Saturday, 1 August 2009

John's Gospel: I Am the Bread of Life

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78.23-29
Ephesians 4. 1-16
John 6 24-35:

Now be honest: who did the homework I set you last week and read the whole of John chapter 6? I thought not. Can you remember all the way back to last week? (Take a deep breath and hold it for 20 seconds. You will either remember or pass out.)

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus’ promise to his followers then and now is a challenge: what truly brings meaning and wholeness in our lives? Do we shape our lives around what perishes or what endures? Do we will build our house on the sand or on the rock? Do we build it on Jesus and if so, what is our understanding of who Jesus is?

Building on last week’s reading and its account of how the generosity of a boy with five loaves and two fish enabled Jesus to feed a multitude, today’s passage is a call to understand Jesus. Not Jesus as prophet, teacher, healer or miracle worker, although he is undoubtedly all those things, but Jesus as God.

So let’s have a look at this “I Am” saying of John’s Jesus: “I am the bread of life.” I tried to get across last week the idea that John uses his phrases and theological ideas very carefully and deliberately and without a little understanding of that background modern readers like ourselves are likely to miss really important meanings.

Yes, of course we can understand this statement at it’s literal face value – Jesus provides everything we need and provides it generously and in abundance and to take that meaning away from this morning and act on it would be a good outcome in itself.
But to do that without a deeper awareness of what John is doing here would be to miss a very important point indeed, and what with me being a teacher – of Religious Studies, no less – this is too great an opportunity to miss!

Firstly let’s have a look at a single word – not one that is in this passage: Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem means "House of Bread." (In Hebrew, beth = house, lehem = bread.) Hold that thought.

Let me take you back further, to the Exodus. The God of the Old Testament, the God of the universe calls Himself I AM. "And God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM .... “Ego eimi ho on”. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you."
Do we really think John’s use of the same phrase on Jesus’ lips is a coincidence?
Just to underline the point, John’s Jesus uses this phrase not just here in “I am the Bread of Life” but seven times in total.

Does anyone know what the other “I Am” phrases are?
• "I am the bread of life" (6.35)
• "I am the light of the world" (8.12)
• "I am the door for the sheep" (10.7; cf. v. 9)
• "I am the good shepherd" (10.11, 14)
• "I am the resurrection and the life" (11.25)
• "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14.6)
• "I am the true vine" (15.1; cf. v. 5)

So the original Jewish reader of John’s Gospel would have had to have worked very hard to miss the point here. “I Am” the very words the God of the Hebrews used to name himself. The “I Am” statements must be seen as an integral part of John’s Christology – simply put, the way he sees and understands Jesus.

The Jesus who legitimates himself by way of egĂ´ eimi – I Am - speaks not only authoritative language, but specifically prophetic language and he is seen as the representative and mouthpiece of God himself.

Let’s just think about that for a moment.

When Jesus speaks he is speaking as God’s representative.

That should make us stop and consider very carefully all the statements of Jesus recorded in the pages of the Gospels and act upon them accordingly.

If we simply did that what agents of change we could be in God’s world.

So, in prophetic fashion he acts as spokesman of the One who sent him, and as dispenser of the divine Spirit. Those who hear his words are invited to believe not only the speaker, but the One who sent him. As Jesus has already told us in chapter 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes Him who sent me, has eternal life”.

We need to recognise that this is as true today as it was then.
The first of the "I AM" sayings, in John’s Gospel, then, is "I AM the bread of life" (6:35). This statement is found in the passage which follows the feeding of the multitude. Jesus says to the crowd, "Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (6:27). Here Jesus is building up to the key statement and is leading the crowd to the point where they may recognise his divinity and come to faith.

The two go together: recognising Jesus’ divinity is the precursor to faith.
The sceptics in the crowd, not unreasonably, ask for a sign: “What work are you performing so that we may see it and believe you?” (v30) adding "Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert, as it is written: 'He gave them bread from Heaven to eat'" (v31). This story is reflected in today’s supplementary readings.

