Trinity 8 – High Mass Sermon Sunday 29 July 2012 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Trinity 8 – High Mass Sermon Sunday 29 July 2012

TRINITY 8  HIGH MASS

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

The feeding of the 5,000 which begins the 6th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel and which leads into the story of Jesus coming to the disciples on the water, and then to the great discourse on the bread of life which we will be hearing over the next few Sundays, was clearly a vital event for the early Church. It is recorded by all four evangelists  –  the only miracle that is.  Why should that be? Is it simply a demonstration of divine power, an over-powering argument?

There are elements in John’s telling of the story which draw on the Old Testament background and others which reflect the situation and practice of the Church from which it came and for which it was written.

People sometimes say, “Why do we have to read all that stuff from the Old Testament?” isn’t it all just about a legalistic and judgemental, and sometimes angry, God?  Well, no it isn’t and we need to read it if we are to understand what the New Testament writers are trying to tell us. Without that background, we miss much of what is being said.

 

We might well think that the Feeding of the 5000 is only a stunt to impress people. Because we find it difficult to believe in miracles any more, we either reject it out of hand or turn it into an improving tale in which Jesus encourages everybody to share their sandwiches.

The Old Testament Reading is chosen because this story from the ministry of the prophet Elisha, with its, “Give it to the people and let them eat” and “How can I set this before a hundred people?” is clearly echoed in the Feeding of the 5,000. Generosity is contrasted with doubt.

It is not the only Old Testament allusion. John tells us that all this happens at the time of the Feast of Passover: the great Jewish festival which recalls the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey through the desert to the promised land.  When the people are hungry and Moses prays to God,  “Where am I to get the meat to give to all these people?”, the Lord sends the manna to feed them.

“There was much grass there” echoes the words of Psalm 23, “He makes me lie down in green pastures,….You  prepare a table before me.”

 

The prophet Isaiah speaks of the establishment of the reign of God as a great banquet. “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,” say the crowd.  Jesus’ ability to feed these large numbers is seen as fulfilling Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy (18.15) of another prophet: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you.” If Jesus, like Moses, can feed people in the wilderness, then surely, he must be that prophet, the Messiah who is to come: hence their desire to make him king. 

The story of the stilling of the storm which John, like Mark and Matthew has follow immediately on the Feeding, also uses the imagery of the Old Testament,  the passing through the waters of the Red Sea; the sea as representing the power of destruction.  Jesus comes to them and says, “It is I, be not afraid,” or more accurately, I AM  –  the name of God from the book of Exodus “I AM WHO I AM”.  And so in John’s Gospel, we here Jesus repeatedly saying I AM:

  • “I am the bread of life;
  • I am the light of the world;
  • I am the water of life;
  • I am the Good Shepherd;
  • I am the Resurrection and the life;
  • I am the way, the truth and the life.”

 

As well as echoes of the Old Testament which help us to see what John is saying, there are also reflections of the life and practice of the Church in the era of the New Testament.  John gives no account of the institution of the Eucharist in his telling of the Last Supper. But here in John 6, in the Feeding and in the discourse on the bread of life which follows it, there are hints of the Eucharistic worship of the Church.

So at this Passover time Jesus tells his disciples to organise the people as for a meal; he “takes” the loaves and fish and “gives thanks Eucharistesas.”  He himself distributes them to the people himself and all are satisfied. The promise of Psalm 23 is fulfilled: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Then he commands the disciples to “gather up” synegagon  –   the same word for the gathering of God’s people for the Eucharist in early Christian documents  –  the fragments that remain, using the same word, klasmata –   as we find for the Eucharistic bread in the Didache – the oldest account of the celebration of the sacrament  we have from immediately after the time of the New Testament. 

There is even something to be learned from the geography which John recounts as Jesus goes over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberias: into Gentile territory. Indeed, the multitude which follows him can be seen as representing the world which earlier in the Gospel we have heard that God so loved that he gave his only Son. They had seen and heard how he had met the needs of the sick and weak, and now they represent the need of the world, not just for material food but for the spiritual food of God.

It is in the knowledge of that love of all his creatures, “every family, in heaven and on earth,” that Paul, or his disciple, makes his prayer in the passage from Ephesians which is our epistle today. He prays that the Christians, the believers in Ephesus, may be “strengthened in {their} inner being  by the power of the Spirit,  that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith, as they are being rooted and grounded in love”. Note that this is a process, not something already finished. So, he prays that they may have the power to “comprehend, with all the saints”, that is in the Church – not on their own –  “what is the breadth  and length and height and dept, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that they may be filled with the knowledge of God.”  – 

That knowledge is not the product of our own minds; it can only come from God’s initiative in revealing himself, and supremely in Jesus Christ. Nor can we ever fully and finally comprehend in this life.

God takes the initiative: so it is Jesus who raises the question of feeding this great crowd before anyone has said they are hungry or the disciples have said anything. But that does not mean that we are to be entirely passive:

  • the people follow Jesus;
  • Andrew and the young lad bring the loaves and fishes.

What we bring will, in human terms, be inadequate to the demands of the situation. We will find ourselves saying, “What are they among so many?  “How can I set this before a hundred people?” 

The crowd fed by Jesus missed the point; they got it completely wrong. They saw only a miraculous power which could be turned to their own ends.  This for John is the equivalent of the temptation in the wilderness to turn stones into bread.  They could use Jesus to further their political longings for an independent Jewish state. So Jesus flees from them, to be alone with his Father.

People have sought to use Jesus in support of their causes ever since: whether to over turn the established order of things or to defend it  –  more of a temptation for an established church like ours.

In the run-up to the American election, we will hear a good deal about the influence of Evangelicals: sometimes called the “Religious Right” – but quite often more accurately described as the “Religious Wrong”.  One of its more baleful forms is that of the prosperity cult, a gospel of “health, wealth and prosperity”.  Jesus wants his disciples to be rich. Its prayer and anthem might be the late Janis Joplin’s song:     “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz;

                my friends all drive Porsches,  I must make amends.”

Converts s are urged to give, to tithe, not so much as a response to the generosity of God, but more as an investment to generate more wealth.

One of the advantages of belonging to a Church which makes us listen to the Gospels Sunday by Sunday and day by day, and which celebrates the lives of saints like Francis, is that we know that Jesus did not have a Mercedes Benz or a Porsche, and that he had nowhere to lay his head; that in his preaching has far more to say about the dangers of wealth and power than about some of the current pre-occupations of evangelical Christianity.  Barley loaves and dry fish are the food of the poor.

Our misunderstanding and misuse of Jesus  may be a more subtle affair:  to use him as a source of spiritual comfort; a provider of assurance in uncertain times, an unchanging rock when all else seems to crumble; a buttress for our status quo; a haven when we are storm-tossed.

Our lack of faith is likely to be to despair that God can use what little we bring.  We have just been told that the population of London now exceeds 8 million people; people from all over the world. How are they to be fed? What are we among so many?

 

Is our case hopeless? Are we always doomed to misunderstand and misuse? In the gospels, the disciples are generally rather slow on the uptake, Philip and Andrew clearly haven’t learned much about God’s ability to provide from the marriage feast of Cana, but they do get something right in contrast to the crowd. When they recognise the Jesus who comes to them in the storm, they hear his voice as the voice of God, they receive him into the boat. John uses the same word used in the prologue to the gospel of receiving Jesus: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”  

That is why the Church, the community of believers, has to keep on doing what we do this morning and Sunday by Sunday: gathering around Jesus, in order to be fed at the table of word and sacrament, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts: so that “we may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”

So, in the words of that prayer: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”

 

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses