THE FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND
Jeremiah 6.9-21 John 6.5-14
Every Monday Marlene works her miracle for the tired and hungry in our part of Hereford. With a team of dedicated volunteers she feeds 25-30 people who look to various churches for daily food. Many are far from their homes in Poland, Romania, Portugal or Latvia. Some sleep rough others sofa hop. Now, your chaplain has promised dinner to the preacher and Choral Evensong in Oxford may not seem an obvious place to find a crowd of hungry people but it is part of human nature to know an emptiness that craves to be satisfied. Indeed excessive consumption only seems to sharpen the hunger of the soul.
Mathew and Mark tell us that when Jesus saw the crowds ‘he had compassion on them’. We might recall the words of God to Moses: ‘I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt…I have heard their cry, I know their suffering (Exodus 2.7). Under God, Moses would lead his people from their captivity through the wilderness, where he gave them bread from heaven, on to the Promised Land. This divine rescue came to be celebrated at the Festival of the Passover. St John says; ‘Now the Passover was near’, when Jesus asked Philip how another great crowd might be fed. John adds; ‘Jesus himself knew what he was going to do’, because there is one greater than Moses here! John then unfolds this fourth sign, given to us like the whole gospel so that we ‘might believe that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God and…..through believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20.31).
Like all the works of Jesus, this sign points to something deeper than what he did to meet the immediate need of the crowd. It reveals God at work in the recreation of the world, ‘making all things new’ in Christ (Revelation 21.5). Each sign points us to the glory that will be proclaimed at the cross and sealed in his resurrection. For Christians, the first day of the week is the Day of Resurrection, marking the dawn of the new creation. The full rich human life, the fulfilment of God’s good purposes in creation, begins here. The Good News of Jesus Christ is about abundance and hope that overflows and, in being shared, brings new life. We are caught up in the boundless grace of God!
‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many?’
Inadequacy is a crippling experience and standing before Jesus it will grip us all! But Andrew’s timorous suggestion enabled Jesus to work his abundance. When we offer our gifts at a celebration of Holy Communion we often say; ‘all things come from you O Lord and of your own do we give you’. We offer the Lord’s gifts into the Lord’s hands. And he gives us of himself! Our meagre gifts are charged with his glory!
Jesus accepted the offering of that small lad just as he welcomed the friendship and commitment of Andrew and Philip, James, John, Peter, and his other disciples who were all limited in their vision and unprepared for what lay ahead. That will be true of us all. Twice in my early life I had reason to be grateful to those who weighed me up, found me somewhat lacking and gave me the benefit of the doubt. My wife fully understands the question asked of me by one of my teachers in 1965; ‘What are we going to do with you Reese?’ The important thing was that he kept persevering with me – as does my wife! The chairman of the Panel choosing candidates for training for ordination in 1972 took me to one side on the final day. He asked me a couple of questions because he said some doubt had been expressed about my suitability or readiness. When I next met him in 1993 I expressed my gratitude for his faith in me! God is always patient and merciful, seeing the abundance and richness of what can be.
We are here this evening because those inadequate disciples responded to the call of Jesus – and by the power of God who raised him from the dead, the few became many! And so it has been in every generation, when Christians have been trusting and faithful to Jesus. And yet, as I look back to the 1970’s when I was training for ordination up the road at Cuddesdon, it seems to me that the Church in the Western world had largely lost sight of this truth. Faith in the living God was hardly on fire when my generation were training for ordination. The theological air was filled with talk of ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’ and whatever the nuances of the book of that title and the theological liberalism of that time, there was a poverty of faith in Christ that was matched by a rich investment in human wisdom. So it was very good to receive the Ripon College Cuddesdon newsletter a couple of weeks ago and to read these comments by the Principal: ‘It is easy to get deflected from the main purpose of the Church…It exists to glorify God and to follow Jesus Christ. Martyn Percy goes on to quote Evelyn Underhill who, writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1930’s said: ‘I desire to humbly suggest that the interesting thing about religion is God; and the people are hungry for God’.
St John tells us that, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him….What has come into being through him was life and the life was the light of all people’ (John 1.1-3). We are to trust in the sufficiency of Jesus! In a lonely spot the needs of a weary and hungry crowd were met by one whose understanding, compassion and power belong to another reality. Like Philip, it is easy for us to think only in terms of the immediate reality. But we are challenged by Jesus to meet the needs we see around us, and to strive for the justice that Jeremiah (in our first reading) found lacking, while pointing beyond the immediate reality.
By feeding the hungry on a Monday in Hereford, by committing ourselves to those practical things, the bread and dried fish issues, we meet their immediate needs but we also point to the goodness and power of God. For example, Paul is a good listener. His years of experience as a parish priest and as a chaplain in a high security prison, have given him a warm heart for those with little or nothing. While Marlene works miracles with her kitchen team, Paul comes alongside the weary and the hungry. He shares the most precious things he can, his friendship and when it seems appropriate, his faith in Jesus. Paul knows from his own experience what it is to be empty with nowhere to go.
Perhaps you have been there too, at the end of the road with nowhere to go, or maybe you are there now? Well, go to St John chapter 6 verse 35. Jesus says; ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry’. Then in 6.51 we read; ‘whoever eats of this bread will live for ever and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’. God sees our emptiness and meets it with the fullness of his grace. This great truth is proclaimed at the heart of Christian worship, in the Breaking of Bread with thanksgiving.
St John says that the crowd ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks. In the Christian Eucharist or ‘Thanksgiving’ we come with hands outstretched, to him who gave himself for the whole world. Whoever we are, we come to him as beggars – but he accepts us just as we are and invites us to feast on him in broken bread – now charged with his glory and signifying his life given to save us all. This is no mere remembering but an encounter with Jesus the ‘bread of life’ (6.48). We come to him burdened, weary and with a hunger in our souls. The hymn writer William Bright offers us this prayer: ‘Look Father, look on his anointed face and only look on us as found in him……and by this food, so aweful and so sweet deliver us from every touch of ill; in thine own service make us glad and free, and grant us never more to part with thee’. In this meeting with Jesus, worship and life become a cycle of thanksgiving for there must always be consistency between our worship and our life, coherence between chapel or church and practical witness.
A small lad in a big crowd would never be forgotten because when Jesus saw the crowd he had compassion on them. He stirred Philip and Andrew to action and they drew the lad into the picture. Jesus knew what he was going to do. Jesus always sees the crowd and he sees the individual. He wants to feed you and to work his miracle of grace within you and through you. He wants to draw each one of us into the foreground, accepting us as we are. He will use what little you have, to his glory. We will soon run out of resources, but we can return to him again and again, trusting in his sufficiency. Along this path through the wilderness of our human searching, as manna falls he will lead us to the life that is eternal. He will bring us to the Promised Land and the celebration of our Passover.
Our need to trust in the sufficiency of Christ and to be fed by him is wonderfully summed up in one of our most beautiful and profound Anglican prayers when we pray: ‘in Christ you make all things new. Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of or lives make known your heavenly glory’. Amen.