This half term we are looking at seven signs in John’s Gospel, through which Jesus reveals who he is. Over the last three weeks we’ve had Jesus making himself known in the changing of water into wine (John 2:1-11), the healing of the young son of the royal official (John 4:46-54) and last week the healing of the man at the Pool of Bethzatha (John 5:1-18). Today we have Jesus feeding a crowd on a hillside, which leads to a long piece of teaching in John’s Gospel, chapter 6, about Jesus being the bread of life and how we need to feed on him.
A few years ago, when I was a vicar in a different place, some members of the choir were positively militant about the hymn we have just sung. ‘Guide me, O thou great…’ well that is where the problem came – should it be ‘Redeemer’ or ‘Jehovah’. Most modern hymnbooks render the word ‘Redeemer’. A number of the choir were adamant that it should be ‘Jehovah’ and would bellow it out loudly whenever the hymn was sung. It was a good-natured dispute, one of those bits of gentle banter, but nonetheless passionately held.
I decided to go for a knock down, definitive answer to the question. A friend of mine lives in Wales, near where the children’s series ‘Ivor the Engine’ was set, and not only learnt Welsh but teaches it. (I take my hat off to her.) I got in touch and asked if she could look in a Welsh hymn book in her local church and translate the hymn. This would surely give the final and definitive answer. The result turned out to be something of an eye opener. In short it is neither ‘Redeemer’ nor ‘Jehovah’! The English version is a very free translation of the original Welsh hymn because the strict translation doesn’t give the right number of syllables to fit the tune.
My friend translated the first line as ‘Lord, guide me through the desert’. No mention of Jehovah or Redeemer! The key word would appear to be ‘Lord’, so we’re looking for an appropriate substitute.
As I say most hymn books prefer to use the word ‘Redeemer’ today because ‘Jehovah’ is a hybrid of two words, the Hebrew name for God Yahweh, or Jahveh, and the word for Lord, Adonai. The combination arises through a tradition which arose around 300 BC of regarding the name of God as being so holy that it shouldn’t be mentioned. To get round this the respectful ‘Lord’ (Adonai) was used instead, and that is reflected in many English translations. Hebrew doesn’t use vowels as letters, just annotations to indicate where they need to be placed, so we get YHWH and JHVH respectively. Take the vowels of Adonai and mix with JHVH and we get Jahovaih, the hybrid from which Jehovah is a corruption. So while Jehovah carries the echoes of the original word for Lord, it is a mixed up word that doesn’t really exist. Some regard it as inappropriate for this reason. It has to be acknowledged that the author accepted ‘Jehovah’ when his hymn was translated into English.
Redeemer, on the other hand, doesn’t mean Lord, it just has the right number of syllables to fit the tune. It does however give a New Testament flavour and refers directly to Jesus Christ as Lord. He is the one who sorts out the consequences of our sin and need for redemption. In that respect use of Redeemer does give us ‘Lord’ with a purpose. So on balance I think I would go for Redeemer rather than Jehovah.
Now Lord with a purpose is what we get in our reading about Jesus feeding the crowd of 5,000 with a small boy’s picnic (John 6:1-14). It is part of a much longer sequence of teaching which ends with Jesus describing himself, in one of the great ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel as the ‘bread of life’, the bread from heaven, to use the term in that hymn (v35-38). This story has very strong Eucharistic allusions to it. John doesn’t give an account of the Last Supper or the institution of Holy Communion. Instead he gives us this long passage in which he sets out his Eucharistic theology and because of the setting expands our horizons beyond liturgy and churchy settings. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it and distributes it. Those are the four actions of a Eucharistic celebration identified by the great scholar of liturgy, Dom Gregory Dix, in his seminal work ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’. We take the bread, we give thanks, we break it and we share it out. This is not just a service but it is how the church is to be, how we as believers are to be. We are taken, called, gathered into a community that needs to feed on Christ. We give thanks, we celebrate the gift that is Christ, that is one another, that is the life that he gives us, that is his saving love in his life, death and resurrection. We are broken, fragile and vulnerable, injured and in need of our pride to be broken so that in humility we can celebrate and grow, be useful and serve. We are sent out, shared, given a job to feed others – physically and spiritually. It has to be said, John doesn’t say ‘break’, but it is implied otherwise how could everyone eat.
