Easter People: never stop looking
Holy Communion Service led by Revd. Jennifer Millington
This sermon is taken from Isaiah 25, verses 6-9; Matthew 14, verses 13-21
Easter People - Never Stop Looking
Is there anyone here who had never heard that story of the five loaves and two fish?
My family used to attend a Methodist Church, where we had different preachers every Sunday. I have lost count of the number of times a preacher would start the children’s talk with something like “who enjoys going on a picnic?” Or “what is your favourite picnic food?” My brothers and I would roll our eyes at each other and think “here we go again.”
We must have dramatized that story at least three times in Church Parade Services since I have been here. I have told it to the Toddlers more than once; and to the Pre-School. It is a good story and, if they do not hear it too often and if the telling of it involves the sharing of real food, children tend to enjoy it.
One thing I had never really noticed before though was that there is a terrifying prequel to this story. Jesus’ mother had a cousin called Elizabeth to whom she was very close. She and Elizabeth were both pregnant at the same time and their sons were born within a few months of each other. It is quite likely that Jesus and Elizabeth’s son, John, grew up together, playing as children, sharing confidences as teenagers. Both felt a strong vocation to religious ministry. John was the first to go, living in the desert, renouncing all physical pleasure and coming to tell his people that the Son of God would soon be with them and that they must be ready. He offered baptism in water as a sign for them that they wanted to turn their lives around. At some point both John and Jesus realised that Jesus was “the one.” He was this Son of God. Jesus came to John for baptism, affirming John’s ministry and once John realised who Jesus really was, he withdrew. “It is time for me to decrease and for him to increase.” There was never any rivalry between them; only deep love and respect.
The King at that time was Herod Antipas, a weak and rather nasty character. He had fallen in love with his brother’s wife. She divorced his brother and married him, something that was forbidden by Jewish law. And John told him so to his face. Herod promptly threw John into prison but did not dare kill him. Partly because he was afraid of public opinion and John was a popular man; partly because he himself had a sneaking respect for John as a holy man and although Herod was not particularly religious, he wanted to keep his options open. Herod’s new wife however wanted John dead. When her daughter danced for Herod at a party and Herod, who had had more than enough to drink, shouted out that he would give the girl anything she asked, the Queen saw her opportunity. She told the girl to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a plate.
Life does not get much worse than that, does it? Jesus had to hear that his close friend and comrade since childhood, a good and upright man had been murdered by a weak King and an evil woman. He also knew that things like this were happening all the time. Just as there are places in the world today where people must watch their loved ones being brutally murdered or imprisoned for no good reason, so it was then. Many of the people Jesus met would have had family members imprisoned or killed by either the forces of the King or the Roman Emperor. And when this happens to you, to someone you love, the full horror of the situation bursts upon you. This is happening right here, right now. The world is full of terror and you don’t know how you can bear to go on living in it. Jesus needed to get away and be quiet for a while and this is where our story began.
Jesus was not alone for very long. Many people followed him to where he was.
Maybe they wanted to offer him sympathy and solidarity: stand beside him in his grief.
Maybe they wanted to do something for him- get back at Herod and avenge John?
Certainly, I think they wanted to hear what Jesus had to say. They wanted to know how a godly man like Jesus would cope with a tragedy like this.
Would he sink into total despair, as many do? When life deals you a blow so terrible, you find it impossible to believe that you will ever be able to get up again. You just want to hide away from everyone and although you may continue to exist, you do not live.
Would Jesus seek revenge, as many do? Would he work out a plot to punish Herod and his wife for what they had done? Would he call on his followers to support him in protest and rebellion? And if this was obviously unworkable, would he take revenge on innocent people- rejecting them, yelling at them, hurting them because he could not hurt Herod? Or would he take revenge on himself, destroying his own life because he could not bear the thought that John was dead and he still lived?
Or, would he somehow find a way to do something positive in the face of this tragedy? Remember how, on the anniversary of Jo Cox’ murder this year, people up and down the country were urged to “get together,” “create and celebrate community” for her sake so that her life would not be seen as wasted and her ideals not in vain.
Jesus, we are told, saw this large crowd of people coming after him and “had compassion” on them. He understood what they wanted, what they needed from him. He offered healing where it was asked for and then maybe the people waited, wondering what he would say. What could he say? What was there to say?
Alain de Boton, a self-confessed atheist, wrote a book called “Religion for Atheists” in which he looks at how certain aspects of religion can be very positive forces even in the lives of those who do not believe in God. And one of those aspects he calls “perspective.” Religion, he admits, can serve to give you a far wider perspective on life than you can find in your own small corner.
Not because it offers a ready answer to the desperate question “why is this happening?” You know the kind of thing: “God moves in a mysterious way.” That just makes you angry.
Nor because it somehow “shames” you into realising that there are other people equally or more badly hurt than you. That just adds guilt to your heartbreak.
But faith somehow places you in a far bigger world and in a vaster timescale. You look at your life in the context of eternity. You recognise the fact that you are on a journey, a long journey during which the way will very gradually unfold. You accept the fact that there will always be far more about life and the universe than you will ever know. Your story (whether success or failure, happiness or heartbreak) is not all there is. There is a much wider story, of which you are a part, also going on.
This may well be an inspiring way of looking at life and if, unlike Alain de Boton, you really do believe in God, then this vast perspective also comes with belief in the vastness of God’s love. Faith gives you the right to believe in a powerful and eternal love that is part of your life and will always be part of your life, holding you in God and with those you have loved and lost. Faith means trusting that truth and strength will be given you, moment by moment, day by day. Faith means that you never stop looking.
