Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 29 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
There is not much material that is actually common to all four gospels—what there is can be summarized very quickly. Some kind of recognition of Jesus by, or in the vicinity of, John the Baptist. The execution of John by Herod. Some dramatic intervention by Jesus at the Jerusalem temple, probably involving the overturning of tables, something which may have happened near the beginning of his ministry or near the end. Entry into the great city on a donkey, followed by the arrest of Jesus during the night, after he had a final supper with his disciples, and his crucifixion at the hands of a conspiracy of religious and political powers; the discovery of an empty tomb by a group of women, three days later, followed either by a message that Jesus had risen, or actual resurrection appearances. And one more thing—the memory of the miraculous feeding of a huge crowd, associated somehow with the calming of a storm at sea. These are the stories which were repeated so often, so consistently, that no strand of the diverging oral tradition was able to forget them. That gives this story a particular importance, then; it is part of that core deposit of narrative, the essential framework on which it all hangs. It is also probably the only core memory which is not obviously about power and politics. And yet, it is in its way deeply political, and very much about power; and perhaps it is no bad thing that it is set up against the story of David and Bathsheba, a too-often-romanticized but actually rather horrible tale of earthly power and its abuses.
So let’s look at what John makes of this story, because his version has some unique features. Only John tells us explicitly that the miracle of the loaves happened near Passover—as, of course, did the crucifixion, which John also particularly stresses. They are related, somehow, the action of God in leading a ragged fugitive people from slavery within the empire into the desert of freedom, feeding them there with mysterious bread, and the feeding of this other lost crowd. In all four gospels, we do see some version of the disciples trying to throw the crowd back onto the mercies of the free market—in most versions, they tell Jesus to send the crowd away to buy their own food, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, as it were. Here, Philip, who admittedly is being set up a little bit by Jesus, is more worried about their own economic inadequacy, the complete inability of this little gang of itinerant ex-fishermen to earn anything like enough money to feed all these people, not an unrealistic worry, not a million miles from our own lives.
Only John tells us about the boy—or possibly, slave, for the word can have both meanings—who brings the bread and fish; in the other versions, these come from the resources of the disciples themselves. In this version, the disciples seem to have no resources at all—except, as Philip suggests, their labour value; rather, the material upon which the miracle is built is brought to them by an outsider, a stranger, someone without social standing or importance. And finally, only John uses a particular Greek word for giving thanks—_eucharistein_. John’s language is meant to point us towards meals which are not only meals, back towards the Passover meal which recreates God’s liberation of Israel, and forwards towards the Last Supper, towards Good Friday and Easter, and the eucharistic meal which was in John’s time developing as the central celebration of Christ’s liberation of humanity. John is making sure we remember that the broken bread and the broken body are not separated, that the feast to which we are called is the outpouring of God’s very self, a free offering which enables all our offerings, a gift from which all giving flows.
The failure of the crowd to comprehend any part of this is made immediately clear by their next action—having eaten, they immediately (and this is again unique to John) try to grab Jesus by force and make him their king. They are moving in the world of power and competition, still. They are moving in the world of our Old Testament story, in which David, being king, has the power to compel, to take by coercion that which should only ever be freely offered, to force Bathsheba to lie with him, to place Uriah at the front of the battle, to treat human beings as objects and possessions. The world we see now, in which those who hold power seem to think that they are able to do, essentially, whatever they choose at any moment, regardless of the consequences, whether that’s caging children at the southern US border, or suddenly blowing up Toronto’s municipal election, at a real cost all those people who depend on this city’s services for bare survival.
The miracle of the loaves, the miracle which stands as a sign none of are objects and all of us are infinitely valued, a sign that we are called to live in a world where all have enough to eat and we are not doomed to struggle against each other for survival, a sign that God is a God of offering and outpoured love, a God whose characteristic action is not to exert power but to serve and to feed, a sign that God acts through the small generous actions of the most powerless—for this crowd, it is instead a sign that they’ve found a new and better power-holder, a king who will be more satisfactory than the current one. Unable to step out of their understanding of the world into a new life, they can only try to shuffle the decks of power and hope for the best. Their lack of understanding is not really their fault. They are little people in an occupied land; such bread as they have ever had has been handed down to them by power-holders. Such freedom as they have had has been dependent on the quality of their political and religious authorities, and that quality has been mediocre at best. Of course their imagination turns in the direction of a better version of the existing power structure. And sometimes that is what we settle for, in this meanwhile. But we must never mistake it for the kingdom.
This is, perhaps, why the second miracle is witnessed only by the disciples. Because this is in many ways the culmination of the miracle stories, and would be even easier to misunderstand. The sea, the storm, these are hugely powerful images in the ancient Hebrew tradition. These are the symbols of primal chaos, the dark unformed negative space over which God moved at the beginning of creation, the dark water into which God broke to speak being, the dark water which God struck open to create a path for the liberation of the children of Israel. For Jesus to walk on this storm, to calm these waters, doesn’t just mean that he’s a specially powerful miracle worker. This story says that in this human being, in this human body, we see the full presence and being of the God of creation and the God of Passover, the God who makes us and frees us and leads us into new life. And when Jesus speaks, he says something extraordinary. Ego eimi. It’s translated here as, “It is I,” but it can also be translates as, “I AM.” It is as close as the Greek can come to the unnamable name of God which was revealed to Moses in the burning bush. This same God, the God of Genesis and Exodus, comes to us in the storm with a human voice and human hands. This is not the power of coercion or kingship or mastery. We see the calming of the storm only after we see the breaking of bread for the multitude, the breaking of bread which anticipates the breaking of Christ’s human body, the boy’s free offering of the loaves and fishes foreshadowing Christ’s free offering of his very being (which, of course, will also take place at Passover time).This is the creative love which flows from the abandonment of power, the God who pours out God’s very self to create a world, a world of trouble and pain and beauty and freedom. The God who comes to us not as a king but as bread for our eating.
And nothing is lost. No one is left out, or treated as an object to satisfy the desires or fears of power. Every scrap of what is offered, every fragment of what we give, is honoured, however small, is gathered up in God’s work. When Jesus comes to explain these actions, as he does later, he will emphasize the importance of the fragments; will tell us that he has come so that everything may be brought into God, everything, every broken bit of hope, every futile dream, every little pointless act of protest or love, every one of us helpless children. Nothing will be lost. So we give what we can, our own equivalent of loaves and fishes, extend our offering, our care, our work for justice, give all that we can, more than is sensible, knowing that all we can give is never enough to meet all the needs of the world, but that the more fully we do give, the more fully we offer our goods and our selves in loving service, the more our gifts, and we, are taken up into God’s offering.