The stories of the feeding of the 5000 and of the calming of the storm are both terribly familiar to us. They are also problematic: how many seafarers have, in the last 200o years, drowned at sea despite their prayers? How many parents, have, over the past 2000 years, and even today, watched their children die of starvation despite their prayers for help in the form of food? And, if asking God to provide for our needs always resulted in our needs being met, would there still be any atheists in the world. You’d have to be brave or daft not to believe in a God who met your every hunger pang with food, healed every illness and got you out of very danger and scrape.
And then there are problems of interpretation: the 1960’s liberalism which explained away the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 by arguing that people were so ashamed by the generosity of the little boy that they all got out their hidden stashes of picnic and shared their food with one another. Hey-presto – all were fed. But that doesn’t explain the next bit about the storm and Jesus walking on the water.
Now I feel as if I’ve sermonised my way into a corner that it might be difficult to escape from! I think the moral might be that we’re looking at this story through the wrong end of the telescope. So let’s start again.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly bumped into people who thought he was the wrong kind of Messiah. There were those who thought he was going to overthrow the Romans by marching triumphantly into Jerusalem on a war horse: he responded by arriving on a donkey. There were those who thought he was he was the sort of Messiah who would be born in a palace: they found him in a stable. There were those who thought he was the Messiah to meet their every want: he gave them bread, but fled they tried to crown him king. You can imagine today that, conjuring bread out of almost nothing might make you very popular. Calming the waves could make you very useful – indispensable, even.
And here we find Jesus bumping up against his old enemy, the devil, who dared him to turn stones into bread in the desert – the temptation of a conjuring trick for self satisfaction and self-publicity. So whatever Jesus was doing here, we have to understand that he wasn’t doing it for a cheap thrill, or to bolster his ego. In fact, a little later in this passage – a bit not in today’s reading – Jesus asks people who have followed him back to the other side of the lake, if they are just there for the free food. He urges them to seek the food that leads to eternal life.
So there was have it. Our following of Jesus is not about ‘what’s in it for me’, be that feeling peaceful, getting a desired school place for your child, the thrill of being in charge, or the buzz created by gaining a sense of respectability or righteousness. We are to seek the food that leads to eternal life – we may take this to be all about the meal which Jesus left for us to remember him – where we share, as equal members of one body, the bread and the wine, our spiritual food and sustenance. At the place where we gather at the altar rail, there is no-one who is better than anyone else, no-one holier than the other, because this is the place where we cast ourselves onto God’s mercy – because this is the place where we remember that Jesus didn’t die for us because we deserved it, but because he loved us. In this place we are all sinners in need of help – our degrees of sinfulness are as nothing in comparison to God’s mercy and love. This is the place where we fall silent, because nothing we say is worth saying. The body of Christ. Amen – so be it. Then silence.
But there’s a catch. Just because the folks Jesus met followed him because they’d discovered that there was, after all, such a thing as a free lunch, doesn’t take away the fact that Jesus did actually feed them when they were stuck miles from anywhere and getting hungry. He healed the sick, cared for the poor and the outcast, stilled the storm. And just as he did, so must we.
Now there’s a tall order! As individuals, this is beyond us. As a little church in a poor parish we can hope to scratch the surface – and this we do, faithfully, as we donate to the food bank and run our holiday club. I have a feeling that we were the first people to use the phrase ‘holiday hunger’ which is now bandied about all over the place. But what we do is still small when you stop to think about the church throughout history that has offered education, run leprosy and other hospitals, given a bed for the night to weary travellers, and offered food to the hungry. There are a lot of bad things about the church – we’ve been hearing about some of them this week in the news, and we mustn’t forget or ignore these things – but the church has, more often that not, followed Jesus’ reminder that when we feed others we feed him.
The crunch comes when we take what we have been given, but fail to turn to our brothers and sisters in need and offer the same to them. That’s when our image of God becomes distorted into a demigod, a sort of tame poodle, who’s there to give us what we want when we want it -following Jesus round the lake in the hope of another free picnic. We forget that this is the God who offers us so much love that we can’t possibly keep it all for ourselves – and so it begins to flow over to those in need, and to those who do not yet know God’s love. This is the life of loving service lived out in response to that which has been given to us.
There‘s a lovely bit in Catherine Fox’s Lindchester trilogy,* which I’ve just been re-reading, where Father Dominic and his mum, who has just come to live with him, serve food to the people who sleep rough in his churchyard on his mum’s best wedding china which had been put away and never used – saving it for a special occasion. This is a wonderful depiction of someone giving in that completely profligate way which is a sign of God’s Kingdom, living and growing here on earth. The story of feeding the 5000 reminds us to give like this, as if every day is a special occasion, each meal a celebration, and as if everyone’s worth it – because Jesus teaches us that, actually, they are. Amen
*‘Acts and Omissions’, ‘Unseen Things Above’, and ‘Realms of Glory’ by Catherine Fox. Published by Marylebone House