Sunday, 24 July 2016

Superessential Bread

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? 
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. 
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, 
So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? 

Jesus taught us to pray, “give us our daily bread.” Ask for bread, and you will not be given stones. Knock, he said, and the door will be opened to you. All you have to do is ask: and if at first you don’t succeed, keep on knocking. 

So where’s my Mercedes Benz? Why am I still knocking around in an eight year-old Golf? Maybe I’m not praying hard enough, not knocking long enough, not persisting. 

But let’s face it, most people do not get what they ask for when they pray, even when they are asking for much more important things than a nice new motor: even when they’re asking for world peace, for a cure for their loved one’s cancer, for a roof over their head, for the security of knowing when they will get their next meal, just for their daily bread; and yet we keep on praying, so unless we are completely misguided, fooling ourselves, there must be something more to Jesus’ words. 

Our Lord tells us in Lk 11 that prayer is indeed about asking. It is about knocking at that door, waiting outside, acknowledging your absolute dependence on God, entrusting yourself to his provision, yes. But what we are asking for when we pray for our daily bread is not as obvious as it seems. 

Many people have abandoned God because he does not give the daily bread people think he should. And more people have abandoned the Church because they think her main duty should be to run a bread queue. I’ve been asked, quite seriously, why the Church doesn’t sell off all our buildings, sack all the staff, and give the money out to the poor. The assumption is that we are here mainly to provide for people’s material, physical needs, and that the fact we do not means we are failing. It is easy for us in the Church to acquiesce in that sense of failure, whenever we see all too clearly that we cannot house the homeless, feed the hungry or heal the sick even just in Camden Town, so heavy is the expectation from a public that just does not see the point in anything other than material, physical goods and care. 

Actually, though, the prayer which Our Lord taught us as the basis of all true prayer does not ask for material sustenance at all. That is in fact not what the phrase “daily bread” means. Nor should it, since God has already given the world enough food and resources for everybody, if only we shared them out justly - surely it is impertinent to ask God for what he has already given us. No, the “daily bread” of the Lord’s Prayer means something quite different, you may be surprised to hear. It is a matter of translation. The New Testament is written in Greek, and the word for “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer are quite strange. There is a perfectly good word for “daily” in Greek, but it is not the word the Gospel writers use. Instead, they report Jesus as using the very strange, philosophical-sounding word, “epiousios.” It is not found anywhere in any other ancient Greek writings, which makes it very difficult to translate. The second century Latin-speaking Christian, Tertullian, took it to mean “daily,” and this translation has stuck throughout most of the Western Church; but when St Jerome, great 4th-century translator of the Bible came to render this word into the Latin which most of northern Africa and western Europe spoke in his time, he was far more literal. ‘Epi’ means on or over, and ‘ousios’ means existent; so Jerome translated ‘artos epiousios’ as ‘supersubstantial bread,’ bread which, like the manna of the Old Testament, has a supernatural and spiritual quality to it. The bread we are asking for in the Lord’s Prayer is not, after all, our daily sliced white from Tesco; it is none other than the spiritual Bread of Life which Jesus had, after all, spent so much of his ministry talking about, and which he so dramatically gave to the Apostles the very night before he died. 

The Church needs to remember that Our Lord is not telling us to pray for our physical sustenance, but for the Bread which sustains us for eternal life. Echoing the story of Martha and Mary which we heard last week, it is true that we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, of course. But this is only an offshoot of the Church’s truer and deeper calling. If we ask only for physical nourishment and offer only physical nourishment, ask only for physical healing and offer only physical healing, we sorely miss our calling, which is to nourish and heal the human soul. That is what we, the Church, offer that secular support agencies, the local council, the NHS, do not and would not want to. It is not their job: it is ours. So while as Christians we must make political and economic decisions informed by our faith, and speak out for just redistribution of the world’s resources, and while we must offer practical succour for the needy, that is not our first job. It is no good at all for us to feed up and nurture people with the daily bread that meets their physical needs in this world, if we are withholding from them the greatest treasure we have: the true and living Bread, medicine of immortality, without which, truly, we have no life in us. 

So, as you come to the altar today to receive the bread of the Sacrament, I urge you to pray about how you might share that gift, and give others heart to pray not just for their daily bread, but for the Bread of Life which is Christ himself, the living Word of God and so help the world to know the joy of resting in utter dependence on Him. 

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