Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Hungry people, insufficient food, yet by God’s providence, enough and with plenty to spare. Where does that little story come from? If you were listening carefully to this morning’s OT reading, you will know that it’s not either of the familiar Gospel stories of Jesus feeding the 4000 on one occasion and 5000 on another. This isn’t a New Testament story at all, but comes from the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, from the 2nd Book of the Kings. The man of God mentioned is the prophet Elisha, who lived about 800 years before Jesus. Uncanny coincidence? I don’t think so! When the New Testament Gospel writers were telling the story of Jesus feeding the people on the mountainside, they and their readers would have been fully aware of the Elisha story, and of the other feeding miracles in the Old Testament – particularly the provision of manna, the bread from heaven, for the Hebrew people on their journey from slavery towards the Promised Land. Feeding his people at their point of need is what God has always done. In Psalm 81, in a kind of embellishment of the Exodus story, God says: I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. . . . I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
God provides not just water from the rock, which is what the Exodus story says, but according to the Psalmist, as in those other Old and New Testament stories, does so in abundance. God doesn’t give water, he gives honey. God doesn’t provide enough, he provides more than the people could possibly need. The New Testament feeding stories stand in this long tradition, this age-old testimony to God’s gracious generosity. And so do the discourses, conversations and sermons in John’s Gospel about the bread of life, part of which we have just heard, which follow and elaborate the story of the feeding of the 5000, and which we will hear more of in the coming few weeks in the Gospel readings for each Sunday.
The New Testament evangelists frequently use this approach to help them tell the story of salvation in Jesus Christ. Think of the way they record those nature miracles where Jesus stills the storm and walks on the water: they rely on their readers remembering that it is God who creates order and life out of the watery chaos in the Book of Genesis. The early Christian Church was emerging as a distinct community out of the Jewish culture in which it had been born, but the Gospel writers were happy to use Old Testament themes as a way of both understanding and proclaiming their Easter faith – that Jesus of Nazareth was not merely a great storyteller and a gifted healer who came to a tragic end, but was ‘light from light, true God from true God’, none other than God incarnate. By showing Jesus doing things that only God can do, they hope the penny will drop.
The Gospel passage we heard today, and the whole dialogue it comes from in John chapter 6, makes doubly sure we get the point. Jesus says, ‘I am the living bread that comes down from heaven’. He refers explicitly to the story of manna in the wilderness, (‘your ancestors ate that bread and died’) and then promises to confer that which only God can give – ‘eternal life’, resurrection life. Then he says not ‘I give you the living bread’, but ‘I am’ the living bread. And for those Gospel writers and their readers, those two little words ‘I am’ would ring with echoes of the words Moses heard at the burning bush – ‘I am who I am’ – the words of God. In these few little words, and in several other ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel (e.g. Good Shepherd, Door, Resurrection and Life) God announces his presence in the person of Jesus Christ.
I remember, in my naiveté, being a bit taken aback when a theological teacher said, ‘Of course, Christianity is not a Jesus religion’. But then I began to understand that she was making the point that I think today’s Gospel is making. Christians are not the followers of a holy and unforgettable hero who had some true and challenging things to say about God, the world and us. The Christian contention is that in Jesus Christ, we see what God is like – not because of some vivid stories and metaphors – but because God was in Christ, doing the things that only God can do, calling people into life, feeding them, freeing them from what enslaves them, stilling their storms, giving them eternal life, ‘reconciling the world to himself’. ‘Well, that’s all very interesting’, we may be saying, ‘but what’s all that got to do with us on a wet Sunday morning in Richmond?
If we are asking that question, perhaps the answer lies in reminding ourselves that this service is a Eucharist. Here we fulfil Jesus’s command to ‘do this in remembrance of him’ – not just a re-enactment of the Last Supper – though it is that – but much, much more. This is not us touching base with the memory of Jesus, as we might if Christianity were a Jesus religion. This is us encountering the God who became incarnate in Jesus – the God who has always created, fed, forgiven and saved his people; and today, here, now, God takes our disordered and often fragmented lives, gives them back their meaning and purpose, feeds, forgives and saves us. In the simplest of actions, the taking of bread and wine (no honey or fish today – the Church in its wisdom has found that bread and wine will do!) the Christian conviction is that we don’t just remember Jesus, we encounter God.
Feeding someone and being fed is the most intimate of actions. It’s what we do for babies, for those too poorly to feed themselves, and for people who are dying. It is an act of extraordinary vulnerability and trust. As some of you will know, our Diocese of Southwark has a link with the church in Zimbabwe, and I remember Canon Bruce Saunders from the Cathedral recalling his vivid memory of a link visit to Zimbabwe during which he was invited to distribute communion in remote rural churches. In Zimbabwe, it is the custom to receive the wafer from the priest not into the hands, but directly onto the tongue. The congregations didn’t know me from Adam, Bruce said, but they allowed me to feed them. I passed along the communion rail looking down into African faces dusty grey with hardship, eyes clouded with cataracts, placing the consecrated wafer gently onto the tongues of people with cracked lips and missing teeth. They knew that they were receiving this not from me, a white priest who’d just turned up, but from God. And I felt the same – it was a huge privilege to be so trusted.
It’s easy to forget that it’s that same precious, intimate, deeply personal thing that we’re doing here this morning. Many of us have done it so often that it may at times almost become routine. So how good to recapture a sense of what is truly happening – the opening of our mouths, our hands, our hearts, our lives, to the God who comes to give us life, a moment of true meeting, of divine encounter. And then within moments, our bodies digest and take into themselves what we have been given. God, present in the sacrament becomes truly, physically, organically part of me, part of you, part of us.
And the point of such special sacramental moments is to remind us that this is not how God chooses to act at 11.00 on this particular Sunday morning – but that this is how God has, does and will always behave – coming to us in ways which we can recognise and respond to, embodying himself in our relationships and communities, creating places of meeting, holy ground, taking us by surprise, providing for us during the empty times, sustaining us through the testing times, giving us glimpses of light when the way is dark, and every step of the way saying, ‘I am with you’.