Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 3 August 2014
Sermon preached by Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 55.1-5; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled….”
In Matthew’s Gospel, the feeding of the five thousand comes immediately after the murder of John the Baptist. In response to this, Jesus leaves home for the wilderness. Matthew does not tell us whether this is a prudent tactical withdrawal to keep out of Herod’s way, or so as to have opportunity to reflect on what this tragic event means for his own ministry.
But, as we heard, he is to be allowed no private retreat: crowds follow him on foot to that deserted place. Seeing all these people he had compassion on them, healing their sick.
As he tells the story, Matthew presents us with two contrasting meals:
- The first of them is Herod’s birthday party.
- The second is Jesus’ feeding of the multitude
In the first, with its luxurious plenty, its drunken gluttony, we hear the gruesome story of Herodias’ scheming to get rid of the Baptist. It is a tale of spite and revenge. Even Herod grieves when he realises the web in which he is caught. A prophet of God is murdered by a threatened worldly power.
In the second, with people in need, we see Jesus moved by great compassion, curing the sick and providing a bountiful meal for the crowds. Though apparently under threat himself, he acts as the host for a hungry crowd.
The compassion of one meal contrasts with the vindictiveness of the other. One ends in the passion of a prophet; the other in the compassion of the Son of God.
Jesus’ compassion for the crowds seems to rub off on the disciples. They realise that it is late and that the people have no food. When they suggest that Jesus send them to the nearby villages to purchase supplies, they must have been taken aback by his response: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” His instruction is quite impractical: they have only a little bread and fish – hardly enough for themselves, let alone this crowd.
“Bring them here to me.” The resources the disciples can muster are meagre but Jesus helps them to discover that such resources are sufficient. On his hands, they become more than enough.
The story describes the miraculous power of Jesus, in the face of a difficult situation. But the disciples too have a role in the exercise of that power: from the recognition of the need to the gathering up of the leftovers. They act on the orders of Jesus, orders that seem incredible. And yet, the immediacy of their response and their unquestioning obedience make them models for us of what it means to share in the compassionate ministry of Jesus. The disciples learn about the divine concern for the hungry precisely by doing what they are told. They are not given any prior information about how it will work out. Rather, in the act of carrying out Jesus’ directions, they discover one whose compassion goes beyond anything they could imagine. This is a story repeated time and again in Christian history where disciples inspired by Jesus have seen people in need and responded to it with what little they had, and found that their little has grown.
Those words which I took as my text have a familiar ring to them: both words and actions are ones we encounter when we come to share in the Eucharist. We will see and hear them again this morning. At the Offertory, disciples who represent us all will bring bread and wine to the Lord’s table. The priest will take them and he will bless them by giving thanks to God. He will break the bread and then it will be distributed to the people. Finally, they will gather up what it left over. Matthew’s first readers, who gathered regularly for the sacrament, were bound to draw connections between the feeding in Galilee and the feeding in the upper room in Jerusalem and their feeding Sunday by Sunday.
What can we learn from the connections between the two events?
We see Jesus here as the compassionate provider, who not only gives a morsel of bread and a sip of wine, but heals sicknesses and feeds the body. His ministry is physical as well as spiritual. Holy Communion reminds us that Jesus takes seriously all the dimensions of human brokenness and need.
So in this past week, the sacramental bread has not just been received by those who have come to church but it has been taken from our altar to some unable to be here with us because of sickness: a woman undergoing a course of chemotherapy; a man in a nursing home after a stroke which has left him unable to walk and barely able to speak. He received the sacrament with his wife who spends part of each day with him. With his speech therapist, he’s trying to learn again to say the Lord’s Prayer, so that he can say it with us before we receive communion.
Those who are Jesus’ disciples are called to share his compassion. It is to rub off on us too. Our worship in the Eucharist should so inform and transform our lives that, as we recognise more deeply our own need to be fed, our own weakness and hunger, we are made more conscious of the hunger, both physical and spiritual, of those around us.
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
So says God through the prophet Isaiah to a people in exile in an alien and pagan culture. He says it still to us who live in the midst of another alien culture; one which sees human success and fulfilment in the amassing of things in this world rather than the sharing of them. It offers bread which leaves us still hungry not satisfied and wine brings not joy but addiction and degradation.
The Gospel presents us with a contrast between two meals and what they signify: one in which there is excess for a few; the other in which there is enough for all. One in which celebration ends in blood shed, a life taken; the other in which a life given for all is celebrated.
The contrast between these two meals speaks to us of all our meals, and what our eating and drinking signify: our systems of producing and distribution of food, our dependence on the whole of creation and its Creator for life itself; and the consequent sense that what we have is gift and not possession; that we in the final analysis we are not owners but stewards.
At the Offertory we respond to Jesus’s command: “Bring them here to me.” The material gifts we bring are extensions of ourselves, mirrors of our souls, symbols of our relationships. We bring to the altar our whole culture praying for its redemption.
The presentation of gifts highlights the symbolic nature of gifts given and received. The collection, the bread and wine as objects of creation and human ingenuity may be seen as fulfilling a destiny in glorifying him by whom and for whom they were created.
Christ’s table to which we bring our gifts becomes a pattern for all tables. At it we recognise all food and drink as the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands, the gift of God and of his human co-workers. It makes us see that all human labour is a cooperative venture. We dig and plant, but God gives the growth. We transform the world by our technology, but God gives the raw materials and the skill.
But food and drink achieve fulfilment in being put at the disposal of others. The way in which they are used is either a sign of justice or injustice – they can be used to build relationships or create divisions.
When Jesus takes the bread, says the blessing, breaks and shares it, he demonstrates the proper use of all material things. And when Jesus takes the cup and gives thanks to God and passes it among his disciples, he shows us the joy of not claiming anything for our own, not even life itself.
Creation groaning to be redeemed from the murderous perversions to which our sinful use has subjected, finds it liberation, when it is used as it is used in the liturgy, to acknowledge and express the justice of God in the midst of his people, who are being bonded into a community by their common and respectful use of material things.
- When food and drink are used improperly (as they are so often either in our own gluttony and waste or the deprivation of others) they represent the sin of grasping: “I’ve got my loaves and fishes and I’m hanging on to them.”
- When used properly (food and drink redeemed) symbolise self-emptying. If sin is grasping, the redemption is letting go. If sin means symbolically grabbing at food, then redemption means sharing and giving it away.
Learning how to give in a world that promotes perfecting the art of getting and keeping is no easy matter. The sacrifice of the Eucharist is a constantly repeated rehearsal of the Kingdom of God by which we learn its script; its lines and its moves become ours. It is about being freely drawn into a deeper level of communion with Christ, of participation in Christ. It is about a gradual abandonment of self-centred ways of seeing the world, in order to see the Kingdom of God as Jesus sees it: one in which all created things are called to fulfil their rightful purpose and destiny under God. May our Eucharist effect among us that which it signifies.