The Eucharist, the Communion, the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, is not just a meal or act of remembrance – as important as this is – it is where we become the church. What is more it is a model of what it means to be followers of Jesus. We are to be Eucharistic people: called; blessed in thanksgiving, in gift; broken, prepared for sending; shared and sent out. The calling is for all, not just for a few. All who are baptized are called to follow the Master, the Lord with a purpose. All are blessed as beloved gift and we are gift to one another as well as to the world. All are broken and so in need of treating with tenderness and care, love and honour. All need to recognize their brokenness with honesty and humility, with trust in the redeeming love. And all are sent with a mission to be salt and light, to make a difference wherever they go, to be themselves signs of the blessing they have received. We not only receive ‘food’ which is ‘for all’, we are to be ‘food for all’.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ breaks down whatever exclusive barriers and boundaries we care to erect and boy are we good erecting them. The first disciples had to learn this with the commission to go beyond the Jewish community to embrace Gentiles. One of the first miracles of the first Christian church was that it dumped Aramaic as the language of their faith in favour of Greek, the language of trade, common around the Mediterranean, more so than Latin, thanks to Alexander the Great. The ‘for all’ in the title for this talk is written into the language of the New Testament.
But this food, what is it? What does it mean to refer to Jesus as ‘bread’? Well this is John’s Gospel and it began with his wonderful prologue, the hymn to the Word among us, full of grace and truth. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). And it ends with the astounding affirmation that this Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth (v14). The bread of life is Christ among us, inspiring, nourishing with his grace, with his love, with his transforming presence. To understand this more fully, he gives a new commandment later in the Gospel, to love, he brings forgiveness and reconciliation, comes to save not condemn. This is a radical new way; radical because it takes us back to the fundamental principles revealed in the Bible: God is love and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them, to quote the Epistle of James.
That new commandment to love, the radical way of love and peace, challenges us to look around us and see beyond outer appearances to the inner glory within each person, to see the gift and blessing that we are to one another and are to be to one another, and the world. If we serve Christ in those we meet, as an unknown guest, then we see his glory in them too and that should change how we behave, because they too are beloved children of God, heirs of grace and the reason for his coming; they too are called, blessed, broken and sent. Meeting them is to stand on holy ground. Christ came to draw us into the heart of God, that we may become divine, to quote an ancient writer. There is within each of us the seed of glory. Our life is special coming as it does from the desire of God’s will and purpose.
When Jesus describes himself as the bread of life, feeding on him, following him, being filled with the grace that was within him, changes how we are to behave if we are to honour the glory within him. The feeding is also literal. The hungry are fed, the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the poor have good news brought to them. This was the answer Jesus gave when John the Baptist’s disciples asked him if he was the real the deal (Luke 7:18-23). His calling card was good news to the poor and needy. This is no mere aesthetic.
Which takes us back to the hymn I began with. It has one reference to ‘Bread of heaven’ and being fed ‘till I want no more’. The passage from John’s gospel has provision of food which more than satisfies, because the leftovers fill 12 baskets. The hymn is also about pilgrimage through a barren land and being fed, sustained for the journey. The sustenance that we need is the bread of life, the Word among us, the Christ who is the Way the Truth and the Life, who brings a new commandment to love. The sustenance comes through the gift, the purpose, knowing that there is a point. This seems to be particularly important at the moment.
The assisted dying bill debates brought out some competing convictions about how we see life. It was a hard call when we look with compassion and understand the distress on both sides, the suffering and the desire for release balanced against protecting the vulnerable. St Francis referred to Sister Death, who comes as a welcome guest. But there was an editorial in the Independent newspaper which said “If you believe that all life comes from God, then it may be reasonable to argue that only God can take away what he created… the vast majority of the public do not go near a church and do not see their lives as some kind of gift that needs to be returned to sender.” (Monday 7th September 2015) Now there are assumptions there, but there is a view quite loudly proclaimed that there is no purpose or point to life. It is contained within the parameters of what we see. It has no source outside of random accident and so when it ends there is nothing. It is a very empty and ultimately bleak view of existence. When we celebrate Christ as the bread of life, the bread of heaven, feeding us for the journey, we proclaim that there is a point and that point lies with the eternal Word who was at the beginning and whom we see made flesh among us in Jesus Christ. When we call him Lord, we affirm his redeeming purpose, redeeming from futility, from the brokenness and sinfulness of this fragile life, that everything is and comes from gift.
So on the mountainside, Jesus fed the crowd, physically and spiritually. There was food for all, because he came their redeemer, and that redemption calls us, blesses us and prepares us to be sent out to feed others in their hunger for dinner as well as knowing there is a purpose to hold us through our pilgrimage to the goal of promise.
Wednesday at One Talk for Peterborough Cathedral, 30th September 2015