August 2, 2021
Categorised in: Sermons
Satisfaction through Study
I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no
Words from the Rolling Stones classic of 1965, words that remind us that we’re frequently frustrated in our search for a satisfying life.
When I’m drivin’ in my car
And a man comes on the radio
He’s telling me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say
I can’t get no satisfaction
I’m starting some way outside the religious box, because it’s easy to take our gospel reading as a tidy illustration of the Eucharist. ‘The Bread of Life’ – we communicants know what that’s about. It’s about receiving bread and wine at the altar – and that’s an interpretation hard to resist as we come to break bread together.
But let’s not jump to conclusions. John’s Gospel is unlike the other three gospels, in that it has no account of the Last Supper where Jesus says, ‘This is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’ over bread and wine.
And just before today’s gospel reading, when the crowd realise that the feast they have just enjoyed with the bread and the fish might be the messianic banquet – a sign of the good times that the true Messiah would finally bring – and they try to take him by force to make him their king, then Jesus withdraws from them. He doesn’t want them to jump to conclusions about what he has to offer.
And when the crowd eventually catch up with Jesus on the other side of the lake, he tells them directly not to focus on what he did with loaves and fish but to look instead for the food that endures for eternal life. Not ordinary bread; not even the bread of the wilderness given by Moses – manna; but the bread of God, which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world
‘Sir, give us this bread always’, say the crowd enthusiastically: ‘I am the bread of life’, says Jesus in reply.
The simple thing – bread – is immediately taken out of their hands and turned into something much more mysterious – the bread of life. What is this ‘bread of life’?
So the reason not to jump straight from the bread to the Eucharist is because Jesus steers the crowd away from what they’ve eaten, and points them instead to another kind of hunger, to LIVE.
The bread of God which comes down from heaven, is given so that the world may have life.
‘Eating the bread’ in this gospel means coming to Jesus and believing in him; and that involves not our mouths but our minds, as we open our souls to the reality of all that is given to us by the Father through the Son.
This chewing over is deeply satisfying. We don’t do it enough in the rush of the everyday, but perhaps over the summer there’s a chance to catch up with God and with ourselves a bit.
For example, I have a wonderful book on the go about the parables. Yesterday I came to the Good Samaritan, which, as the author says, might just be the most popular text in the whole Bible. And yet, after only thirty pages, I felt as if I had feasted on a story full of grace and mercy, and I felt a fresh resolve to ‘go and do likewise, as Jesus commanded the lawyer who asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life.
One of the renewal movements in the Church which stressed the value of study was the Dominicans. Its founder Dominic is normally portrayed with a book in his hand. Dominic realised that, to combat the heresies that were being propagated in the south of France in the 12th & 13th Centuries, he and his companions would need to be equipped with the best theology and learning.
And of course, when the Dominicans first came to England they made a beeline for Oxford, where they founded the monastic house of Blackfriars.
Dominicans studied to preach better and to satisfy the hunger for truth that had been falsely fed by heresy. Having said that, they themselves found a tremendous joy in learning, sometimes in the company of others and sometimes in solitude:
Albert the Great, in the 13th Century, said this of his own search for wisdom:
That enjoyment is best which is happiest … and that is the enjoyment which people have in their hearts with wisdom. I have often spent a whole night like this, never suspecting that even two hours of the night had passed.
For Dominic, Albert, Catherine of Siena and all the Dominicans, study was a way of feeding on Christ.
Their study was courageous: Thomas Aquinas, the greatest student of them all, took his reading of Aristotle’s philosophy at the heart of his own theological system, even though the Church thought that it dangerous, especially because it was being popularised through Muslim scholarship.
Their study was also prayerful – for them it was a way to fulfil St Paul’s injunction to pray without ceasing. The Dominican way could certainly be mystical – think of the Meister Eckhart in the 14th Century, who spoke of the birth of God in human nature, in the essence and ground of the soul.
As they studied, they came to know Jesus Christ better and his vast purposes for creation, revealed not just in theology but in all the new sciences emerging in a period of intellectual ferment in the mid-13th Century.
We see these forebears of ours banqueting on the bread of life, which made their mission in cities as effective as the Franciscan and Cistercian missions were elsewhere.
Christian mission today is in no less need of those whose minds understand God’s purposes in Christ, who are prepared to deal with complexity, indeed be overwhelmed with truth, who are prepared to let the truth end up questioning them, who are prepared for abiding and fulfilling encounters with the God of all truth.
Cheap answers and slick religious salesmanship are rightly suspect, but those who feed on the knowledge of God will have something to put on the plates of their hungry neighbours, as well as more than enough for themselves.
So let us take the bread at the altar today as a pledge that Christ does come to us, that his presence is real but can’t be bundled up into the words and small ideas we so love to play with, and with the promise that, if we open our hearts and minds to who he is, we shall know, we shall believe and, above all, we shall live.
I can’t get no satisfaction, says the world
But Christ says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my very substance – my flesh.”
Not for the stomach, but for the repletion of the whole human being – heart, mind and soul.