THE BREAD OF ANGELS:
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Psalm 51:1-17; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
Sometimes when we watch an infant, we can almost see his or her mind engaging the world. The child’s attention is drawn to some movement, glint of light, or sound, not with any understanding, but by the stimulation of its faculties of perception. As we grow older, the flights of our sensory infatuations become less expressive. The restlessness that stimulates our minds and bodies escapes our attention, and most of the time we are too busy with sense-making to be stirred by the senses. We are just as restless as an infant, but our restlessness is of a different kind. We find sitting still to be difficult, and we prefer noise to silence, because we interpret our world as materialists. We always want to be doing something, and we devote a lot of our time to buying things we either don’t have or don’t have enough of. When we have a pleasurable experience, we want to repeat it. My 2 ½-yr old nephew has a word he uses often: again, he says. Throw him a ball, and when he catches up to it, he’ll come running back with it, and say, Again. Read him a book, and if he likes it, as soon as you’re finished, he turns to the front page and says, Again. Adults act the same; a date, a drink, a meal, a TV show, a favorite vacation spot: once is rarely enough, even though we know, in our hearts, the more we repeat ourselves, the less satisfied we are. We tire of what we have, set one thing aside, and go after something different. There is no end to desire for what will fail to bring us lasting happiness.
Jesus makes this point in today’s gospel. Just one night has passed since he fed the multitude of 5,000 men and then had to slip away, because they wanted to make him king. The next morning, noticing he was gone, the multitude – who had just “eaten their fill” – followed after him, crossing the sea of Tiberias, to find him with his disciples. “You are seeking me,” Jesus says, “not because of the signs I have done, but because you ate your fill of loaves.” Then he gives them a pith teaching: “Do not labour for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of God will give you.” Echoing the story of his meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus is analyzing the dichotomy of spirituality and materialism that the nineteen sixties lodged in our society’s public discourse. Detachment, selflessness, peace and love: these are the spiritual benefits of ‘living water.’ In contrast to the ordinary water we drink, which quenches our thirst only until, again, we are thirsty, Jesus says, “Whoever drinks from the water that I shall give him will thirst no more.”
The crowd Jesus addresses, still bearing its resemblance to an “army without a captain,” knows what it feels like to be hungry; but isn’t it interesting that Jesus doesn’t say, “Stop following me around, return to your home, and go back to work.” Rather, he seems to be saying, “I fed you once, and once is enough; forget about crowning a king here on earth, and turn your attention to heavenly things.” This wisdom might constitute the full scope of a teaching, but we know in this instance that’s not the case; Jesus himself, that is, his body and blood, guarantees the truth of what he says. The veracity and the efficacy of his wisdom is due to the fact that Jesus, the person upon whom God has set his seal, is himself God, and unlike his creatures, God is trustworthy.
The crowd, unsurprisingly, resists his teaching; “What must we do,” they ask, “to be doing the works of God?” The crowd is looking for the kind of answer we get when we work for things: five hours gets you fifty dollars; fifty dollars gets you corn flour, milk, sugar, and salt. But Jesus is talking about faith, and the simple answer that Jesus gives is the one God continues to give us today: Believe in me, Jesus says, For I am sent by God. “This is the work of God,” Jesus says, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
This answer amazes me. Jesus doesn’t establish preconditions or set requirements that need to be met to do the work of God. We are not told how to behave on dates, to abstain from fermented wine, to eat less, watch less television or forget about going to the beach in the Bahamas. We are told only one thing: discern and embrace the truth. And the truth is a person. Even today, especially today, the truth is a person, a living presence with whom we can have a relationship, at this very moment, if only we discern and embrace the truth.
Now if this presents a difficulty for us, I would like to suggest two things we can do to resolve our doubts. First, we can come to church, especially on communion Sundays, because Jesus is always present in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And second, we can read Scripture, and hear the Word of God preached, because Jesus is present in his Word. When we are present where Jesus is present, he communicates to each of us, personally.
I want to briefly discuss Scripture and Sacrament. Let’s take Scripture first. We have arrived at the juncture in today’s Gospel where the crowd is confronting Jesus. The crowd is asking, as perhaps you too are asking, why should we believe you? Where’s your magic, Jesus?” They are saying, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to be eaten.” And Jesus isn’t flustered; he doesn’t get defensive. He doesn’t say, “Didn’t you see last night what I can do? Wasn’t it enough for you that I fed 5,000 men, not to mention their women and children, with five loaves of barley and two dried fish?” Rather, Jesus says, shifting the tense of things from past to present, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.”