How did Jesus set about explaining this to a crowd of sad, angry and bewildered people? He showed them a miracle. He took a small amount of food and somehow managed to multiply it so that everyone had enough to eat and there was more to spare. What do you think he was trying to tell them?
C.S. Lewis once pointed out that corn and fish are continually multiplied in the natural world anyway. They keep on reproducing themselves. And if you believe that this power to keep on renewing and multiplying life comes ultimately from God, then what Jesus was doing in this miracle was simply speeding up the process. Think of nature programmes on television when a camera has been trained on a slowly growing plant for months and then the film is speeded up for us so that it looks as though the plant has grown from 0-6 six feet in a few seconds. This, said Lewis, is what Jesus was doing for real. He simply speeded up the natural process by which two fish became five thousand and the corn for five bread rolls became the corn for ten thousand bread rolls. Ingenious….
What even the most atheistic scientists admit is that this earth does produce more than enough food to feed every single man, woman and child. We do live in a world of abundance. So maybe this was the first thing Jesus was demonstrating- that the miracle of life is ongoing. Life is an incredibly powerful force, able to sustain and to renew itself constantly. Corn and fish do multiply in an incredibly short space of time. The life-force in us, then, is powerful and this message gives us strength to live in hope even when all reason for hope appears to be gone.
In the culture of Jesus’ land, the sharing of food was highly symbolic. If you shared a meal with someone then you were accepting them as a friend. The food was a bond between you. That society was also a rigorously divided one. You only ate with people of your own race and your own class and your own religion. Now given what we know of Jesus attracting people of all classes and races and faiths, it is more than likely that that crowd of 5 thousand people would have been a very mixed bag. Yet there is no segregation. They eat together.
It has been suggested, that the “miracle” was not so much a tampering with the forces of nature but a transformation of people’s hearts: that as one person offered to share their picnic lunch, so more and more brought out food and shared it until there was enough for everyone. It is quite possible but the message is the same: Jesus is celebrating God’s great vision of human community. You heard it from the prophet Isaiah. He promised a time when all people from all nations would come from the east and the west and the north and the south and join in a great banquet.
There was abundant food in the world. If some people were going hungry, it was because others were seizing more than their fair share. And if some people believed that they had the right to greater abundance than others, it was because they had lost God’s vision of community. They had set up barriers of race and class and religion and these barriers had become ever-growing stockpiles of goods and weapons. Any threat to these stockpiles was met with violence. If there could be true community then men like Herod would never be able to seize power. Jesus believed in community. Herod did not believe in community but only in personal power and there were enough people like him to place him and keep him on his throne. In this miracle, Jesus shows a totally different vision of how to live.
Did you notice how Jesus first turned to his own little group of disciples and said to them, “you give all these hungry people some food?” And did you notice how the disciples’ jaws dropped and how they told him it would be impossible? “We have far too few resources to deal with a project this size. You must be crazy.” Jesus does not argue with them. He just tells them to bring him what they have got and when they do so, he makes it enough and they go out and share it. This, I believe is the third thing Jesus was trying to say: believe in life as a gift of God; believe in community as a vision of God; believe in yourself as a child of God. Do not obsess over what you have not got nor over what you cannot do. Bring what you have got and what you can do, offer it freely and God will work the miracle.
A lot of people have discovered the truth of this for themselves. Individuals inspired to start a work for God in a very small way, finding it growing out of all proportion to their dreams; small, struggling churches ready to close down trying one last and, as they see it, feeble attempt to reach out to the spiritually hungry people in their area, finding that they do have bread enough and to spare; men and women so crushed by life that their faith is almost extinguished, offering perhaps their one tiny church commitment to God, saying “take it or leave it. It is all I can do right now,” only to find that their small offering becomes the means of healing for them and for others besides. As the great Victorian social reformer, Josephine Butler once wrote, “God and just one woman make a majority.”
So there we have it: the miracle of the five loaves and two fish-such a well-known little story- demonstrates some powerful truths in what can be a very dark and deceitful world.
Today, as we celebrate Holy Communion, we demonstrate those same truths. We share bread and wine, fruits of our miraculous, life-giving earth. We gather as a community- no-one is excluded. No-one is denied the bread and wine unless they choose for themselves not to receive it. We celebrate as people of God. For, in the breaking of his own body and the pouring out of his life-blood, Jesus was able to reconcile human beings living in a dark and terrifying world to the God who loved them and who would save them. Men, women and children have shared Communion in some of the worst places in the world and have found that as they share in the broken body and outpoured blood of Jesus Christ, so they also share in his resurrection. They come alive to light and truth; to love and peace.
Just to finish- if you read Reform magazine, you may have read the story of the URC Minister in London who learned after his Christmas Eve Midnight Communion Service, that a group of Muslim students had been among those who received Communion. One of them said, “with all the hatred and violence going on in the world, we wanted to join with Christian brothers and sisters in celebrating the birth of Jesus.” When the Minister told this rather startling story to a neighbour of his who has always declared that she does not believe in God, she burst into tears of joy and said, “if you are not careful, you are going to get me out of bed on a Sunday morning….”
Maybe that was how some of those people sharing bread and fish on the hillside felt two thousand years ago. They were living in a world of hatred and violence from which they were all suffering. They found it hard to see any good waiting for them. Yet this action of Jesus had shown them the value of life, the value of community and the value of themselves in the sight of God. And so, in faith, they would never stop looking.