This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Sunday 29 July.
I wonder if you can remember when you stopped believing in Father Christmas. I was about 4 when I queried the possibility of a man getting down our chimney. My mother, who was a fairly literal person, did not attempt a convincing answer. On the other hand, my daughter was still a firm believer at the age of 25, as she reasoned that stockings were still a good thing. Two very different attitudes to belief. The first looks at the how, the mechanics, the facts. The second is much more interested in the why, the story, the metaphor. (And, to be fair in my daughter’s case, the chocolate). When we read the Bible we can study it as history, and ask what really happened. And that is a very proper approach of academic study. But we can also ask what impact the story has for our lives. In reading John’s gospel, the first approach is interesting. In today’s reading he mentions names and places that the other gospel writers leave out, and so firmly embeds it time and place. But it is more rewarding still to pay close attention to his language and his detail, and unpack the meaning that the stories had for him.
Few Christians believe that the gospels are all factually accurate in every respect – indeed when compared to each other contradictions arise. Today’s gospel reading contains two miracles that have often seemed a step too far to be believed. The laws of nature are violated. People do not walk on water, nor does a tiny amount of food feed 5 000 people. People have sought explanations – perhaps Jesus was walking along the waters edge, and in the confusion of the night storm the disciples were much nearer the shore than they thought, and it just looked as though Jesus was walking on the water. And in fact, a lot of people had food with them, but kept it hidden in case they were expected to share. With the generosity of one young lad, giving his lunch to Jesus, everyone got out their own food, and when they shared there was more than enough.
All four gospels have the story of the feeding of the five thousand – it’s the only miracle that occurs in them all. I’m not sure they would have understood our preoccupation with facts and historical accuracy – they are interested in what the story tells us about Jesus. Who is he, and what impact does he have on the lives of those who meet him? Today’s reading is the version in John’s gospel, and while on the one hand he includes names and places to give a specific setting for the story, on the other hand every little detail has a meaning beyond the facts. In one short story there is a wealth of allusions, metaphors and invitations to faith.
So first, the story as it was told. It was the time of year for the Passover, and Jesus has been healing and teaching in his home region of Galilee and people have been amazed, not only by his words but at the way so many sick people have been restored to health He has become very popular. To get some peace and quiet he goes to the far side of the sea of Galilee. He takes his disciples up a mountain and he teaches them there. But he sees a huge crowd coming towards them so he turns to Philip and asks him “Where can we get enough bread to feed these people?” Poor Philip. He has little money, there are no shops and even if there were they wouldn’t have such quantities of bread. He replies “6 months wages wouldn’t be enough to buy bread for them all”. Obviously, some thinking outside the box is needed. Andrew is standing nearby and overhears and he tells Jesus “There’s a young lad here with 5 barley loaves and 2 pickled fish” but he can’t stop himself from adding “What is this among so many?” Although he has an inkling Jesus might be able to do something, he doesn’t want to look silly suggesting the impossible, so he hedges his bets. But that’s enough for Jesus. He gets the disciples to sit the people down, and gives thanks for the bread, breaks it into pieces, and tells the disciples to take it round, along with the fish. As they go from person to person, offering them the food, they find they always have food left in the basket. Everyone has as much as they want, and there are still 12 baskets left. Naturally people are amazed, and begin to say that Jesus is The Prophet foretold in their scriptures. But Jesus realises that they are going to take him by force to be their king, and he slips away up the mountain.
By the evening he hasn’t come back, and the disciples decide to take the boat back to the other side. But a storm blows up, and in the midst of it they see a shape moving towards them on the water. In the dark, through the sea spray they can just see an outline, and they are terrified. But they hear Jesus’ voice “It is I, don’t be afraid”. They welcome him into the boat and immediately they find themselves on dry land.
The first people to read John’s account would have been reminded of an older story that they knew well. Moses was minding his father in laws sheep when a voice spoke to him out of a burning bush. He was afraid, and he asked the name of God “I am” in other words “it is I” was the only name God gave. So, after much negotiating with Pharaoh Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Before they left they had one final meal. The Jews commemorate it to this day as the Passover supper, with giving thanksgiving for, and breaking bread. Moses led the people into the wilderness, where the people were hungry, because there was no food. But God supplied them with manna, a sort of bread, and there was always enough for everyone, all twelve tribes of Israel. Moses went up a mountain and received the law from God, which he taught to the people.
So John, by emphasising that Jesus did this miracle at the time of the Passover, and giving us lots of details that resonate, helps us to understand that the people who wanted to make Jesus their king had in mind the stories from the Old Testament, and saw Jesus as a Messiah to lead them out of subjection to Rome, just as Moses led the Israelites out of slavery. They were right Jesus being the King, but it was a very different sort of kingdom.
But there is a third story. The church, the early church or our church, sometimes wavers in belief, but with just a glimmer of faith Jesus can take it and provide for us in ways beyond our dreams. In the breaking of bread, as we will do in a few minutes, Jesus nourishes us until we are satisfied, and there is enough left over for everyone who wants to share, for in the kingdom of Jesus no one who comes to him will be lost. Sometimes people have tried to use Jesus for their own ends, but He will not be fit into our demands. In times of spiritual darkness we struggle to find Jesus, but if we listen to his voice, and welcome him in, we once more find ourselves on firm ground with nothing to fear. For He is the God who says “I am”, the eternal God who is present in this moment, who existed before the world was created and is reality itself. The difference between Father Christmas and God, is the difference between a metaphor and truth itself.
Since this story is in all four gospels, the church at the time they were written must have thought it important. Their experience of faith was that a handful of frightened disciples in an upper room in one day became 3 thousand strong. And we are told that they regularly met together to break bread. The Eucharist, a word which simply means thanksgiving was central to their life and worship. Within a generation the gospel had spread and there were Christians throughout Europe. Whatever our view on miracles, that is a fact that no one disputes. John told stories of thousands being fed and a man who could walk on water because for him it was not possible to exaggerate the power and impact of Jesus, who was and is the one who transcends life and death and is at the heart of all that is. John knew him not just as a human being, but as a living presence in his life.
Today we are in a time of declining church attendance in the UK. We work hard to share our faith, but it often seems to be an uphill struggle. We offer God our equivalent of 5 basic loaves and a couple of dried pickled fish. It is not much. But we cannot compel Jesus to answer our prayers in the way we would like. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert, or the disciples in the darkness of the storm, we are waiting for Jesus voice. And the answer comes in the Eucharist – “It is I”, “I am”. He through whom all things were created and are sustained, is present, and gives himself to us. We in return receive Him and wait with patient faith for Him to act, in his own way and his own time. We will not, ultimately, be disappointed.