Sermon by Fr James Heard on Trinity 9, Sunday July 29 2018, United Benefice of Holland Park
I regularly have conversations with people about how to make sense of the Bible, especially the parts that sound offensive or difficult to believe.
This morning Gospel’s reading is a good example. Our Enlightenment-bred rational Western mind finds it itself asking, did this really happen? Did Jesus really, literally, feed 5,000 men (plus women and children) with just a few fish and loaves of bread? Or, did Jesus really walk on water? Surely, that sort of thing just doesn’t happen. Therefore the biblical accounts are suspect. So much for that phrase ‘Gospel truth’.
At theological college, I learned about the ‘principle of analogy’, which states that facts ought to be understood in terms of known experience. In other words, we don’t regularly see miracles in our daily experience, ergo there must be some naturalistic explanation of miracles. The German theologian, Rudoph Bultmann, is a good example of this view. He wrote: ‘We cannot use electric lights and radios…and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.’
This assumption has been challenged. Surely, one must be open to the uniqueness of historical events. You can’t exclude events simply because they don’t conform to present experience.
Before I studied theology, it was all so much easier. I simply accepted the biblical accounts as describing what actually happened.
It was so simple, but rather naïve.
I discovered a far more interesting way of engaging with our sacred texts. They include poetry, metaphor, wisdom literature, story, songs,
prophecy: deeply rich and nuanced accounts of people’s lives. So, what sort of account, what sort of genre, are the Gospels?
Firstly, the Gospel writers weren’t attempting to simply record what actually happened… an unbiased, neutral, historical account. In fact, few historians today would claim this is even possible. All writers of history are situated in a particular context, culture, language, and this shapes the sort of history they write, the sort of things they pay attention to or omit. The very idea of pure unbiased ‘objectivity’
is illusory. Until recently our history was written by white, middle-class Western men, with all the cultural assumptions that go along with that perspective.
Back to the Gospel writers. What they wrote was, of course, connected to historical events, to the sort of things that Jesus actually said and did. But they were also writing rich theological constructions.
They were making historical and theological links with the Hebrew scriptures, as well as Greek philosophy. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, they were attempting to look at a deeper reality. The Gospel of John, probably written last among the Gospel accounts, had over sixty years to reflect on the person of Christ.
Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles D’Avignon(1907) helps to illustrate this. The subject is based on a brothel in Avignon, an area in Barcelona. The six women in the picture are conceived in sharp, angular, jagged forms. There is no attempt to address the traditional idea of beauty, and the forms are used to express something deeper about the women’s lives. Is Picasso’s painting an accurate depiction of these women. Well, yes and no. No if you’re looking from a purely representational perspective. Yes, in that it portrays a deeper, more painful, reality. The Gospel of John similarly attempts to portray a deeper reality of Jesus.
After a rather long preamble, let’s look at today’s Gospel. It is full of OT allusions. The feeding occurs near the time of Passover (v.4).
Jesus’ question to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat’? is reminiscent of Moses’ dilemma in the wilderness.
Remember, when the Israelites were hungry, had no food and were fed with manna, ‘bread from heaven’. These are Exodus memories: memories of liberation and freedom, memories of promise and new life. Jesus multiplied loaves of bread, just as Elisha tells his servant to feed a hundred people with twenty loaves. Both Elisha’s servant and Philip protest that the few loaves are not enough, and both stories end with food left over.
The deeper reality this passage alludes to is the multiplication of God’s grace… that God takes our small gifts and transforms them beyond our imagination. As Ephesians describes: God ‘who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine’. In this story, we find the generous power of God breaking into the here and now and mysteriously meeting basic human needs through ordinary people.
The deeper reality behind Jesus walking on water is of a God who comes to us and takes hold of us, as we experience personal storms of illness, betrayal, bereavement or breakdown. Christ’s words have tremendous power to bring us calm in times of turmoil and chaos. ‘Do not be afraid. It is I.’ I am with you in those difficult times.
Finally, there are the eucharistic overtones in the passage. John's Gospel is the only one that doesn’t include a Eucharistic meal in the upper room… So ch.6 is John’s theological equivalent of the last supper. V.11 tells us that Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks and distributes them. Later in the chapter Jesus declares that his flesh is true food and his blood true drink (v.55).
The real significance of these miraculous accounts is for us to look deeper into the stories. We certainly aren’t meant to write them off as supernatural fantasies for the gullible first century uneducated audience. No, we are to look deeper to discover a richer, nuance reality of the way they and we may experience the divine in the ordinary.
As we do so, we are invited to participate in the divine life, to encounter the reality and presence of God in Christ. And today, in simple gifts of bread and wine we are invited into communion with Christ.
The God whom the disciples meet in the breaking of the bread on the hillside is the God who meets them on the rough seas, in their times of deepest doubt, and will strengthen them again and again to serve him.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.