There are a couple of characters, advertising a 118 directory enquiries service, who pop up during programmes on ITV and have spoof conversations with actors in old films. One of these involves a man talking on a pay phone about bread and it is clear that what he means is money. Bread is the staple of life, a basic foodstuff and its slang link with money is that money buys the basics to keep us alive. We can’t survive without it. I think people who have large reserves in the bank have difficulty knowing what it’s like to live hand-to-mouth. In fact if you find that you have more salary than month you don’t really know what it’s like to have more month than salary where you have used up your cash long before the next payday. Living hand-to-mouth, or even worse not having enough, is very difficult to understand for those of us who have a cushion to fall back on, however small.
The more I look into money and the more I understand about how it works the more I realize that it doesn’t really exist. Our financial system has long since ceased to be linked to anything tangible like gold or trading chickens. It is based on promissory notes, the perception of a market that a trading system is stable and will continue to produce a very complex network of transactions that keep the illusion going. There are some goods in the background but there is an awful lot that is illusory. If the trust in those promises is shaken then the system becomes unstable and can unravel. We have seen what that can look like in Greece and our own banking crisis. Money is a very fickle and unstable place to rest our ultimate hopes. To borrow a phrase from the gospel reading, it is a bread that perishes. In our financial system money exists because we say it does. As soon as we think it might not, like the cartoon character Wiley E Coyote, we plummet into a dust ball at the base of the cliff.
In that gospel reading Jesus was a little irritated with the people’s cupboard love (John 6:24-35). They also seem to be a bit dim. He has just fed 5,000 of them with very little more than a small boy’s lunch and they have the cheek to ask him what signs he will do to prove himself. Rustling up a meal for 5,000 with a few slices of bread and some fish fingers seems pretty impressive to me. Leaving that aside, he sees through their Teletubby ‘again, again’ call. His response is for them to look more deeply into what is going on. His call is not for a free lunch to fill their stomachs for one day, conjured up out of very little, but for aspirations and striving for a higher purpose. Who are we, who are you, what is the point and is there an ultimate goal which gives life its purpose and point beyond the day-to-day? Clearly Jesus’ answer is that there is and we find it in all that we see in him and the life and hope he brings. We need to read the story to the end to find out exactly where that leads in the cross and resurrection. Hope here means having confidence in what that means. But there is in this story, in this conversation following the feeding, a hint that the sustenance of life can itself reveal the gift that is life and the grace that gives rise to it.
The irony here is that once we start to look into the purpose and point, the bread that endures, we find that how we share the daily bread, the cash, the fruit of our financial scheming, comes under the spotlight too. Justice is how we live out the truth that we believe and the Christian truth will never be content with an ‘I’m alright, you don’t count’ approach. If we want to know what that means this week’s news gave a few examples to be going on with.
We have seen yet more images of desperate migrants climbing over fences in the pursuit of a new life and border controls stretched to cope. I hope that leads us to ask where these people are coming from and how we can respond with humanity and compassion. It is complex, not least because mixed in with desperation there is trafficking and corruption. We have to make sure that services can cope and asylum and residency applications need proper assessment, indeed need to be processed in the first place. This is not an easy problem to solve and will involve cooperation across Europe and probably further afield.
By one of those strange coincidences those who are being trafficked were also in our minds this week because on Thursday we remembered William Wilberforce in our church calendar. He strove with others to end the slave trade 200 years ago. Sadly there are new forms and on Friday new sanctions came into force. People find ways in each generation to display their inhumanity.
More directly linked with bread, with money, the living wage debates continue. Our government in their budget has taken the living wage branding, which is currently £7.85 per hour (£9.15 in London), and applied the term to an increased minimum wage, which in April will be just £7.20. It doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that is a cut. And what is more it won’t apply to those under 25. Wages need to be set at a fair minimum otherwise the tax payer ends up subsidizing the true cost through benefits. Responsible employers know their workers need to be properly paid. It is also not the job of the tax system to increase off-shore tax haven profits by picking up the bill through benefits. These benefits have themselves just been cut, so I foresee some big problems ahead for the poorest. The living wage brand is now a confused term because it has been applied to different things, they are not the same, so I think we now need to talk about a living income. A living income is the just sharing of bread which springs from being committed to pursuing the bread which does not perish.
Behind all of this is an amazing generosity. It is the generosity that brings life into being and sustains it. But it sustains it with a purpose and that purpose lies in the eternal giver, the source and goal of everything that there is, God. When we long for the bread of life that does not perish, we long for the hope that is our life and which is truth. When truth is lived it is justice and that brings hope for everyone, especially the poor. If our bread, our financial system is to have any semblance of hope for the poor, which is written on the foundation stones of the Kingdom of God, then it must bring justice, fairness.
Jesus’ redirecting the crowd’s attention away from a free lunch to the bread of life, of hope that does not perish, should not be mistaken for a shallow don’t worry about food. It is a warning not to devote our energies to storing up riches which are of no lasting value. Money, rich bounty are tools for a purpose. The bread which does not perish is fundamentally linked with the purposes of God and those require the hungry to be fed, the homeless sheltered, the sick visited and healed, the oppressed set free and good news to be lived in all its forms. That should sound familiar because it is the passage of Isaiah that Jesus read in the Synagogue at the beginning of his ministry. It was his manifesto announcement (Luke 4:16-21). The spiritual hope has some very physical consequences. The physical likewise has spiritual roots too.
Come to Christ the living bread and you will be amazed how this banquet feeds you and everyone else. Longing for the bread of life has consequences for justice.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 2nd August 2015