It's always a challenge preaching in a different space and followers of this blog might be interested in the sermon I was privileged to give in Melbourne a few weeks ago.
A Reflection for St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne
Reading: John 6:1-21
The last thing our cathedral administrator asked me before I left the cathedral office was ‘what are you going to preach on?’ to which I replied vaguely - something along the lines of that the gospel was John and the feeding of the 5000.
The scene changes to the following Friday night when our rental car is stuck in Flinders street traffic as a tide of humanity surges toward the stadium for a football international. Our car surges too, maybe a foot. One has time to think. Now imagine – the question is there is this boy with his supper, fish and chips, could you feed this multitude with that? That’s a dumb question. But what if in The Age next day is the headline Jesus in Melbourne? One boy’s fish and chips feeds Thousands! What would you think?
Well, we wouldn't believe it. Maybe we'd say it was a hoax and write a complaint to the Press Council. We wouldn't believe it - we'd seen the crowds; we know what's real don't we? We are not with Alice in Wonderland and we don't have to believe six impossible things before breakfast.
Now stay with me in this: what if The Age staunchly defends its story and reports from the crowd repeat the story that the impossible happened.“It's true - they handed out fish and chips, it never seemed to give out. There was enough for everyone. The stall holders and franchisees weren't happy though. It was amazing!”
What may we do when people keep insisting that the impossible has happened? (Fortunately this doesn't usually happen because most people are too sensible and don't want to be laughed at.) but what may we do if sensible, practical, feet on the ground, trustworthy and reliable people keep insisting that the impossible happened? (“I was there mate, I know a bit of fish when I eat it.”)
If this becomes a serious threat to our grasp on reality, maybe we’ll say that it was all a stunt, an illusion, we don't know how they do it; if it persists over time, maybe we’ll find other ways to keep it at bay – dismiss it as an urban legend.
All of which is a long lead into this gospel that speaks to us across 2000 years as if it were an ancient urban legend. I simply ask a very ordinary blunt question: is it true? Is it an account of something that actually happened or is it a literary fabrication? Was there this moment in time when a door opened in the universe and we caught a glimpse of a deeper reality at work? May we believe in miracles or are the gospels simply fantasy novels?
Miracles are events that don't fit our concept of reality; they don't fit with the narrative science has given us. The trouble is that the narrative of science is dynamic not static. With new knowledge the narrative is continually amended – for instance string theory and the advances in particle physics. Is it conceivable that laws of science that explain our reality are not the only laws but are actually underpinned by a far deeper reality that may occasionally manifest itself, opening as it were a door in the universe?
This proposition is of course the stuff of science fiction and fantasy literature. It is also the underpinning truth that drives the gospels. All the gospel writers had shared the same great mind-bending reality that we call the resurrection; not just a weird momentary thing to be forgotten as a drunken dream but an encounter with the risen Jesus that lasted weeks; something that could not be shrugged off as delusion or an hallucination; this was an experience that rewrote reality for them. How do you live when your whole reality has changed? How do you tell the story of the deep mystery, the deepest reality, that compels the gospels?
· About this point us theologians usually show some nervousness with the idea of miracles and, for instance, one may insist that miracle compromises the integrity of creation and of the incarnation. A good point.
· Another may point out that the way John tells the story is to remind the Jewish audience of the great stories and dreams of Israel. Jesus is like Moses in the Exodus and feeds the people in the wilderness; there is more than enough food – and that strikes echoes of their longing for the return of God among them and the dream of plenty for all. This is to look for parallels and connections, literary artifice, rather than face the mystery itself.
· Another might try to explain the miracle away. For example – all those women and children: well how many mum’s would let the family go off without some sandwiches? So there must have been some food available. Was the real miracle that our Lord used the lunch provided by one boy to induce everyone to share what they had – with staggering results – showing the abundance that love can produce? Now I think that's a perfectly plausible suggestion, that may be what happened.
But these options are all attempts to evade the inexplicable. Why is it that all four gospels tell this story of the miraculous feeding of the multitude? If the truth was really a story of simple sharing, why not tell it as that? Why did each gospel writer instead present it as miracle? If they all conspired to fabricate an urban legend (which strikes me as unlikely) what a foolhardy incident to use - it would be so easy to disprove – there were so many witnesses to the facts who could have laughed it into oblivion.
Instead in our gospel this morning, John tells us a story where it is as if a door opens in the universe and the principles and rules of another dimension pour through and are set in motion. So that in the hands of Jesus, matter itself, mere loaves and fish, seems inexhaustible; our world is changed; reality is more than we thought; it is less defined, less predictable and far more dynamic than we can bear to imagine. This gospel takes us to the limits of thought.
Shortly we will baptise Noah. In baptism (as in Eucharist) it is as if a door opens: such simple things – water and oil – and the boundaries of our material world are enlarged and Noah is joined to Christ.