Jesus responds by pointing out that God provided the manna: "My father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (v33). And the point here is that this is not something which just happened once in the past. It is something which is continuing to happen in the present: Jesus himself is that bread from Heaven. How far at this stage the crowd have fully understood isn’t clear but there seems to be some spiritual awareness as they ask “Sir, give us this bread always.”

It is in response to this request that Jesus makes the claim, "I AM the bread of life, he who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (v35). This is, in effect, the summary of Jesus ministry and it is deeply personal, referring as it does to human yearning which Jesus will fill – and it will be universal because it “gives life to the world” (v33).

Again for those of you interested in how the very words and grammar of the Bible work, the definite article before the word bread indicates the fact that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one who is the bread of life. The bread of life also points to the satisfying nature of Jesus as we can see in the supplementary phrase, "never be hungry … and never be thirsty." Jesus alone supplies the spiritual needs of his hearers: this is not about mere physical hunger, where bread leaves people dissatisfied and wanting more. In fact this idea can be applied in a wider spiritual sense where other approaches to God leave the supplicant ultimately empty: a direct challenge to those who are already seeking. Jesus is making a plain statement about his Heavenly origins here: in the following verses Jesus refers to a descent from Heaven and explicitly states that “.. all who see the son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”.

This is not about food: let’s be absolutely clear.

This is literally about life and death. “.. all who see the son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”.
I talked last week about the challenge to each of us about what we do with Jesus’ words. Well they don’t come much more challenging than this. Here is a man who is telling us that he IS God and he has already used one of those special signs of his to show us that: he has fed the multitude out of next to nothing.
That’s the sort of challenge that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands a response, and that response can’t be “whatever”.

What are we going to do with this Jesus? Or perhaps we should personalise it more: what are you going to do with this Jesus, as I have to ask myself what I am going to do with him? This is the very question that John was asking his readers: those Jews who had not yet come to understand who Jesus was. That is the function of this Gospel and its challenge remains the same, to convince its readers of the divinity of Jesus.

But being convinced is not the full response: mere assent to the divinity of Jesus is not enough. I have to do something with that assent. I have to make it personal.

I have to make it mine. I have to enter into it.
And so do you.

Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, I am coming to know and understand you more deeply. Help me to see that you are more than mere prophet, teacher, healer or miracle worker. Help me to recognise that you are God and in recognising you as God, help me to follow you as a true disciple. Give me this bread always.

John Chapter 6: Jesus feeds The Multitude

Today the Lectionary moves us on and we abandon Mark’s Gospel but we continue with the story we heard from Mark last week when Bishop Walter told us how Jesus’ compassion led him to feed the multitude. This dramatic miracle is the only miracle from Jesus’ public ministry told in all four Gospels, and in all four it has overtones of the Eucharist, so in that respect it is a very relevant passage for the type of liturgy we share today.

John’s version of this event, though, isn’t the major emphasis of this section of his version of Jesus’ ministry: it serves as the introduction to Jesus’ discourse on the “Bread of Life” which we will explore more in the coming weeks and in doing so enter more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist. However, I tell you this with the strong recommendation that you take the time to read the whole of John chapter 6 a couple of times so that you see how the bite-sized chunks we offer week by week fit together.

(You can tell he’s a teacher. He’s even giving us homework and it’s the school holidays!)

So: the crowd clamours after Jesus and there are many in search of his healing touch. Yet there is something more going on here beyond the healings. John tells us “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”

I remember some time ago telling you of two colleagues I had when I first started teaching and how their individual approaches to scripture were so entrenched that they both missed the point, or at least only partially grasped it in my view. One of them, Mr. Forest, a Biology teacher, embodied the literalist or fundamentalist approach where everything was to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as the account said. His response to this miracle would be to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” Doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded was tantamount to doubting the divinity of Christ.

Mrs. King, my first R.E. Head of Department, on the other hand, took the reductionist approach, wanting to “demythologise” the miracle accounts to reveal the morals that lay behind the stories. In this case the moral to her was that when Jesus fed the multitude he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle was when everyone discovered the joy of caring and sharing with others.

She referred to him as a snake-handling Baptist and he referred to her as a wet, liberal Anglican.

