On 26th July, the eighth Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 14, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21.
I’ve had the good fortune to visit Israel on two occasions. On both visits I’ve stayed at the Pilgerhaus which is a restored pilgrim hostel with a lot of modern additions. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place on the north western shores of Lake Galilee. It is run by Germans, hence the name which means Pilgrim House.
This is an area which is closely associated with Jesus’ ministry. Up the nearby hill it’s possible to see the Church of the Beatitudes. A wander along the shore soon takes you to the Church of St Peter’s Primacy, where Jesus, after his resurrection, is thought to have reinstated Peter as the chief among the apostles. Just a short walk through a large olive grove brings you to a very special church. It is the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha. This is a faithful replica, built in 1982 by Benedictine Fathers on the site of two much older churches, one from around 350 AD and an enlargement to it in 480 AD. This larger church has a wonderful floor mosaic which shows animals and flowers plus a section with geometric patterns. In front of the altar is a mosaic of two fish which flank a basket holding five loaves. The site was thought to be where Jesus fed the five thousand and was a place of pilgrimage from the early centuries of Christianity. It was certainly a special part of my stay in the area to be able to worship daily there with the German brothers.
The feeding of the five thousand is the only one of Jesus’ miracles which appears in all four gospels. It is obviously very important. It is one of the signs of Jesus. A sign points beyond itself to something else. The crowd readily recognised that they had been fed miraculously. Like Philip, they would have known that so many could not be fed except at huge expense and what baker would have enough loaves available for five thousand people to have enough to eat. I can’t even begin to imagine how long that would take to bake! Having eaten their fill they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ If Jesus had not escaped, they would have followed up that insight by making him their king.
Despite the importance of this event, the issue of miracles can be divisive among Christians. Those who ate the food were in no doubt that something amazing had happened. The disciples had witnessed where the feast began: with the picnic lunch of a young boy. They were also able to gather up twelve baskets of left overs, which must have set them thinking. Since that time people have wondered if this really happened. Was it just invented to build up Jesus’ case as the Messiah? Did the generosity of the boy inspire anyone else with food to share also? Might this just have been written as a symbolic story, to point towards Holy Communion? Was the food the crowd received just spiritual nourishment, not physical? Or did it happen just as described?
Perhaps, rather than discussing whether this event is literally true or not, we would be better off trying to learn from what John tells us. The disciples looked at the impossibility of the task facing them. They had five thousand hungry people and minimal resources. The boy had very little. He could not have failed to notice the size of the crowd and the size of his lunch. Yet he gave it anyway and that provided Jesus with the opportunity to feed everyone, including the boy. We can learn from the boy not to look at the size of the task, or the poverty of what we have to give, but to look at the one to whom we are giving. If we give what we can to God, he will bless it and work with it.
Of course, Jesus could have made just enough food to satisfy everyone, and no more. That would have been miracle enough. However, he made enough for there to be left overs. This shows us that God is a generous God, interested in abundance, rather than in ‘just enough’. Look at creation and the abundance is obvious: endless varieties of every kind of life, many still being discovered. Stars that go on and on and on. God didn’t need to make this huge variety. He could have reduced what he made by a factor of ten and I’m sure it would still have been superb. But God is a God of abundance. Jesus offers to those who believe in him ‘abundant life’, not just a good enough life. This is absolutely in keeping with the character of God. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, Jesus “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
Rather than being limited by our imagination, we would be better off giving what we can and letting God amaze us with his power and abundance.
To finish I would like to share a short meditation from the Iona Community, written as the boy with the packed lunch looking back as an adult on his experience.
When I was a child,
I gave him all I had.
He stood among hungry people
who needed to be fed.
And I believed that he knew
how to make the food go round.
Now that I am an adult,
I have much more to share.
But, though the crowds are still hungry,
I am reluctant to give him what I have.
Lord, when today I see the faces
of those who long for food and justice,
when I hear their cry,
make me as generous as when I was a child.