Ninth Sunday after Trinity.
Readings: 2 Kings, 4, 42-end. Psalm 145 10-19. Ephesians 3, 14-end. John 6, 1-21
Some of us may have bright memories of filling in Sunday School pictures of the miracle of five loaves and two fishes feeding everyone, with twelve baskets to spare. And indeed the five thousand men together with the many uncounted women and children would have been glad to be fed, for they have trailed after Jesus up hill and down dale. Both these facts are important: no one should starve if any person has the capacity to provide food, and Jesus’s action was indeed a miracle. Even if Jesus or his various followers could have found the thousands Philip estimated they’d need to feed all those people, there were no bakers, no flour, no ovens.
But this story isn’t just about the important social justice of sharing food, and the miraculous power of Jesus, though it is both of those things. What is Jesus telling us which is so important that all four gospel writers describe it in the only description of a miracle common to the four? In part it is the giving and sharing of bread, the staff of temporal and eternal life. You may have missed the Gospel reference to Jesus’ party coming from the eastern to the western side of the lake of Galilee- but it was significant, because those coming from the eastern side would have included more Gentiles- Greeks, Phoenicians, Samaritans. The crowd was thus a mixed-up mass, a point to which I’ll return.
In our first reading, Elisha satisfied all whom he was teaching not only with his words, but with the big round loaves of the new harvest after the starving months when belts were tight. He did not do a miracle but, following the way of Moses, Elisha’s act illustrates today’s psalm, ‘The eyes of all look to you, Lord, and you give them food in due season.’ By the time we get to this story of God’s chosen people in 2 Kings, that first intimate relationship with God, exemplified by Moses in the Pentateuch, is wavering, faltering, even failing: Elisha revives them body and soul with bread for body and mind.
Jesus, following that prophetic line, used this ‘feeding event’ as a crucial ‘showing’ of himself, God’s Son, to everyone there, whom he knew would be of mixed origin. It was thus a meticulously played-out demonstration not only of his relation to the prophets of old, especially the great Moses, but his relationship with, his being of, God. When those who had been fed saw the crumbs put into twelve baskets representing the twelve tribes, they didn’t say the obvious ‘goodness, what a lot is left,’ but: ‘this is indeed the prophet – the messiah- who is to come into the world.’ They realised that this man had new bread for a newly chosen multi-ethnic people whom he would lead, like a shepherd, as we heard last week, or like a mighty King of a splendid Kingdom.
Now Jesus knew from experience that however clear his miracle had been, the disciples, never mind the crowd, would not get it first time, even though in sharing God’s bread, they were all on the journey. And it was equally clear to him that if the crowds publically acclaimed him as the Messiah at that point, opposition would prevent him completing his work. Moreover, he rejected Kingship and all that entailed. He therefore withdrew from everyone, crowds and disciples alike, demonstrating the radical difference between Moses and himself, between the great Prophet and the Son of God. As his followers were rowing wearily home, he walked on the water, reiterating his source and status just to his closest followers as he underlined the difference between a Moses and God in human form.
Two points seem useful to think with. First, this and the next three weeks talk about bread, the lectionary makers wisely reckoning that we won’t get it first time. In taking the bread of God today, we shall acknowledge that we are fed by God’s love, communion being a sign of setting ourselves right in relation to God. But secondly, communion is also a sign of setting ourselves right in relation to our neighbour. Who is that?
The Church Times this week includes a report from Alabama on neighbours and strangers for Trump-following Christians. ‘Love thy neighbour,’ one lady said, meant ‘love thy American neighbour’ and ‘if you do this to the least of these you do it to me,’ means ‘the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.’ Is such picking and choosing of neighbours done just there? Osbert Sitwell, in his autobiography, writes of the 1920s: ‘our nearest neighbours were more than ten miles away’ Really? Checking the map today, the family house of Renishaw was one mile on foot from the large village of Eckington: clearly ‘neighbours’ doesn’t mean people, but ‘people like us!’ Was that just then? After the 2016 Referendum, a child of eight in Chipping Norton was told by class-mates: ‘You’ll be sent away from here because you mum is from East Europe.’ That idea didn’t come from eight-year-old class-mates, but their parents. Over there, back then, and here and now: such dehumanising of God’s children flourishes.
Receiving God in our lives means being open to what God is doing and does in our lives and in the world- and that must disconcert and challenge. Have you seen the east window of St Martin in the Fields in London? A central milky diagonally-placed oval pushes into small neat plain-glass leaded oblongs, such as many here have in their windows, and the intruding cross-shape which results disrupts and distorts those neat panes. That must be what being fed with the bread of God means: challenge, discomfort, invigoration shaped by the gift of God in Christ.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Idbury, July 29th 2018.