29 July 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Canon Simon Cowling
Ephesians 3. 14-end; John 6. 1-21
The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. Rather a surprising comment for a Presbyterian Minister to make, you might think. But that is the view of Frederick Buechner, a widely admired American author as well as ordained minister. At the heart of his assertion is the idea that the Gospel confronts all those who hear it with an awareness of their spiritual deficiency. The fact of that spiritual deficiency, that lack, is the bad news. The good news is that the Gospel offers everyone the means for that deficiency to be met; it offers God’s assurance that we are in Buechner’s words loved anyway, cherished, (and) forgiven. Here, I think, is a helpful way of understanding the feeding of the five thousand. On one level it is a story of Jesus satisfying the physical hunger of a large crowd in an eminently practical, if fairly simple, way. On another level it is a story which challenges that large crowd, and us, to think of ways in which our hunger might be more than physical; a story that prompts us to reflect more deeply on how God’s glory is made manifest to the world in Christ, and on how God’s grace is offered to the world through Christ.
John’s earliest readers would have been fully aware of the allusions the gospel writer was making to an Old Testament story involving the prophet Elisha. In the midst of a famine in the Kingdom of Israel, many hundreds of years before Christ, Elisha commands his servant to feed a hundred men with just twenty barley loaves. The servant is sceptical: how can I set this before a hundred people? Elisha repeats his command, adding that not only will there be enough to feed the whole crowd but that God has indicated there will be some left. And so it happens. The crowd’s hunger is satisfied, and there is some bread left over. And there is another Old Testament allusion being made in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. John gives us a specific clue to this allusion when he writes: now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. The very first Passover festival was the night of the Israelites escape from Egypt under Moses’s leadership. Soon after that the Israelites began to complain bitterly of their hunger, accusing Moses of leading them into the wilderness only to face them with the prospect of starvation. As a result God provided manna from heaven to satisfy their hunger and Moses directed the people of Israel to collect the manna carefully, seeing it as a sign of God’s glory.
It is clear from John’s narrative that the crowd pick up these Old Testament allusions as well: When the people saw the sign that Jesus had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ A prophet such as Elisha, such as Moses. The prophet whom the Jewish people were eagerly awaiting as they suffered the apparently unending indignity of Roman occupation. Such is the crowd’s excitement that they are about to seize Jesus to make a king of this prophet. But Jesus retreats to the mountain, unwilling to collude with their misunderstanding of the sign he has given them. Over the course of the following day, as we will hear in the Gospel readings over the next two weeks, Jesus will attempt to correct this misunderstanding.
Meanwhile, what are we to understand from what we have heard this week? Here are some fragments that I have gathered up from today’s Gospel, to which you will want to add the fragments you have gathered yourselves. Firstly, I referred at the beginning of my sermon to the sense of spiritual deficiency that the Gospel confronts us with. I think this deficiency consists primarily in a lack of trust in God’s longing to provide for us: it was there in the Israelites who complained to Moses about their hunger only days after they had been led out of captivity in Egypt; it was there in Elisha’s sceptical servant who could not believe that twenty loaves could stretch very far among a hundred hungry men; and in today’s Gospel it was there in the disciple Andrew who was pretty dismissive of the small boy’s offering: what are five barley loaves and two fish among so many people? These examples of lack of trust that God would provide for physical nourishment were bad news, because they betrayed an underlying resistance to God’s abundant provision for spiritual nourishment as well – a resistance which is not hard to see in our own time.
Today’s Gospel also offers a warning against simple solutions to complex challenges. The crowd’s eagerness to make Jesus king was a sign of their impatience to fix things; their belief that a strong man would enable them to throw off the shackles of a foreign power, to take back control, to shape their destiny. But Jesus refused to be such a king, he refused to be such a strong man. As we know, Jesus was to choose another way entirely to challenge and face down the complexity of a fallen world. His strength was to be made perfect in weakness.
Finally, the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand reminds us that the little we offer may be seen differently by those whose own resources are slender. A couple of months ago the Skipton foodbank was giving out roughly double the number of food parcels as compared with the same period last year. Never underestimate the value of the tin or the packet that you place in the collection point in the Tower. It is our tins and our packets which make up the loaves and the fishes that will feed those in need. In sharing them, we share the one who provided so abundantly for a crowd two thousand years ago, the one whom we will encounter afresh this morning in the breaking of the bread as those who are loved, cherished, and forgiven. .