the weakness and brokenness of the cross. Death destroyed by death; the bread of life broken, so that all may eat and be filled and never be hungry again. The water of life outpoured so that all who believe may never be thirsty.

‘The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’, Jesus assures us. Our true bread are the fruits that spring from the broken body on the cross: the bread, the wine, the Spirit Christ breathed on the world as he accomplished all, and the Words of eternal life he gave us. As our cantata puts it, ‘your word, your Spirit, your body and your blood refresh me from within’. They feed and nurture us, and remind us of the immense cost of our salvation.

The reformer Martin Luther, whose works Bach had studied just as thoroughly as has he studied the Scriptures, put it like this. When Jesus says, ‘”whoever comes to me shall never be hungry or thirst”, that means, “they will never die”. This saying should be engraved in our hearts with golden letters or, better still, with living letters, so that we all may know where our souls are kept when we die’ (WA 33: 61, 31-39).

Christ calls each one of us to open our eyes, and to see in the brokenness of the cross the ground of our salvation. He calls us to open our hearts, and let them be homes for the Words of eternal life: the ‘living letters that tell us where our souls are kept’. He does so freely, and graciously, so that all people might share his life. And, as we hear his invitation, you and I are called to reflect on what it may be that may still scandalise us in this story of grace so freely given; and what stumbling blocks we might still place in the way of those who yearn to hear this good news. What is it that keeps us from the cross, and what is it that we place in the way of the cross.

‘Welcome in faith to me’, our cantata suggests a response, ‘highest love, come within! You have taken my heart’.

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Welcome in faith: for the past four years we have displayed a nine-metre banner on the South spire of our Cathedral. It shows a woman holding her daughter. The picture on the banner was taken in one of the transit camps for refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. ‘Let’s fully welcome refugees’ it reads; a reminder of the plight of millions of displaced people, and the punitive response to that crisis by our own leaders. While our banner may not have changed the hearts of our leaders, it has transformed our Cathedral. Hundreds of refugees have come to St Paul’s to ask us what our welcome to refugees consists of: ‘Thank you for welcoming us, what do you do for refugees’, they said.

And in turn they experience a welcome that did not look at their faith, their race or their visa status, in our free English classes, our shared meals, and our Bible studies and worship in easy English that we run for those who have yet to find their new voice and language. Others came to see why it was that Christians were praying for, and welcoming, refugees from majority Islamic countries. And they were told that it is when we receive others as Christ, that we receive the Lord himself.

As a result of that welcome and care, many people have been drawn to faith in Jesus, and have become congregants; two of them have been ordained, and another has been selected for ordination in our diocese. When we welcome others in the name of Christ, we come to experience the transformative power of God in our own lives and communities: at our Cathedral we found that when we began exercising an intentional ministry of welcome, our congregations grew by 30%.

The experience that Christian churches grow when we exercise a ministry of welcome to others, is not only true when we welcome refugees, but true for many others who often face exclusion, or feel they lack recognition in our churches – indigenous people, women and children, people from the LGBTI community, people from low socio-economic backgrounds, people with disability, people suffering from long-term illnesses, and many more. For us at St Paul’s our intentional ministry of hospitality and welcome in the name of the Gospel has been transformational. What is it that we – our leaders across the church, our bishops, deans, rectors, ministers and lay leaders – you and I need to do to enable that transformational change? What is it that we need to do to enable that welcome in faith?

Because when we welcome others in the name of Christ, and invite them to share our Gospel, our faith and our fellowship, our Cathedrals, our parishes, can be transformed. Because when we make a home for others, we practise what it means to make a home for Christ ourselves, to make ourselves into homes for Christ. At the most fundamental and profound level of the Christian faith is the news of the incredible gift of God to the world: God became human in Christ Jesus, so that we might share in the life of God.

And we share in God’s life when we allow God to dwell in us, and our communities, when our churches and our hearts are open for Christ. Our cantata puts it in this way: ‘come, then, into the hovels of our hearts, though they are poor and small; come and allow us to ask you: come and dwell within us’.

One of the greatest challenges of faith is the confidence that Christ will be sufficient for us, and that we – authentically as we are, and who we are – are sufficient to welcome Christ. Many of us, myself included, struggle truly to believe that we will not lack for anything if we let ourselves be fed by Christ; struggle truly to believe that our hearts are good enough to become a home for Christ. Yes, we are entirely undeserving to receive Christ. But the point of our faith is precisely that even though we do notdeserve to receive Christ, he nevertheless seeks to come to us.

As Jesus assured his questioners: ‘This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of what he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’.

We will never deserve Christ through our actions. But Christ gives himself to us freely when we truly seek him, find and recognise him for who he is, when we know him to be the Lord of life. When welook at them, our hearts are nothing more than ‘hovels’, as our cantata puts it. Yet our hearts are the very places where God seeks to dwell, where God seeks to make his home with us, so that we may have life in all its fullness. ‘The work of God of this’, Jesus told the people, ‘to believe in the one he has sent’.

When we place our trust in that gracious invitation; when we believe in the Son of Man, all our wants will be met, our gospel reading assures us. When we turn to Jesus Christ, we are given all that we need for life: we are washed clean from all that holds us back by the water of life; are refreshed by the Word of life; are nurtured by the bread of life, and are led by the light of life. Even ‘the hovels of our heart’ can be transformed into ‘the paradise of souls, in which God’s Spirit breathes’, as Bach’s cantata puts it: may be renewed and restored to be places fit to receive Jesus Christ.

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In the 1720s it was the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach who opened the doors of the Leipzig churches to share in music the good news that God wants to live with us. With ringing songs and sounding strings he proclaimed that the decisive moment had come: the ‘blessed time when God will prepare our souls to be his temple’. In the 1940s, Dean Stuart Barton Babbage opened the doors of this Cathedral to people seemingly forgotten or neglected by the church: by civic observance, blessings of tools and instruments, he proclaimed God’s invitation to prepare a home for God and to be at home here at St Andrew’s, to city workers, trade unionists and labourers. In the 1950s, he shared God’s gracious invitation with our city, by opening the Scriptures in Bible studies, and filling St Paul’s (and, across the airwaves, our entire nation) with sermons in sound.

The invitation that God seeks to come close to us, that he calls us to know him, turn to him, love and follow him is not restricted to a favourable time in the past, proclaimed by outstanding servants like Dean Stuart and Cantor Sebastian. It is a timeless invitation. Today, you and I – Bishops, Cathedral Deans and Worshippers, Visitors and Volunteers, Ministers and Musicians – are called to extend that same welcome. Make it known to those who have yet to hear it; those feel they do not deserve to hear it; those who may be scandalised by it and have shut their ears to it; and those who need to hear it afresh.

Today, you and I are called to open the doors of our Cathedrals and communities to the people around us; are invited to ask for the grace to be able to remove any stumbling blocks that still may prevent others from hearing the good news. Today, you and I are called to recognise that it is now that is the favourable time; that this is very moment that God seeks to dwell with us and make his home in us. Today, we are invited to open our hands, stretch them out, and receive the bread of life.

And now to him who is able to keep us from falling, and to make us stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.

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