I didn’t sit with them in the staffroom.

John has an agenda in his Gospel, a gospel which seems to have been written with the early Jewish community in mind. The early verses of John speak of Jesus’ own, the Jews, not accepting Him, whilst others did. The Jews, the very people who were supposed to be waiting for the messiah and who repeatedly failed to believe in Jesus. John contains a great deal of material not found in the other gospels including much private instruction to the disciples. Only in John is Jesus explicitly identified with God and only in John do we find the “I AM” statements: “I Am the Bread of Life”, for instance, which comes in a later sermon.

Now in this passage notice that John tells us the crowd “saw the signs.” This would have had Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King arguing straight away, so let’s be clear. In John’s gospel, miracles are signs that point beyond themselves – to God. Every time Jesus performs a miracle he is saying something about God and about himself in relation to God. The miracles are not important merely because this or that person is healed or because Jesus changes water to wine or whatever. The miracles are signs that point to the reality of who Jesus is. Yes the crowd gathered for healing, but they kept following him because of the signs, even if they didn’t yet fully understand the implications. Why should we expect them to? Even the Disciples didn’t fully appreciate what was going on at this stage.

But we do with the benefit of hindsight, so we don’t have that excuse.

In both the readings from 2 Kings and the Gospel of John, crowds of people are in need. Not only are they hungry; the food supply is limited, and there doesn't appear to be enough to satisfy the hunger of all. Obviously, some will be sent away with little or nothing and those responsible for controlling the crowds wonder how this limited supply should be distributed. Then, in the midst of this need, something extraordinary happens. Not only is food provided, but more is available than is required. How did this happen? What are we to make of it?

In John’s theology this is simple: Jesus has provided another sign. The crowd is hungry and Jesus will feed them. He has been feeding them spiritually and now he’ll fill their stomachs as well. The miracle unfolds quickly. Jesus asks Philip how they’ll feed the people. A boy comes forward with “five barley loaves and two fish.” In language that is similar in all four accounts and echoes the Last Supper: Jesus “took the loaves, gave thanks and distributed them”. There are important distinctive ideas at work here and they are deliberate: John alone among the gospel writers uses the verb eucharisteo - (“to give thanks”); Jesus alone distributes the bread, and commands the disciples to gather the fragments – all twelve basketfuls - (using a word that becomes a technical term for the eucharistic elements).

Yet this passage can be understood on more than one level and the Mr. Forrests and Mrs. Kings of this world, wedded to a single understanding of how scripture works, miss much of it. Yes it is a story where Jesus again reveals himself as God, and yes it prefigures the Eucharist but we can still find more here: it is not accidental that so many stories throughout the Bible use food, eating or hunger images to make a theological point. These readings invite us to reflect on hunger deeper than those related to our physical survival. Jesus meets that most basic human need, hunger, and does so with generosity and compassion. Could those writers mean us to understand that God is as essential as food for our existence? Add to that the first theological idea that Jesus IS that God and we have a lot of personal challenges.

Jesus operates out of abundance. Not only is there always enough, but there is more than enough. With this hungry hoard, there is fish and bread enough for all to get what they want and enough to gather together twelve basketsful of leftovers.
This is a sign that points beyond Jesus to the earlier experiences of the children of Israel. John has quite deliberately tipped us off that the Passover was drawing near. And at that time of year, thoughts of the Jews naturally turn toward the Exodus experience. Under Pharaoh, the people had been enslaved and as they were brought out of Egypt, they were fed in the wilderness with manna. Everyday God gave the people all the food they needed. There was always more than enough. Whether you see that Exodus story as history or religious myth or a combination, the moral, if you like, is the same: this was a sign that God would be faithful day after day after day with enough to meet their needs.

With this story in mind as the Passover approached, as well as the miraculous feeding stories of the prophet Elijah, the people gathered that day on the grassy hillside saw a new sign.

Here was Jesus on the hillside, freely offering abundance. Everything the people needed for life came without cost. Jesus offered not merely healing food. Jesus offered a change from scarcity to abundance for those who could see beyond the physical act. There would be more than enough for everyone.

