In previous weeks I’ve pointed out that most of the Christians of Ephesus would have come to the faith from pagan backgrounds. Different peoples had different gods and different beliefs. In the Greco-Roman world the gods were sometimes referred to as ‘the Immortals’ but there was no suggestion that every human being who died would go to join them. The gods had to be placated. The Romans believed in an underworld which was a place of reward or punishment according to how one had behaved in life. Certainly no one believed in resurrection from the dead to eternal life. We remember how St Paul was mocked in the Areopagus of Athens when he began to speak of resurrection.
Ancient societies had laws, and people who were caught breaking the law were punished. Even so, it is human to see what one can get away with. Some practices which horrify us were tolerated in the ancient world. For instance, the Greeks allowed an unwanted baby to be exposed on a hillside to die of starvation or be eaten by wolves.
We might ask ourselves how we would behave if we did not believe in the sequence: death → judgement → heaven / hell. Perhaps we would not be such upright people as we are today. And if we had been born in a society or a family without any religion, and come to the faith in adult life, we might at times be tempted to fall back into our old ways. I have seen it happen during my years in Africa. That being so, we can understand the earnestness of Paul’s words to the Ephesians today: I want to urge you in the name of the Lord, not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live. Now that is hardly the way you have learnt from Christ, unless you failed to hear him properly when you were taught what the truth is in Jesus.
Do you know anybody who lives the aimless kind of life that pagans live? I doubt if any of them are here in church with us, but I do wonder about the young people who go binge drinking on Friday and Saturday nights. At times I have come across people of mature age who have no purpose in life and just seem to drift along. They are not evil but they visibly waste most of their life.
So Paul isn’t speaking to us in the passage we’ve heard today. Or is he? Listen to this: Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth. I’m not perfect; are you? There’s generally room for improvement; we can do better if we try. As you know, we are living the Year of Grace. It’s a time to give thanks for all that we have received from God, and perhaps to refresh those gifts, put them to better use.
In today’s gospel, people whom Jesus had fed miraculously with loaves and fishes catch up with him in Capernaum. He tells them bluntly: I tell you most solemnly, you are not looking for me because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat. To them it was a one-off event that they would like made regular. It’s not even clear that all the more than 5000 people knew exactly what had happened. We’ve read the story so we know that the Lord started from 5 loaves and 2 fishes. Many of them may have just been aware that some of the Prophet’s followers told them to sit down on the grass, and then somebody started serving them food – as much as they could eat. A free meal is always welcome!
In St John’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t make many concessions to the ignorance of those who listen to him. Here, for instance, he says: Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you, for on him the Father, God himself, has set his seal. I suspect that they would have had difficulty understanding this, and still more the Bread of Life discourse which is to follow. We are in the happy position of living long afterwards, in a time when most of the questions have been answered.
So when his hearers ask: What are we to do if we are to do the works that God wants? they are requesting clarification of his work for food that endures to eternal life. They are probably expecting some neat formula, an instruction to say certain prayers or to make certain sacrifices. Instead, Jesus introduces a new meaning for the word ‘work’ when he replies: This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent.
Given that these people had enjoyed the meal of loaves and fishes the previous day, it is strange that they should ask Jesus: What sign will you give to show us that we should believe in you? What work will you do? Our fathers had manna to eat in the desert. Traditionally, Moses was credited with obtaining the manna, and so these people are looking for another prophet of the stature of Moses. Without pointing out that he had already given them a sign, Jesus explains that it was really God who had supplied the manna to their ancestors. And God continues to act, for, he adds: It is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven, the true bread; for the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
At this point Jesus alters the subject of his discourse. If these people had listened carefully to the instruction they received each week in the synagogue, and to the sermons they might hear when they went up to the Temple in Jerusalem, they would know that the rabbis often used the word ‘bread’ as a symbol of wisdom. True wisdom, knowledge of God, is necessary for life. That is how he can say: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst. Before the time of Jesus, a rabbi commenting on one of the Old Testament references to manna wrote that: “It has been prepared for the righteous in the age to come. Everyone who believes is worthy and eats it”. The rabbi might have been surprised by the way Jesus fulfilled that prediction. Not only did Jesus teach with authority, communicating true wisdom to us, but he continues to feed us with the soul-food that we quite literally eat.
I suggested earlier that in the Year of Grace we might make more use of God’s gifts to us. Specifically, we might give more time to deepening our knowledge of Scripture. That’s the first thing. And the other is to pay more attention to what we are doing when we receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. In both situations, with fervour, let us give thanks to God! Q.Howard….