Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 18 • 2 Aug 2015

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Rev. Chris Udy

It seems appropriate
on the Sunday after the MasterChef final
to be talking about cooking and food
and the bread of life –
but I’m afraid my favourite celebrity chef
is not an Australian – as good as they are -
he’s an American: Alton Brown,
who calls himself a ‘culinary cartographer’.
Mr Brown’s book is called “I’m just here for the food”,
and it’s not so much a book of recipes,
as an introduction to the science:
the physics and chemistry, of cooking.
Before Netflix came to Australia,
Alton Brown’s cooking shows
and the books that come from them,
were only available in the US,
so it took me some time to track them down,
but, through the ministry of Amazon,
the miracle of the Maillard reaction -
which makes meat go beautifully brown -
and the significance of salt,
and the mystery of the marinade
have all been fully revealed.

Alton Brown insists
that cooking is much more
than acquiring a list of ingredients
and slavishly following a recipe.
Recipes are important, he says,
and one of the first things he does
is teach people how to read a recipe,
but cooking is much more than that.

Real cooking is an art.
Like all art, it begins
with a thorough understanding
of the media we’re using -
the materials and techniques involved
in making something attractive and satisfying -
but then we have to have an idea
of what it is we’re making;
a hope, a goal, a destination to aim for -
and to make it all come together
we need something else again:
a sense of taste, a lightness of touch,
and most of all,
a genuine desire
to nourish people with something
that not only feeds the body,
but also sustains the soul.
Real cooking might begin
with accurate measurements
and the right heat at the right time -
but a meal can only do what it’s meant to do
when it’s planned and prepared
and served and received ... with love.

Unfortunately there’s
another book,
called “I’m just here for
more food”
that has to do with baking -
and I don’t have it yet -
so I can’t report what Alton Brown
has to say specifically about bread -
but I’m sure he’d agree with Jesus
in today’s reading from John’s gospel
when Jesus says
“Do not work for the food that perishes,
but for the food
that endures to eternal life.”

Life can’t be about
what philosophers once called its ‘accidents’ -
the surface experience of living:
the way things look, or feel, or taste;
the physical connections
and transactions of each day.
Life can’t be about simply feeling full,
or being not too warm and not too cold.
It can’t be about chasing physical sensations,
or any of the other things
that tend to happen to us
and we react to.
Life isn’t about its ‘accidents’,
it’s about ‘substance’.

‘Substance’ literally means ‘what stands below’.
The philosophers said
that something’s substance
was what remained the same
when it was subjected to heat, or cold,
or pressure, or other agents of change.
So as its accidents changed,
water could appear as ice, or steam, or liquid water -
but its substance - its essential nature -
remained the same.
So, they said, to live effectively -
to live creatively, and with purpose;
to live authentically, and with hope,
we need to pay attention,
not to the accidents of life,
but to life’s substance.
We need to seek out, and celebrate,
and learn about, and hold on to,
that which lies below the surface -
not something that can perish and spoil,
but the essence of life,
that remains unchanged
and survives to nourish and sustain
both body and soul.

‘Substance’ is something we have to look for.
It isn’t something that happens to us -
it isn’t something obvious -
we have to invest in it;
we have to hope for it, and trust in it,
and aim for it.
It takes discipline, and courage,
and a bit of flair.
Discovering life’s substance
is a lot like cooking,
or painting, or writing -
it has to be begin,
and proceed, and conclude ... with love.

We’ve started reading
one of those long conversations in John’s gospel.
John never specifically
tells the story of the last supper
and the first communion
as the other gospel writers do.
Instead he includes two long conversations:
this one, where Jesus calls himself “the bread of life”,
which John connects to the feeding of the 5000;
and a second one,
on the night Jesus is arrested,
where he calls himself “the true vine”.
Today we read the second exchange
in that conversation about bread,
where the crowd who’d been fed
with the little boy’s loaves and fishes
chased Jesus around the lake,
looking for more.
The meal they’d had was an accident -
a delightful surprise -
and the crowd wanted more.
So when they caught up with him
they made their pursuit of him
seem like an accident too:
“Rabbi! When did you come here?”
But Jesus wouldn’t play their little game.
“Very truly, I tell you,” he said,
“you are looking for me,
not because you saw signs,
but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
Do not work for the food that perishes,
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.
For it is on him
that God the Father has set his seal.”

The crowd were looking for more -
but more of the same.
They’d been satisfied once
and they wanted it again.
They wanted that happy accident
to keep on happening.
But that’s not the way life works.
If we want good things to happen
we have to go looking for them -
so the crowd got that right.
But what we’re looking for
will never be a repeat of what happened before.
Once we’ve been surprised
and delighted by something
it tends to take more and more of it
to achieve the original effect -
and after a while
we find ourselves addicted,
wanting and needing more and more and more,
until consumption overwhelms us;
we’re constantly consuming,
but there is no surprise or delight left in it;
we’re trapped in the accidents,
and we’ve lost the substance,
working very hard to maintain our consumption,
but missing out on the nourishment we need.
“Don’t work for food that perishes” Jesus says;
“Work for the food that endures for eternal life”.

OK, the crowd thought, if we need to work,
let’s work!
“What must we do
to perform the works of God?” they asked,
and Jesus answered
“This is the work of God,
that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

There’s another pair of words,
like ‘substance’ and ‘accidents’,
that have been used by our faith’s teachers
to describe the difference
between what we see on the surface
and what’s happening at depth.
These words are ‘faith’ and ‘works’ -
and often they’ve been forced into opposition,
as if we can have one without the other.
In Paul’s letters, faith is glorified.
“For, by grace,” he writes,
you have been
saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing;
it is the gift of God -
not the result of works,
so that no one may boast.”
(Eph 2:8-9)
But in the letter of James
there’s an alternative perspective.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if you say you have faith
but do not have works?
Can faith save you?
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,
and one of you says to them,
“Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,”
and yet you do not supply their bodily needs,
what is the good of that?
So faith by itself,
if it has no works, is dead.”

For Jesus, faith and work belong together.
Faith takes work.
It isn’t always easy to believe.
Faith involves a search for substance;
it means looking beyond the surface of things
to find the truth and meaning in our lives.
Faith involves a disciplined understanding
of the media we’re using;
it means asking hard questions
about Scripture, and worship,
and Church, and prayer,
and having the courage to let go
of things that are simply accidents -
a form of words, a style of music,
a way of being together -
looking beyond the accidents
to the substance of our faith -
to those things that don’t change
when the heat’s applied,
or the weather’s cold,
or there’s pressure from within or outside.
Faith involves an idea of where we’re going;
what kind of world we’re hoping and working for.
Faith also involves a sense of taste,
lightness of touch,
a willingness to look foolish and to fail,
and most of all,
faith needs a genuine desire
to nourish ourselves and other people
with something that not only feeds the body,
but also sustains the soul.

Jesus told the crowd
that the work of God
was to believe - to have faith -
and when they challenged him
to give them something that would sustain them,
just as their ancestors had been given
manna in the wilderness,
Jesus replied
“I am the bread of life.
Whoever comes to me
will never be hungry,
and whoever believes in me
will never be thirsty.”

Faith takes work.
We have to plan, and prepare,
and serve, and receive,
when we come to the table
to share the bread of life.
We have to look beyond the accidents -
search behind and below
the stuff that happens to us
and find those things that can sustain us
through all the changes and pressures
life throws at us.
It takes work:
disciplined, careful, creative, hopeful work -
and when we plan, and prepare,
and serve, and receive in love,
we discover that we’ve been nourished,
and sustained, and satisfied,
by sharing the bread of life:
we’ve been nourished
by God in Christ.