What should this mean to you and I as we seek to apply this message to our own lives?

John tells us, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Jesus pulls back. The people have seen the sign and misinterpreted it. Jesus did not come to set up an earthly kingdom, but to inaugurate God’s eternal reign.

Just after our reading for today, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” Jesus wants much more than to heal people who will later get sick again, or to feed people who will again hunger. Jesus wants to give them more. The something more Jesus offers is what these signs point to. Jesus tells them, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.”

That is what is on offer here beyond all the references to the satisfying of physical hunger and that is the challenge to you and I today.

As we continue reading through John’s gospel in the coming weeks, Jesus will draw out the lesson of how he is the Bread of Life and will further connect what he is doing to how God fed the people in the wilderness during the time of Moses. For now, we see that the crowd wanted Jesus to be their king. O.K. they had the wrong vision of Kingship. But we don’t today.

Who wouldn’t want a king who fed you spiritually and bodily? Who wouldn’t want a king who could heal both the body and the soul?

Who wouldn’t indeed?

Thomas: Visionary, not Doubter

Well, Easter has come and gone and I am sorry I wasn’t here to share any of it with you. I would have preferred to have been here but the organisation of my course decided that we would all be away for Easter week – all 70 or so of us, from all year groups and from all three sites, Manchester, York and Mirfield. We stayed at Sneaton Castle in Whitby with the nuns of the Holy Paraclete - and I have some good memories: the nun wearing rabbit’s ears on Easter morning, only revealed as the sun came up; the very affirming response to the Lutheran vespers I led; the fellowship of my fellow students; the day on the media and the exercise we were given to write a “pause for thought” on Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as if for a Radio 2 broadcast; the Taize service by candlelight and so on.

But now we are in that in between stage: in between the Resurrection and the Ascension but where we know the outcome: we have already sung our Easter Day Hallelujahs as the solemnity, sadness and the desolation of Holy week turned to the joy of new life and hope. In our in between stage we already know and rehearse in our liturgy the return of Jesus to his followers and anticipate the Ascension.

But for those affected by the events as they happened: well, that is another matter. Imagine in your minds that you are there now.

The palms are gathered away, the crowds have dispersed, the Jewish religious authorities have regained some authority after a particularly difficult Passover, the Roman civil authorities are congratulating themselves that a spot of local insurrection in a volatile outpost of empire has been nipped in the bud, the plotting is over, the threat has been removed, the followers of Jesus have scattered, one is dead by his own hand and at least one has publicly denied knowing him. There is disbelief and shock and a strong sense of betrayal. How could things have gone so badly wrong? Rumour is rife: will the authorities now tidy up the loose ends by searching out Jesus’ followers and subjecting them to the same fate to really close that chapter? It is hardly surprising that most of them cower indoors, fearing every footstep outside and every knock at the door, as they deal with the trauma of the death of their leader and the end of their hopes.

And in to this heady mix of fear, emotion and conspiracy theories come the women with their perplexing story of an empty tomb and Mary Magdalene’s preposterous story of talking with the risen Christ. So Peter and one of the others pluck up the courage to go and take a look and confirm that the tomb is indeed empty. What on earth does that mean?

It would hardly be surprising if the disciples didn’t exhaust all the rational explanations before giving Mary’s account more attention and it probably says something about everyone concerned that they aren’t all celebrating and proclaiming: “He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!” and sharing it with all and sundry.

This is a story characterised by fear. Whether or not their attitude is justified, it is clear that fear dominates this group. And that, of course, puts them in the company of so many people today. Those dominated by fear include many of the people we see around us every day and perhaps some of us here this morning. These disciples have plenty of company on the evening of the first Easter Day when fear keeps them inside a locked room.

The period after Easter represents a return to the old routines: the break - the “holiday” if you like - is over and the return to what for many of us is the tedium of the everyday sinks in, with all the problems that may be associated with it for some. That may be illness, relationship problems, concerns about children, money worries in the current climate together with fears about job security and any number of other issues.