Jesus claims that what is true, that is, what is real, comes down from heaven, that is, from outside the world, and he bolsters his case before the crowd by citing multiple Old Testament passages. When we hear and read Scripture the way Jesus does, we discern its wisdom. The crowd has just referenced the well-known Exodus story, which is alluded to in Psalm 78 and also in Psalm 105. The Hebrews have escaped from the slavery of Egypt, and have headed off into a wilderness, where their second thoughts have turned into grumblings. God, who is with them, gives them a sign. In Psalm 78, we sing, The Lord “rained down on them manna to eat/and gave them “the rain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of angels;” and in Psalm 105, we sing,
He spread a cloud for a covering, And fire to illumine by night. They asked, and He brought quail, And satisfied them with the bread of heaven. He opened the rock and water flowed out; It ran in the dry places like a river.…
Manna, the bread of angels, is a sign. Manna is also called “the bread of the mighty (ones),” or nobles, because the angels’ food is a food of uncommon quality. “Now the manna was like coriander seed,” we read in Numbers, “and its appearance like that of bdellium,” which is resin (Num 11:7). In the Wisdom of Solomon (16:20), we hear of manna’s excellence:
Thou feddest thine own people with angels’ food, and didst send them from heaven bread prepared without their labour, able to content every man’s delight, and agreeing to every taste….
Manna’s excellence points to the fulfillment of excellence in Jesus, the true bread of God. “For the bread of God,” Jesus says, is “he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Manna, the bread of angels, prefigures Jesus, the bread of life. Both come down from the realm of heaven; as Jesus is greater than manna, so is he greater than the angels, in whose company he dwells. Angels surround Christ, and Christ is the center of their world. Augustine says,
If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel’: from what they are, ‘spirit’, from what they do, ‘angel.'” With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God.
In Matthew, Jesus says angels “always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” and in Psalm 103 they are described as the “mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word.”
Let us consider, then, what this tells us about the Sacrament of Communion. We have said Jesus is present during Communion, and the Sacrament is one place where we can encounter him. Now we have seen that Jesus is always surrounded by angels, so angels, too, are present at the Sacrament. We see neither Jesus nor his angels, but as we said last week, we need to be sure to go beyond our senses when considering signs and miracles. At our Lord’s Supper, angels adore “the thrice-holy God,” and perhaps if we listen attentively during our celebration, we can hear the chorus of angels, singing “Glory to God in the Highest.”
Communion serves as a window into the heavenly world, a grand celebration of all things visible and invisible, for by Christ, “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). The Sacrament of Communion is a foretaste of our inheritance, as sons and daughters of Christ, in the Kingdom of God.
When we celebrate Communion, all of our worship builds in joyful anticipation towards its awesome climax. Jesus promises that “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” His promise completes the circle of his teaching, by showing us the way we can go about everyday life not labouring “for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of God will give you.” Jesus gives us himself. He does this on the cross, and he does this at the Lord’s Supper. To quote one of the Wesleys’ hymns: “Draw near ye blood-bespeckled race, And take what God vouchsafes to give; The outward sign of inward grace, Ordained by Christ himself receive: The sign transmits the signified, The grace is by the means applied.” The bread and juice, signs of the body and blood of Christ, somehow convey the signified grace to the Sacrament’s communicants.
In AD 110, Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the Romans, in which he said: “Do not talk about Jesus Christ when you desire the world. Do not let envy dwell among you…” That is, do not want the things of this world, which you see and find alluring, but which will perish. Follow my example, says Ignatius: “There is no fire of material longing within me,” and “I take no pleasure in corruptible food or the pleasures of this life.” Instead, Ignatius says, “I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ who is of the seed of David; and for drink I want his blood, which is incorruptible love.”
Our faith is fulfilled when we hunger no more and thirst no more. Our fill, our satedness, is a gift from God; we taste and see that the Lord is good. At the Communion Table, where we are all, each of us, welcomed by our Lord and Savior, we receive the body of Christ and taste the fountain of immortality. Amen.
 see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 329
 Hymn 71 in Hymns on the Lord’s Supper