The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Proverbs 9.1-6; Ephesians 5.15-20; John 6.51-58
Every other night, or so it seems, on one of the many channels on TV, you know those hundreds of channels that still have nothing on to watch, well, one of those channels does have something to watch but it’s invariably ‘The Mummy’ or ‘The Mummy Returns’
For those who haven’t succumbed to it, it’s a kind of Indiana Jones series of films. Brendan Fraser, who plays an equally cool, attractive, suave archaeologist, like Harrison Ford, puts the glamour into archaeology. It’s not at all like the world of Tony Robinson and the Timewatch team. Danger lurks at every corner, as do strangely talking Nazis or suspicious looking china men. It’s all very politically incorrect and just slightly bonkers.
And you know what, no one in any of those films seems to show the slightest regard for what Tony Robinson and his team taught us, know nothing of archaeology, that context is everything. Remove an item that you’ve discovered without really making careful note of where it came from and the ground around it and you’ve lost half of the story about the item itself. But then, I suppose, unlike Tony Robinson, Brendan and Harrison were always in danger of imminent death so hadn’t time to bother about such a thing as context!
But the same principle applies to scripture. We so often end up reading passages out of context, a few verses from here, a few verses from there and we can easily lose a lot of the sense of what’s going on.
For instance, for the last three weeks we’ve been reading the same passage from St John’s Gospel. It’s a long passage, hence it being conveniently chopped up into three bite size pieces. But what we’ve been hearing is Jesus speaking about himself as the ‘Bread of Life’.
The gospel today brings that passage to an end. But it concluded without a vital bit of the context. If we’d just been allowed to read the very next verse something important would have fallen into place because there it says
‘He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.’
Jesus was in Capernaum, an important centre of life on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and an important place in the ministry of Jesus. When I take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land this is one of the most important days, when we visit the sites associated with the lakeside ministry of Jesus. There’s the site of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the feeding of the five thousand, and the site of Peter’s Primacy, as it’s called, where Jesus appeared on the lakeside after his resurrection.
And there’s Capernaum, this large archaeological site, a town with the remains of the house that Peter lived in, with the remains of the houses and streets that surrounded it and the large remains of the synagogue - not the one that we heard Jesus was teaching in but the later one, built on the site of the one that he knew.
It’s a powerful place and an important one. This is where so much that we read about in the gospels happened. And I always say, as we stand there surrounded by all these remains, ‘This was Jesus’ parish’, this was the place he knew and in which he ministered, this is where the people lived who knew him, this is the community that first embraced and then rejected him, this is the context for the divine ministry.
Just before Jesus begins teaching the people of this town that he’s the bread of life, the stuff we’ve been hearing over these three weeks, he’s fed them miraculously with bread and fishes. The feeding of the five thousand, which pilgrims remember just down the road, had happened in the gospel immediately before this. The crowds who were fed then followed him. They wanted more, they were hungry already, they’d enjoyed that food and they wanted more. And that’s why Jesus begins all this talk about those who eat the true bread never being hungry again.
But the people just do not get it and so after he’s said all of this in the synagogue people begin to object to him and some stop following him as a disciple.
The context is everything because the context helps us to make sense of it all.
But the truth of Jesus is that he always ministered in context, the doctrine of the incarnation is all about the contextualisation of God. God is not somewhere in general in Jesus, but in a specific place at a specific time. The incarnation locates Jesus, the incarnation locates God and everything that flows from that has to be understood in context.
There’s something really important about this in relation to the Eucharist, the thing that we’re here to celebrate now and the thing to which we see Jesus pointing as he describes himself as our ‘true food and … true drink’ in this passage.
You can now get a Church of England Daily Prayer app for your phone or you device. You’ve been able to for a number of years. It’s great. It saves you carrying a prayer book and a Bible everywhere and it means that you can say Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline on the go where you are, it’s convenient and fantastic. If you haven’t tried it, then do, and it will help you pray during the day.
But I can confidently say there’ll never be a Eucharist app that you could load onto your device. That would be simply impossible and its impossibility is what makes what we’re doing together now so special and so important. You can pray anywhere at anytime, in any context. But we can only share that living bread, we can only break the bread when we’re together, actually together, in the same place, at the same time, in communion, physical communion.
Sacramental life, of which the Eucharist is part and the most important part, sacramental life is lived in context. Whether we’re baptising or marrying or confessing or being ordained or confirmed or whenever we’re sharing in that true food and true drink we can only do it when we’re together, physically, not virtually, in context. Sacramental life is as much about touching and feeling as it is about eating and drinking, it’s about the stuff of life being shot through with the majesty and grandeur of God.
Wisdom knows this as our first reading reminded us
‘She has built her house…she has also set her table.’
The table is set in place, in the midst of the people, in our midst so that we can eat the bread and drink the wine.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins places the grandeur of God in the context of the world in one of his poems.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
This is the truth of what we encounter in bread broken and wine outpoured, now in this new Capernaum, by the river, where Jesus comes into the midst of our daily life and feeds us at another table. Jesus comes into your context and meets you in the now, in the person sat next to you, in the one who places bread in your hands, in the one who gives you a cup from which to drink, meets you in the bread itself, meets you in the wine itself. This is the physicality of our incarnate God, who contextualises the divine presence in order to charge the now with divine beauty.
So, my friends, never forget where you are – it’s where God is.