Before I was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, I ran a brand agency – which means I worked in marketing. I never meant to do such a thing, it just happened and followed on from my jobs as an editor and then managing editor.
People sometimes misread marketing because they think it is about selling stuff. But we never dirtied our hands with such stuff. What we did, or what we told ourselves we did, was to get to the essence of why someone needed and wanted something.
So an example might be the invention – fad – of those little TV screens in the headrest of cars pointing into the back seat. These weren’t TVs, no, they were actually peaceful journeys for parents. It looked on the surface prosaic – a bit of technology – but there was something much bigger and better on offer.
Which oddly brings me to today’s reading. Jesus was not into marketing I hasten to add, although I would have loved to have seen him at one of the meetings I used to attend. But what this passage from John’s Gospel does have in common with my old life is that Jesus wants us to look beyond the prosaic – to the big prize, the real thing.
Jesus has just served up a slap-up meal using a young boy’s packed lunch. The feeding of the 5,000. A true foretaste of the heavenly banquet. He did it because people were hungry – they had a need. But, of course, it was more than that. It spoke of the abundance and generosity of God.
But the people didn’t get that and instead are hounding him for more of the same, another slap-up meal. The passage is laced with tragedy and hope.
The tragedy is that the people were in the company of the living God and all they could see was a free meal. Jesus valiantly tries to explain what they aren’t seeing. The elephant in the room. They don’t believe him and ask for some fresh signs and wonders which he rightly refuses – he is no cheap conjurer – to quote Gandalf. It has a tremendous ring of truth.
But all is not lost. Why? Because in the scramble to meet a few physical needs they have a dim insight into their real need…they know they need the real spiritual bread on offer. What must we do to do God’s work… and then, we need the kind of bread Jesus is offering. That ‘bread’ is the offer of God himself – the bread of life.
It is easy to be judgemental and shrug off the worrying thought that we too might be missing the big prize, the big life-changing insight. Someone who heard alarm bells ringing was C S Lewis and this is the story of his greatest ever work.
Lewis was asked to preach at Solemn Evensong at the Oxford University Church of St Mary the Virgin on 8 June 1941. News got around and the place was packed. Lewis preached very very few sermons in his lifetime – I wish he had preached more. But he had a somewhat ambiguous attitude to church and didn’t feel qualified to take to the pulpit.
In a way the sermon invitation was a glorious accident. The vicar at the time must have been the only person ever to have got through and actually enjoyed Lewis’ early work – Pilgrim’s Regress and as result invited him to speak.
1941 was a very tense year – the war looked more than in the balance and morale was low. There was unrest in Oxford amongst the students. There were real problems that needed fixing, but Lewis decided to speak – rather as Jesus did – on something even more pressing than the immediate dire situation.
He pointed out that the Christian faith has a lot to say about the big story of what motivates us. He pointed out that the problem is that we aim to low in our desires. That what is promised in the gospels is so staggering and so beautiful that we – yes we – don’t grasp it. “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. We are far too easily pleased.”
And with those people scrambling for a free meal, we risk winning the battle and losing the war.
Lewis says that somehow, somewhere deep within all of us we know that the real truth of life is out there and cannot be satisfied by having things. He says that until we meet God that feeling of thwarted hunger is a kind of agony of the soul. It is like, a desire for a far off country that we know is there but we don’t know how to find. And that creates longing. And sometimes disenchantment – we can’t find that spot of peace and so we label it childish or nostalgia or whatever.
We have, each of Lewis says, a shy persistent inner voice that tells us that goodness and joy and peace and love cannot be manufactured on this earth but must and can and will only come from God.
And in the Gospel reading there he was standing there almost pleading with people to see and to take the offer. I took that offer.
Fifteen hundred years ago the great Bishop St Augustine prayed his famous words to God, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you”
That’s the harvest we are talking about. And the result is not just fixing us or feeding us but wonder at the truth that there is God, that he made the world in everything in it, that he is the God of joy and love and peace.
As the Celtic Christians had it:
As the hand is made for holding and the eye for seeing, Thou hast fashioned me for joy. Share with me the vision that shall find it everywhere: in the wild violet’s beauty; in the lark’s melody; in the face of the steadfast man; in a child’s smile; in a mother’s love; in the purity of Jesus.