"Then said they unto him, what shall we do, that we might
work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work
of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. They said therefore unto
him, What sign showest thou, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost
thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert, as it is written, He
gave them bread from heaven to eat."
Among the hearers of Jesus, there were many people with a certain religious
insight, and with excellent intentions. They wanted to know how to "work
the works of God"; they longed to know and serve a good above and beyond
the ephemeral satisfaction of worldly ends. They were weary and fed up
with "meat that perisheth", and to them, Jesus' promise of the "bread of
life", seemed winsome. But they knew, also, that one must be cautious in
such matters; one must not be carried away by some visionary foolishness. They had heard lots of prophets and pseudo-prophets, and found it hard
to tell the difference. One must have some demonstration, some clear proof,
that this is not just another promise which turns out to be empty in the
end. And therefore, they sought a sign: "What sign showest thou, that we
may see and believe thee?"
They did not understand that there could be no sign of the sort they
sought. There were, and would be, signs and wonders; but no earthly sign
could provide certain proof of heavenly things. Stones could be turned
to bread, no doubt; but the effect would be only to make the word of God
to serve "meat that perisheth". "You followed me, not because you understood
the sign, but because you ate of the loaves", said Jesus to the multitude
that followed him around the lake, Manna stored up for earthly security
would turn rancid overnight - it would be just more of that "meat that perisheth". And therefore, Jesus spoke harshly of the lust for signs: A
wicked and perverse generation seeketh a sign, but there shall no sign
be given them, except the sign of Jonah" - except the sign of death and
And thus, Jesus did provide us with one sign: the sign of his own death
and resurrection, the sign of the love of God which heals and reconciles,
the sign that "God so loved the world". It is not, indeed, the sign for
which we lusted; it is not a sign we could even have imagined . Yet, it
is not a sign which demonstrates in worldly terms. It is a sign which inspires
and enlightens faith, as we look faithfully upon it. It does not necessitate
assent nor make assent secure in worldly terms: If they hear not Moses
and the prophets, neither will they believe though one rose from the dead".
Faith is surely demonstrated only from the starting-point of faith. But
for faith, this sign is food and drink, it is manna in the desert, it is
the bread of God which giveth life unto the world.
And therefore, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave us this sign
as sacrament, that faith might eat and drink his body broken and his blood
poured out, that inwardly we might know and outwardly show forth the reconciling
love of God in Christ and find in that sacrament the means of grace and
pledge of glory.
We call this Thursday "Maundy". The word probably derives from the
Latin word mandatum, which means "commandment", and this is indeed the day
that celebrates Christ's new commandment. All the traditional ceremonies
of this day - the washing of the feet, the blessing of the oils - embody
that idea. Today our Master calls us not his servants, but his friends:
it is the day of caritas, the day of friendship. And therefore, it is the
banquet day, in which our friend will give himself, "that we may dwell
in him, and he in us".
Tonight is the night of his betrayal, and the altar will stand cold
and bare; but we have the sign of reconciliation to be our sustenance. And we shall treasure up that sign not as proof of worldly gain, but as
pledge of new heavenly life. This is therefore a moment of festivity, when
faith gives thanks for food and drink which do not perish, but endures
to everlasting life. Therefore do we give thanks, and in celebration of
the bread of God, we learn, if only just a little bit, to "labour not for
meat that perisheth".