Encounters with reality are hard to take because they destroy both the hopes and illusions on which we often rely. It is such an encounter with reality which our Gospel reading today describes: the disciples cowering in their self imposed prison because they believed their hopes had been shattered.

And then – and John describes this in a very matter of fact way – Jesus came and stood among them. Disappointingly John doesn’t say how. Did he just walk in through the door as he must have done a hundred times before or was he just suddenly amongst them one second, when the second before he had not been? John also, tantelisingly, doesn’t tell us their first reaction: wouldn’t you just love to have been a fly on the wall?

“Peace be with you.” And they knew him at once and rejoiced. Well of course they did! John is so deadpan in his recount of this event. We’ve just been through the resurrection experience, but the emotion we felt last Sunday must have been a pale shadow of the joy felt and expressed by those gathered in that room then. Just think about it for a moment: a shattering experience just dealt with by John in a couple of sentences.

And who misses it? Poor Thomas misses it. When he turns up on the scene Jesus has already departed and Thomas is greeted by a crowd of lunatics all giddy with overexcitement claiming that Jesus is risen from the dead. Not that he somehow survived the crucifixion – although that would have been unbelievable enough – but actually risen from the grave: alive today when yesterday he had been dead.

Spare a thought here for the folk we speak to: it is the same message of resurrection and I suspect that, like Thomas, many we speak to think we are deluded.
Don’t you have sympathy for Thomas? I know I do. I am sure there is a little bit of Thomas in all of us. Actually, there is a great big dollop of Thomas in me. He knows he’s missed out on something significant but he can’t quite bring himself to accept what the others tell him at face value. He can not take it on trust: at least not at first.

This isn’t the first time Thomas has stood apart from the other disciples: remember when Jesus had been asked to go and heal Lazarus and the disciples had warned him that it would be dangerous to go because the Judeans were out to stone him. Thomas then speaks up. He says something which is odd, confusing but brilliant: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Is this the voice of a pessimist or is there more to Thomas?

He cuts across the cautious approach of the others. He knows the risk of returning to Judea with Jesus and his comment was intuitive and brilliant. Looked at in the longer term, from the perspective of the post-Apostolic church, he was right because years later, long after Pentecost, many of the disciples would be martyred.

This is the same Thomas who seemed a bit further on in his understanding of Jesus than the other disciples. "Lord”, he asked on another occasion, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Thomas wasn't doubting at this point, just seeking direction, knowing Jesus would tell him. And how did Jesus answer?
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John gives us one of Jesus’ most famous sayings as a response to the growing perception that Thomas has.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Is his famous response but this is not Thomas the doubter, but Thomas the visionary. He has been unfairly categorised through history as a doubter. There really is something of the visionary in Thomas: Thomas required no more proof than the other disciples, after all Jesus had already shown them the marks of his crucifixion. Is it possible that Thomas' incredulity grew from his understanding that, if what his friends told him was true, then this man Jesus, with whom he had spoken and eaten and travelled, must be God? And at his moment of greatest need, Thomas had run away. No wonder Thomas, having missed the first post-resurrection appearance, is feeling raw and vulnerable and quite probably hurt. But he has something that the others have overlooked in their excitement: a growing realisation of an earth-shattering revelation.

Thomas is left a full week to mull this over, to think and contemplate on the reality of the resurrection in the lives of the others before he discovers for himself the truth of the resurrection. When Jesus appears again he does not rebuke Thomas for being different from the others: Jesus must know that Thomas is already ahead of them. So much so that when Jesus does appear again to Thomas he provides a direct answer to the question that Thomas had asked, but at an unexpected moment and in an unexpected way. For Thomas the appearance is a gift of grace and in a moment of wonderful intuition confirmed, Thomas cries out “My Lord and God” and in doing so voices a new title for Jesus, God, not one of the more common ones the other disciples regularly used. And in identifying Jesus this way, Thomas points the way for the church in an understanding of Jesus as God which it would not fully come to for some hundreds of years. And did you notice something else about Thomas in this incident? So overwhelmed is he in the moment that he does not attempt to touch Jesus wounds even though invited to. He doesn’t need to. He knows.

