Sermon18OrdinarySunday July 31 2011
Recognising the Miracle
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. 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; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. -Matthew 14:13-21
We have longing hearts – that is one way of describing the religious spirit – and there are moments in the gospels where we encounter what that longing means. We bump into it every time we hear Jesus speak of ‘The kingdom of Heaven’ –a place where God’s will and loving purpose for all creation is at last fulfilled. At the very least it holds a vision of a glory beyond imagining and a state where want, sorrow, suffering are no more. So we have this intriguing, tantalising story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 (excluding women and children!): who would not wish that such miraculous powers were available to us now, today? If such powers were at our command then surely the misery of the famine and drought in East Africa could then be speedily addressed! So this miracle story teases us: the abundance it celebrates is a stark contrast to the hunger and misery we see on the news; Jesus’ power to act and make a difference contrasts with our sense of powerlessness and despair in the face of so much desperate need.
Now the sceptic inside us may be wondering about this miraculous feeding of the 5000. We can of course simply say yes it was a miracle – out there in the wilderness Jesus really multiplied bread and fish and we claim it as a unique event involving dimensional shifts in reality that we cannot account for. We may admit that it is a miracle on a grand scale and refuse to be fazed by such questions as why then and not now; what are the mechanics of inexhaustible bread and multiplying fish – do they grow in your hands or does the basket never empty?
For those who go down that path there are great risks for faith and theology. For instance, a downside of insisting this is a miracle of multiplying bread and inexhaustible fish is that it subverts what is a far greater mystery and a core doctrine of our faith – that of the incarnation. Why – in Jesus the ‘Word made flesh’ - would God take human form, choose to ‘conceal’ or ‘shed’ divinity, but then dazzle the multitudes by an awesome demonstration of power with inexhaustible bread and fish?
What is the miracle here: that bread and fish were multiplied or that a multitude was fed? Do we recognise the miracle; do we recognise the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven?
The historic facts elude us and all we have to guide us are the gospel accounts. Yet what the gospels reveal is compelling.
1. Despite each gospel being very different in structure and in what it includes or omits in the account given of Jesus, all four gospels include the story of the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness. For each evangelist, for the early church the gospels were written for, this event was crucial to understanding who Jesus is and what the church is about.
This feeding of the multitude is a manifestation of the Kingdom.
The gospel text is more subtle and artful than we might have imagined. F
2. Notice how this Gospel begins: ‘Now when Jesus heard this...’ Jesus goes into the wilderness immediately after hearing of the death of John the Baptist. (You will remember that John had been butchered at Herod’s command during a banquet where conspicuous consumption, pride, arrogance, scheming and finally murder were all on display.) In this gospel text that bestial feast is followed by Jesus having the people all recline on the grass – the position for dining – and he offers quite another sort of feast, one where trust, healing and sharing all take place. Do those gathered about Jesus in the wilderness we catch a glimpse of another Kingdom?
3. Remember the Old Testament story of the miraculous feeding of the people of Israel in the wilderness? In Exodus, at Moses’ intercession, ‘manna’ appeared in the wilderness and later ‘miraculous’ flocks of birds also landed to provide some meat. Does the gospel writer draw on this association when he tells of this feeding? Does he create a frame through which to see Jesus: a second Moses?
4. Jesus’ actions – he took bread, gave thanks, blessed, broke and distributed it. It is the 5 fold action of the Eucharist and the Early Church would have recognised in this Gospel story the meal they celebrated every Sunday. They would have seen it as similar to the Last Supper; they would have recognised in it all those inclusive fellowship meals that infuriated the Pharisees, those instances when Jesus ate so indiscriminately with ‘publicans and sinners’. Does the Gospel writer create a frame through which to understand the Eucharist and the calling of the Church?
Now let’s go back to those 5 loaves and two fish. A little like going out into the middle of a packed Carisbrook with 2 hotdogs and can of coke and announcing ‘Hotdogs and Coke for everyone’!
You can imagine how people looked at what Jesus was doing and I can imagine someone saying to another ‘Jesus has lost it. He’s said grace and is going to feed us all with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Don’t get too excited – it will all be gone long before it gets to us!
Five loaves, 2 fish: is that all there is available? Commonsense might cause us to consider how improbable it is that none of the people there had any food – that they had followed Jesus into the wilderness and not taken the precaution of a packed lunch or some equivalent of that sort? Surely in various backpacks people were carrying something? Children were there: what parent would not ensure that something to eat was on hand?
So Jesus takes the food he has available and gives it out – and somehow the miracle begins. Strangers open their backpacks and share their bread, bagel, sandwich, apple, cheese, Aunt Mary’s sweet mustard pickle, the smoked salmon, and the biltong with other strangers. Barriers are broken down. What people have been hiding for themselves is now brought out and shared with others. Those who have little or nothing share in the abundance of others. My bread, my meal becomes our bread, our meal.
What is the miracle here? It is not in any expansion of those five loaves and two fish but in the feeding of the multitude. In that meal people are changed and they (and we) catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven and what it is like; how there is always more than enough. When I hear of people earning millions while others can barely survive or are starving and dying – I ask what miracle is needed? Simply that our hearts and minds are changed: that we may understand that bread (or its equivalent) is never really mine or yours but always ours: as we have been taught so we pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’. To live in the light of that understanding is to inhabit the Kingdom.
So every Sunday we come here with longing hearts to share what we have and to once again catch a glimpse of the Kingdom.