1 Peter 2:1-3 and John 6:32-40
There’s a story told about one of the early cosmonauts who went up into space, and on his return gave a press conference. A Russian journalist asked him: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ And as a good communist, the new hero answered ‘No, I did not see God.’
So when an American astronaut had returned to earth the press asked him the same question: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ ‘No,’ replied the astronaut, ‘but I would have done, if I’d taken my helmet off.’
It’s a question of discernment. Are you open to the God who calls us? God is there, can we accept him? Christianity believes in a God who reveals himself. He is not far off, not hidden, not secreted away through knowledge available only to the few, but God himself reaches out to us. This is one of the key Christian beliefs, not that humanity has to build up a pyramid that we ascend to reach God, but that he comes down to us. In our prayers and thinking we do not play hide and seek but he makes himself known to us, most of all through Jesus Christ.
So how do you meet God? Through prayer? Whether silent or out loud, forming words – one’s own or using someone else’s – or the wordless way of contemplation? Do you meet God through the Bible, reading, reflecting, holding, meditating, being inspired and challenged? Did you catch this morning morning’s glory, in the Arboretum or along the Cliff, caught up in praise and wonder for the beauty of God’s creation?
Such moments are like sparks of the divine, a flash of spiritual light, a shooting star falling that only the stargazer will see. Being open to God, seeking him, is like being that stargazer. Standing outside and looking up at the night sky does not make shooting stars appear, but it means that when they do come you’re in the right place to perceive them.
Similarly prayer and reading the Bible does not force God to make himself known. Spiritual disciplines are not mechanistic, we cannot manipulate God, what ‘worked’ yesterday may feel routine tomorrow, but those disciplines do create the space for us to be aware of him. Which is why it is so important that we continue to make time to pray, reflect and be open to God.
So how do you meet God? Do you find him amongst other people? The outer and corporate life as well as the inner and personal? Worship is so important for every Christian – of course there are different ways, and various styles which appeal to the whole range of personality types – but the give and take in worship is very important too, as is the sense of fellowship and community over a shared meal.
Many people find God through acts of service such as feeding the homeless, taking communion to the elderly or teaching the children. I often find that this is God’s way of taking us deeper in our faith. That people whose spiritual lives have got a bit dry can find renewal and great fulfilment by looking outwards and serving others.
And it’s important that we use as many ways of communing with God as we can. Look at the pillars and walls of this church – they hold up the roof together. No one pillar, however massive could bear the weight alone, nor could the walls hold the centre.
So it is with our spirituality. Someone who spends a lot of time in solitary prayer but does not meet for fellowship or serve others can easily end up with an inward looking religion which makes little difference to the world around them. But relying solely on service will leave you feeling drained with nothing left to give.
Or an approach to spirituality which relies on regularly receiving communion but does not put aside time to read God’s word will find it much harder to feed the mind, or encounter spiritual challenge, and is therefore unlikely to grow.
All these are necessary. All are means of communion with Christ, of experiencing God through Jesus. In our gospel reading from John 6, Jesus teaches that this relationship with him is at the heart of our faith.
The reading is set shortly after the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus breaks the loaves and fish to sustain an enormous hungry crowd. This sign is then used to explore how Jesus can feed us in a spiritual sense.
The people have been well fed. Can you keep on doing this, just like Moses did in the desert, they ask. Jesus has to remind them that it was not Moses who gave their ancestors manna, but God himself, and it is the sign of a much more profound food. In verse 33 ‘For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’
‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ They understand it as physical food, but Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ He can sustain us for ever, and his offer is open to all: ‘whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ – what wonderful words those are when we doubt whether God’s mercy and love can really include us.
Indeed he will ‘lose no-one who comes to him’. When we commit ourselves to Jesus, we are secure in him and through him we have a promise of life that lasts forever, in verse 40: ‘This is indeed the will of the Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.’ Jesus is like spiritual bread. When we believe in him he nourishes us for eternity. And he gives us spiritual food each day
The way that we abide in him is through those ways of meeting God. Prayer, the Bible, worship, service, all those things we thought about earlier. They are all forms of communion with God through Christ.
Which brings us to the Eucharist, which we’re thinking about in this sermon series through Advent. It’s important to see the Eucharist against that background – to appreciate that God makes himself known and does so in a variety of ways. The Eucharist itself is a special form.
It’s an act in which we receive the presence of Christ. When we eat the bread and drink the wine it’s a very physical act. The sacrament becomes part of us. There’s no more profound way of expressing your assent and your dependence on Christ than by physically receiving. It’s where we show that we are in him and he is in us.
Now of course Christians have argued for centuries over the exact way that Jesus is sacramentally present through the bread and wine. I don’t intend to think about that today. It’s far more helpful to acknowledge his presence and ask him to reveal himself and minister to us when we receive communion.
So what does communion tell us about God? God is the host, inviting and welcoming all to his table if they will receive. That sense of invitation and welcome should flow throughout our worship. Communion must never feel exclusive – so is it right to hold a Eucharist at times when lots of non-communicants are present? And if we do, how we do include them?
God reveals himself to us in bread and wine. This tells us he does not despise the physical. So when we worship Christ born in a stable our liturgy must connect with today’s world. If Eucharistic worship becomes distant, over spiritualised or inaccessible it ends up denying that Jesus came to the world as he found it. How can our style of worship be coherent with its central truth: that of incarnation?
The Eucharist tells us that God is self-giving and loving – Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins and through his love we are forgiven. As we follow in his footsteps we are called to be a community of love, giving and forgiving one another. When we share the peace, it is good to ask is there anyone with whom we’re not reconciled as we approach the altar? We’ll think about the community of faith more next week.
Finally, the Eucharist tells us that God is present with us on life’s journey. Christ is the bread of life on whom we feed. He has given us many ways to be in communion with him. So perhaps we can ask ourselves: How balanced is my spirituality? Am I over dependent on one or two means of grace? Where might God be calling me to grow?
As we come close to Christ and receive the bread and wine, let’s be thankful to a God who makes himself known and offers himself to us that we might live. Let us pray that we may discern his presence at communion and in the world around. Amen.