Acts 8: 1b – 8
And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.
John 6: 35 – 40
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
I am the bread of life
We are still in the Easter season; for the past two weeks our Gospel reading has been recounting the amazing stories of Jesus appearing to the women who have followed him, to the disciples in the Upper Room, to Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus road, to Peter and the other fishermen returning to their trade, clinging on to the familiar while their world has been turned upside down.
But in today’s Gospel reading we return to an earlier time, when Jesus was teaching his disciples, about God and about his own unique relationship the Father. In John’s Gospel there are seven statements, seven self-declarations made by Jesus, each prefaced with the same two words: I am. Two simple words, but they have great significance for the Jewish nation. I am is a translation for the name of God, usually spelt YHWH – the Hebrew language doesn’t include vowels! It’s pronounced Yahweh – or Jehovah, though the Jews don’t pronounce it at all, since God’s name is too holy to be spoken. They substitute with Adonai or Lord.
And that, of course, is why the Scribes and Pharisees in particular are so outraged by Jesus and his use of those two words – I am. When he says elsewhere:
Whoever has see me has seen the Father
it is sometimes said that is a radical statement proclaiming his divinity, but in fact that is already present in those two little words: I am.
Time passes; one or two years go by, containing not only the events which we have recently been recalling during Holy Week and Easter, but also the Ascension and that incredible, unbelievable outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with Peter’s inspired speech bringing hundreds of people, brought to Jerusalem for the great festival, to a belief in Jesus.
However that enthusiasm brought a reaction from the Jewish religious leaders and our reading from the Book of Acts comes immediately after the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
A severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered, we heard.
One man in particular made it his business to root out all those new believers, new followers of Christ Jesus, dragging them out of their homes and putting them in prison. That man, of course, was Saul.
However this persecution had an unexpected effect. Far from stamping out this new religion, scattering those followers of Jesus resulted in a furthering of it.
Those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.
The good news of ‘the bread of life’ spread, and Philip, in particular was most successful in promoting it.
The crowds listened eagerly to what was said by Philip.
More than that; Philip was empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the work which Jesus had begun, ridding many of evil spirits and curing the paralysed and the lame. No matter how hard Saul – and, no doubt, others – tried they could not eradicate the good news, and their efforts simply made it spread wider and wider.
Time passes; 2,000 years go by and the good news of ‘the bread of life’ exists in every country, every nation in the world. True, there is still persecution, true there are many – far too many – who have heard the good news but choose to ignore it. But it is enshrined in the laws of many nations, and in the hearts of many who bear the name of Christian with pride.
Jesus proclaimed to the crowd: I am the bread of life, and at that final meal with his chosen twelve, the Last Supper before his arrest and betrayal, he spoke the words which have had such profound significance down the ages.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body’.
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
This is my body…. I am the bread of life.
Those words are at the heart of our Christian faith; we hear them week by week as we come to share in Communion with one another, the sacrament which defines our church and which draws us close to Jesus, the bread of life. It is the most sacred gift and as we receive it, so we receive Jesus into our lives.
Finally, as our weekly Service comes to an end, we are sent out – scattered like those early Christians – with a command and a response:
Go in peace! We are instructed. Leave this house of prayer and go about your daily lives with the presence of Christ within you.
To love and serve the Lord.
And the response is one of acceptance and agreement:
In the name of Christ – so be it- Amen.