So, what has this to do with us?

There are so many themes in this passage. If you take comfort from the disciples being released from the bondage of fear, because for whatever reason you too feel fear, go with that. Rediscover and accept the strength and power that comes with the resurrection and the possibility of a renewed life in the peace that Jesus offered his friends.

Or perhaps this says something to us of the ways in which people come to faith: the resurrection stories that conclude the four gospels are a bit of a scramble, testifying to how people come to faith in different ways. The beloved disciple believes when he sees the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene believes when the Lord speaks her name, even though her report is not accepted by the others. The disciples believe for themselves once Jesus appears alive among them and Thomas has an intuition he needs to struggle with and work through.

Have we come to the Easter stories afresh in one of these ways?

It was interesting being with the nuns in Whitby. Seventy of us closeted together for a week acting out and living the Easter story together at the same time as discussing “Communicating the Gospel”. People experience Easter in different ways. People come to faith in different ways. They did then. They do now.

Jesus often startles us, as he did those disciples in the upstairs room, and one week later, Thomas. He may come to us afresh when and where we least expect him. Jesus returns and promises us our resurrection. He comes to break the chains of fear and we have different ways of recognizing him. He comes back to reconcile us with God, and make us instruments for reconciliation in the world.

How ready are we to share that joy with others?

The Parable of The Talants: a Parable about time.

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my mother said to me: “How old are you now?” “What? Am I adopted? Were you not there?” You’d have thought that she of all people would have remembered, wouldn’t you? But then sometimes I have to stop and think too: “How old am I now?” The passing of time is a big mystery to me. “Haven’t you grown?” I hear myself saying to kids I last saw when they were three - fifteen years ago.

Where does it go? Why does time pass so slowly when we are young and so rapidly when we are old? And above all—when loved ones leave us, when they die, where are they, if they are not in time?

Is it just me?

Centuries ago the psalmist uttered with poignant accuracy,
“. . . our years come to an end like a sigh.”
Or as my mother said equally poignantly: “It’s all right for you; I’m in the departure lounge.”

But even though we identify with the words of the psalmist, the question of how the ancients viewed time remains. Their perception must have been different from ours, surely? When the prophets say that the day of the Lord “is at hand,” do they mean that the end is immanent? Since we know that the end of time has not yet arrived, we assume that their religious zeal led them in the wrong direction, or that they were speaking more apocryphally or they must have understood time more loosely.
The prophet Zephaniah warns those who think that God is indifferent to their idolatrous practices, that the day of the Lord for them will be full of darkness, not of light, and that time will have no mercy on their plans:
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine
from them.

There is no promise here is there? Only a warning. For this prophet, the day of the Lord is at hand and the retribution of those who move away from God is “near and hastening fast.” Are there any applications for us here I wonder?

When St. Paul writes to the young church in Thessalonica, he seems to have a similar conviction: that the day of the Lord is at hand; but for him this is a prospect filled with promise.

“For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep (as in alive or dead) we may live with him.” He says.

Early in his preaching mission, Paul was convinced that the return of Christ was very near, that it would happen within his lifetime. The people of the church in Thessalonica, believing that the day of the Lord was approaching, were falling into doubt and despair because some from that small community were dying before the promised return of the Lord had occurred. So Paul is trying here to encourage them by reminding them that they are “children of light,” and for those who live in the light, even death is not to be feared. It is as if time does not matter.

Because apocalyptic literature is not easily understood by people who live comfortable lives in Britain, talk of the last days has more or less disappeared from our thinking. There is a tendency among fundamentalist Christians to dwell on a violent end for the faithless, and for some kind of apocalyptic rapture for the faithful. But what comes through with clarity in Paul’s writings is a reminder that no one knows the end of time, that it comes like a thief in the night, and that what we need is to be prepared: by living with awareness, with faith, with compassion and with love.

It is this quality of preparedness that we can also gather from the difficult parable of the talents: Jesus was good at telling difficult stories. No doubt they were as hard to hear standing in a group in Palestine as they are from our seats today. I have always felt a certain sympathy for the battered one-talent man who hides his unexpected gift in this strange parable and who was deprived of the gift once it had been given, just because he was shy, or reserved, or cautious.

