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Bread of Heaven, feed me now and evermore. Amen. – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: Bread of Heaven, feed me now and evermore. Amen.

Date: 21 April 2024, The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York


Bread of Heaven, feed me now and evermore. Amen.

Whatever next? What on earth is going to happen next?

That’s the question running through this evening. And, I’m afraid, it’s being asked by people who have not quite understood the call of God in their lives – being asked by people who have not quite got what it means to be followers of the one God.

Take the Israelites, about whom we were hearing in our first reading. They had their minds set on pretty much one thing – something on which their minds had been set for years and years. They wanted to escape from Egypt, and from the oppressive, vindictive cruelty of Pharaoh and his regime. They wanted God – their God – to liberate them.

And do you know what? He did! You can read all about it in the second book of the Hebrew scriptures – a small passage of which was our first lesson tonight. God acts in the events of what we have come to call the Exodus. After a succession of plagues, culminating in the utterly horrific slaughter of the first-born, when God passes over the homes of the Israelites, Pharaoh seems to have had enough, and the Israelites are freed. Free, at last. Told to get up and go, taking their flocks and their herds with them, they get their liberation.

But what’s going to happen next? What on earth is going to happen next?

Because, of course, the Israelites rapidly have to refocus, and learn that just because they follow a God who is compassionate – a God who cares about their unjust exploitation by the Egyptians – a God who is prepared to intervene – just because God is on their side… it doesn’t mean life is going to be nice and easy.

Indeed, if the first lesson had been permitted to start one verse earlier in Exodus 16, you’d have heard them moaning full on: If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

So did they want to follow a God of liberation, and escape from the heavy task of making bricks without straw and being an enslaved people of no ‘worth’ or status – or did they just want a full stomach?

And it’s not just the Israelites who are discovering that following faithfully doesn’t guarantee you an easy life. That’s also what is going on in that very strange book we call the Revelation to John from which we have just heard.

Revelation, in essence, is a coded message of encouragement to some of the first Christian communities to experience persecution by the Romans. Christians who might have thought that, what with Jesus overcoming death and rising in glory, the only necessary battle that needed winning had, indeed, been won – and won even more gloriously than the liberation won by the Israelites so many centuries in their past.

But, instead, they find themselves asking, Whatever next? What on earth is going to happen next?

Now the irony is that for the first hearers of this book we find so strange and complex, its meaning would not have been obscure. The images and names were clear references to situations they could easily have identified and understood. But disguised, of course, so that this scroll of ‘propaganda’ that was so critical of the ruling authorities, could not be understood at face value if it were to fall into the wrong hands. But – to the intended audience for whom it was written – this coded language would have been clearly understood.

But with the passing of the ages, we have been left with a document that, tragically, has fed some of the most bizarre, far-fetched, and sometimes downright dangerous expressions of Christianity that the world has seen.

So we don’t now know who Antipas, the faithful witness was. We don’t know exactly what the Nicolaitans taught. We don’t have a precise understanding of the reference to ‘hidden manna’, let alone a clear vision of how to understand the white stone and the new name. And if you think any of the images in those five verses was remotely challenging, try reading the rest of the book, where it gets way more fantastical and hard to interpret in any detail.

None of it is clear in any detail, but it doesn’t need to be, for the big picture of this most precious last book of our Scriptures, the big picture really is not unclear, despite the language and the imagery.

The first point we should notice in this letter to the church in Pergamum, even if we do not understand the references in it, this letter calls its hearers to be faithful to Jesus, even (and perhaps especially) when that means acting against the predominant culture. And given that the author is describing this once great city as being where Satan’s throne is, it’s not hard to believe the culture ought to challenge the values we associate of the followers of Jesus.

In his excellent sermon here at our morning Eucharist, while speaking of what he alluded to as being the ‘corporate personality and identity’ of a worshipping community, the Bishop of Whitby said, ‘we can either be swept along with the current, or bring good influence to bear.’ The church in Pergamum is being told, very clearly, that real Christians should not be ‘swept along with the current’.

And thus it is also clear, that just as for the Israelites escaping their cruel enslavement in Egypt, while the ultimate victory over death has indeed been won by the risen Christ, following in his footsteps will be costly. Read on through the weird and wonderful Revelation, and while you will not understand all the symbolism and imagery, you’ll certainly pick up the key plot of major conflict and battle that has to be endured before the final joy of that new era at which the Lamb is at the centre of a new Jerusalem in which there will be no more mourning, crying, pain or even death.

But the most important point that we should pick up, even from this most obscure of New Testament readings, is that – while it will not be easy to follow God’s call into the liberation of the Exodus or of the Resurrection – God will neither desert those who follow, nor will he fail to sustain them.

The escaping Israelites, moaning minnies though they are, they’re being given bread from heaven. Admittedly, in true Star Trek fashion, it’s ‘bread, but not as we know it, Jim’ – but it is bread from heaven, nonetheless. And with images too obscure for us properly to understand, ‘hidden manna’ and white stones with secret names, they are there to sustain the persecuted Christians being encouraged by the strange writings of this apocalyptic revelation.

All of which reminds us, quite simply, that when we hit those moments, even in the relatively safety and security of York in 2024, when we hit those moments when we find ourselves asking, “whatever next?”, we should remember that God does not promise God’s disciples an easy life. God calls us to be in the world and not of it, and that’s not always going to rest easy with the Pharoahs and the Roman emperors of our own age when we remember the challenge of not just being ‘swept along with the current’.

But an easy life can be over-rated. At least, an easy life is over-rated compared to a life lived in the confidence of God’s enduring presence walking with us through the wildernesses in which we sometimes find ourselves. For God does not leave his beloved alone, even when God calls us to follow him to the very verge of Jordan, promising that he will, indeed, feed us on the Bread of Heaven both now, and evermore. Amen.

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