The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
1 Kings 19.4-8; Ephesians 4.25 - 5.2; John 6.35,41-51
A fortnight ago I was on the beach! What a joy holidays are, whatever it is that you choose to do on yours.
But one of the things that I choose to do, because I can’t seem to carve out enough time to do it in the normal course of things, is to read. So most of the time I have my head in a book and in the ten days I was away I managed to read five books.
The first was a story that I knew very well but only from film and TV. It was Agatha Christi’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Now I knew who did it – they all did! But it was a joy to read and in truth I’ve only just discovered Agatha Christi. Then I read another very formulaic book but something without the timeless sophistication of Christi – it was Dan Brown’s latest offering called ‘Origin’. I knew what I was letting myself in for and I enjoyed it for all its ridiculousness and my excuse for reading it, in case I needed one, was that it was set mostly in Barcelona and I was on a beach just down the coast – so it had local interest.
Then I read an odd book ‘Lost and Found’ by the Australian author, Brooke Davis. It said on the cover that if you loved ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ then you’d love this. Well, I had done – but for me this book wasn’t in the same league but others obviously disagree. And I read William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s book on the Koh-i-Noor diamond – a fascinating bit of colonial history. But the book that I was desperate to read and that didn’t disappoint was one that’d been presented here in the Cathedral by the author, an event I’d sadly missed – ‘The Crossway’ by Guy Stagg.
The book is an account of the most amazing journey, pilgrimage, walk, call it what you will because it’s all these things are more, that the author made from Canterbury to Jerusalem and then into the Judean wilderness. Why he made the journey was not clear to him when he began it nor when it came to an end in a hermit cave on the edge of the Kidron Valley opposite the ancient fortress-like monastery of Mar Saba.
It’s a gripping book and not just for people like me who are devoted to the concept of pilgrimage, of journey, not just for people who like travel books as it does talk about France and Switzerland and Italy and Greece and the Balkans and Turkey and Cyprus and Lebanon as well as Israel, the long route that he walked.
But I loved it for its tension, for the way in which his journey exposed him to the reality of life on its edges. At one point, struggling from Albania into Macedonia he finds himself without food and without water and he writes
Pilgrimage had shown me what was radical about wandering life, as on the road all tokens of status were left behind. Food and shelter were riches enough, while possessions were excess weight. (pg 189)
The prophet Elijah is at the most critical and dangerous point of his journey. He’s being hunted by the king and his wife Jezebel. Elijah has just been in a battle with the false prophets of Baal, he won the contest and slaughtered them. But he’s had to flee to save his own life. He’s without food and without water and can go no further. And that’s where we found him in the First Reading.
He’s at the point of desperation and at that point of desperation the angel of God appears and, as in another wilderness and as at another time, the prophet is fed with divine food. It’s like a second gift of manna which would sustain the children of Israel for their forty year wandering in the wilderness. The food and the drink that Elijah enjoys takes him on a parallel forty day journey to another holy mountain where he’ll encounter God in the still small voice. As the writer said
‘He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food.’
If you think you heard the Gospel reading last Sunday then you’re partly right. The reading for this Sunday begins where last week’s ended. We’re still listening to this passage in which Jesus speaks to the people of himself as the bread of life,
‘I am the bread of life’ says Jesus. ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Jesus is talking to the people about the food they need for the journey. His talk of Moses, of manna, of the wilderness puts them in touch with all that happened to their ancestors. But into that comforting picture of exodus and salvation Jesus offers something uncomfortable. And his words still jar for many people. He speaks of his flesh as our food, he speaks of his blood as our drink. For people then, with their strict dietary laws especially around blood, this was too much to take. For people listening now it sounds, at the very least, odd and uncomfortable. Coupled with that was the fact that they knew who he was and where he’d come from – how could what he said possibly be true?
It was only later, as Christians began to think about what Jesus had said, that the church was able to begin to use the language that we find in the Second Reading, where, beautifully, the writer says
‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’
Jesus gave himself wholly to God and God gives Jesus wholly to us and just as God gave food to sustain his people on their journey, just as God gave food to Elijah to sustain him on his journey, the promise is to you and the promise is to me, that it is of the very essence of Jesus, the very fullness of Jesus, the very stuff of Jesus that we’re given and given most particularly and with most reality in the Eucharist.
This is the fuelling station, this is our pit stop, this is where the empty tank is filled, this is where the battery is charged, this is where tomorrow’s journey is made possible today, this is where hunger is satisfied and thirst is quenched. This is the place of sustenance, because God knows that we cannot make even the shortest journey without food, that we cannot arrive at the holy mountain, whatever and wherever that mountain may be, without that food, without that drink, without that flesh, without that blood.
I don’t know how you’re feeling at the moment. But if you’re feeling that you’re running on empty, if you’re feeling like you can’t continue the journey, then this is for you, this Eucharist is for you. As Guy Stagg discovered in this Balkan mountains, this is where we leave status behind and embrace the radical ‘wandering life’.
The great Dominican, St Thomas Aquinas, had a deep devotion to the Eucharist and gave us many of the words and the songs that help us deepen our understanding of what it is that we do when we gather round the Lord’s table, when we gather at the altar, when we come with open hands and hungry hearts to God. One of the most powerful things, for me, is what he wrote as an antiphon, for the Feast of Corpus Christi, the celebration of the body and blood of Christ.
‘At this sacred banquet at which Christ is received the memory of his passion is renewed, our lives are filled with grace and the promise of future glory given to us.’
Our lives are filled, the emptiness is challenged and changed by the generosity of God and the fragrant offering of Jesus. The angel says to you, today, to me, today,
‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’
That, my brothers and sisters, is the invitation; that, my brothers and sisters, is the promise.