What was the best meal you ever ate? A great celebration feast in a posh restaurant? Tasting something new that blew your mind? Eating something simple that was beautifully cooked? A simple meal when you had been working hard and were very hungry?
Food is essential to our lives: it nurtures us and keeps us alive, it gives us pleasure, it is central to our celebrations, it is a key way in which we show hospitality.
And because it is so important, food is a political issue. We have laws to make sure food is safe to eat. We campaign to make sure that those who produce food are properly rewarded. We write to our MPs because the benefit regulations, especially sanctions, mean that people in our neighbourhood don’t have enough to eat. And we set up and support Foodbanks to feed them. The latest issue is holiday hunger, when children who normally get free school meals during term time, don’t get them in the school holidays, and the families struggle to feed the kids. So St Chad’s Community Project is having special events to feed the kids twice a week during the summer holidays. There is some really good work being done, but we shouldn’t have to do it. Our society and our politics should be big enough to feed the children.
Food has always been central to politics. In the OT reading we had just now, the Israelites are in the wilderness complaining to Moses for liberating them from Egypt, because at least they got food in their oppression. In the wilderness there is nothing to eat. They may be free, but they’re not going to survive. So God gives them bread from heaven, bread that settles on the camp each night and which they gather in the morning, so that they always have enough to eat. Food is never just food. God was trying to teach the Israelites about trusting in him, about living their lives with God at the centre.
And so we’re touching on another point there: food is essential, food is political, and food is also spiritual. Ultimately, God gives it to us. God gives us life and God gives us the means to go on living. So we should give thanks to God always.
The people who came to find Jesus hadn’t got it. He had fed them all from 5 loaves and 2 fishes. He was trying to teach them about turning to God, trusting in God, giving thanks to God. But free food was a big attraction. The big celeb preacher was a big attraction. The promise of a better life was a big attraction. They wanted all of that. They wanted easy food, easy politics, easy religion. And if they made Jesus king, he would give them everything they ever wanted. Maybe. Maybe.
But that’s not what it was about. And Jesus tries to tell them that: “You’re just wanting the free food,” he says, but that whole miracle thing – it wasn’t about the meal, it was about your relationship with God. Faith is like bread, as essential to your life as the food you eat, but you’re just focussing on the food that fills your bellies. Look a little higher, come a little closer to your God – have faith, have trust.
And the people reply: Moses the liberator, our hero, gave us food every day for 40 years, not just one huge picnic on the mountain. Prove to us that you are as good as Moses.
And Jesus points out: it wasn’t Moses that gave you that food, it was my Father in heaven. The bread of God comes from heaven giving life to the world.
And they say: Yeah! So give us bread, every day, give us bread. Maybe they would believe if they got free food every day, like their ancestors in the wilderness.
Jesus spells it out to them in words of one syllable: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never by hungry. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Jesus is talking faith again. Jesus nurtures our hungry souls. Jesus refreshes us deep down. When we look to Jesus, our souls will never be hungry. We will always be satisfied.
So we come week by week, here to this church, thousands of miles and two thousand years away from the gathering on the mountainside when all those people were fed, and we eat the bread of heaven. I am the bread of life, says Jesus, and he feeds us here with bread and wine, with his body and his blood.
If that’s all it means, that the bread of life is spiritual, should be bother supporting the Food Bank and Holiday Hunger? Is Jesus saying that real food doesn’t matter when our neighbours are hungry? No, not at all. Jesus feeds us, physically and spiritually. God gives us everything we put on our plates. So we give thanks to God. And as part of the way we give thanks is to make sure our neighbours are also fed. Jesus gives us spiritual food. We are nurtured here, every week. And we give thanks to God. Part of that thanksgiving is to share the food we have, spiritual and physical.
There will always be those who exploit the system, who use every opportunity to get free food. When I was at Tesco last month helping with the food collection, one woman told me: I don’t give to the Food Bank because I overheard a woman saying to her friend, “I got a parcel from the Food Bank, so I can use the money to go out tonight, because I don’t have to buy food.” But for every one who swings the lead, there are dozens of genuinely hungry needy people.
Jesus feeds us, body, mind and spirit. And he calls on us to share our food, physical and spiritual, with all those who have need.