So, before leaving on a journey, a rich man gives incredible sums to three servants: to the first, 10 talents, to the second five and to the third one talent (which alone equalled the wages of an ordinary worker for 20 years). Without further instructions he departs and the first two servants doubled their gifts, while the one-talent man dug a hole and hid his. Upon returning the master asks what happened to his money and after identical recitations about doubling the gift, each of the first two is called “a good and faithful servant,” placed in charge of even more possessions and welcomed into the joy of the master.

The one-talent man must be despondent, and he begins immediately with his excuse, “Master, I knew you were a hard man harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not sow, so out of fear I went and buried my talent.” He invokes fear as his defence. This man is a victim of his own fear and cautiousness.
After the predictions of the end time in Ch. 24 and the threats of severe judgments awaiting the unfaithful at Jesus’ return, Matthew is urging his community not to be timid and fearful, but to take risks. The paradox of biblical revelation is that the merciful, gracious and compassionate God who liberates us from slavery is also the God who will judge us on the use of our gifts. Let’s be clear too: we aren’t talking about good works here, we are talking about obedient discipleship.

Unless we belong to a parish facing extinction or financial ruin, or unless we take seriously the statistics about declining membership and revenue, the cost of being a Christian and a Lutheran may seem minimal. If we happen to be among the talented, the question of importance to consider is what we do with these gifts? Do we spend them for the good of others? Do we try to correct systemic wrongs by putting these gifts to work so that they multiply and double in value? Or do we hide our talents, resentful towards the Creator who blessed others more than ourselves, and offer nothing to those who surround us?

Certainly in Jesus' day a “talent” was a significantly valued coin. Nevertheless, we need to forget that. Nowadays, of course, a “talent” is an ability or skill, but despite what I just said, we need to forget that too. Jesus isn't talking about wealth in terms of cash or natural ability. What then? Well, perhaps we should be thinking about it more in terms of our Christian calling and the use of time.
Those early Christians often gave their lives for God: during turbulent times they faced arrest and execution. That’s confusing for us, because the chance of our being martyred and landing up in the Church Calendar or depicted in a stained-glass window is pretty slim. But we are, nevertheless, called by Jesus to give ourselves up in selfless love for God and in selfless service of others.

The fault of the person who did not use the gift he was given was that he was entirely passive. That person was so frightened that he would lose what he had been given that he was paralyzed by an awful fear.

There is a type of fear that is tranquil. There's safety in inertia but when we risk stepping out in obedient discipleship into the misery of our neighbour, we step into danger, if only the danger of doing something for others and thus exposing ourselves to rejection or loss.

Christians often seem paralyzed by the idea of “evangelism.” We are prepared to inflict our politics, our views as to what constitutes good music or T.V. and even our recipes on others, but not our faith. We come up with all sorts of excuses to justify our apathy or take cover under the cloak of not being a fundamentalist. We act as if it's unfortunate that Jesus commanded us to go into the world and proclaim the Good News. We don't want to admit that our own Christian faith rests on generations of people who have passed on the Gospel.

Of course we are not to force our faith on others. Of course we are not to say that we are going to heaven and they are going to hell. That is God's business.
Yet we have been given the grace to witness the faith within us to others, and that may be in showing kindness, providing hospitality or standing out against the prevailing culture or attitudes of the day and hopefully, by telling and showing the love of Jesus at one and the same time.

As we embrace the world in obedient discipleship we commit ourselves to witness in word and deed in our daily life and work, at home, at school, in our hobbies and with our friends and neighbours.

When this passage in the 25th chapter of Matthew is read in conjunction with the parable that follows it, that of the great judgment, we realize that doing good to those who are neglected by our society is what the wise use and multiplication of the talents means. So in this reading of the parable, and in the Old Testament, Psalm and Epistle, we may be permitted to look at the gift of time as a talent, and when we say with the psalmist that our years come to end like a sigh, let it be the sigh of satisfaction for a job well done.

Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Lord. AMEN

Matthew and the Feeding of The Multitude

Isaiah 55
Psalm 145
Romans 9
Matthew 14

So, here we are: this is the summer.


I don’t know whether it is something to do with the street I live in but this time of year seems to me to be characterised by the smell of barbeques.

I must be deeply anti-social or I have some other personality defect but I don’t find chasing paper plates around someone’s garden, while balancing a cup of indifferent wine and avoiding ketchup stains and salmonella, a recipe for unbridled fun.

This time of year always puts me in mind of my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley. Have I mentioned my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley before? No? Well, you know the phrase “glass half full, glass half empty”? It makes no difference to her, she’ll drink it anyway. So, I called round one day and she was in a bad mood having bought two barbeque packs from B & Q.

“There” she said brandishing one in my face. “Look at the picture.” The picture showed a barbeque, all set up, with succulent food cooking nicely.

“What’s the problem?” I enquired tentatively.

“Well, look for yourself.” She said brandishing the open box again. “It’s a bag of charcoal. There’s no food.”

I explained gently, not wishing to make her feel stupid that it was just the cooking element of the barbeque she had bought and that no food was included what with B & Q not generally selling food.

She took it well, I thought, and then turned on her heel and headed for the kitchen. “I’d better get the other one out of the freezer, then.”

The Gospel, though not exactly describing a barbeque on the Galilean hills, tells of Jesus meeting the needs of his hungry followers. After hearing of his preaching in last week’s Gospel, we now begin a series of three Sundays whose Gospel readings tell of his miracles. The first of these is the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, one of the few miracles found in all four Gospels. Though the story is a shortened version of Mark’s account, it has Matthew’s distinctive focus with the Disciples portrayed as wondering how they will feed the people: here is Matthew’s theme of “little faith,” strengthened by Jesus.

When I was thinking about how best to approach this reading I had a look at a book by the Anglican theologian Canon Dr. Jeffrey John called “The Meaning in the Miracles.” He wittily relates how as a schoolboy two of his teachers had approached the miracles in contrasting ways and this really resonated with me because I had a similar experience when I first started teaching. One of my colleagues, Mr. Forest, a Biology teacher embodied the literalist or fundamentalist approach to scripture where everything was to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as it said. His response to this miracle would be to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” Doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded was tantamount to doubting the divinity of Christ.

Mrs. King, my first R.E. Head of Department, on the other hand, took the reductionist approach, wanting to “demythologise” the miracle accounts to reveal the morals within the stories. In this case the moral to her was that when Jesus fed the five thousand he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle was when everyone discovered the joy of caring and sharing with others.

She referred to him as a snake-handling Baptist and he referred to her as a wet, liberal Anglican.

I didn’t sit with them in the staffroom.

Life’s too short.

While their approaches seem diametrically opposed, they were in fact quite similar in the sense that they both treated the miracles as straightforward descriptions of events: they concentrated simply on what did or did not happen. Dr. John concludes that the real nature and purpose of the Gospel miracles is found in the depths and dimensions of meaning which are also conveyed in the account and these passed both the teachers – and consequently their students – by completely.

The problem with Mr. Forrest’s literalist approach where miracles simply exist to prove the divinity of Jesus is that it can say very little else about the event because it either rejects or simply doesn’t understand any symbolism at the heart of the Gospel events. The problem with Mrs. King’s reductionist approach as a call to greater charity is that it hardly sounds like good news and certainly not a tremendous demonstration of God’s free, miraculously overflowing generosity to his people.

What I discovered was there was no middle ground between them although before I gave up on them and went to sit with the English Department, I tried to argue that there was often a middle way where neither really had to give up their position in acknowledging the validity of the other’s point. That advice was clearly unwelcome. For where two or three are gathered together in my name….there will inevitably be an argument. (To paraphrase Matthew 18) And isn’t that a parable for the modern church where there is so much invested in being right at the expense of others?

But I digress.

So what is the language of miracles – specifically today the miracle of the feeding of the multitude? What are the theological nuances that both Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King never saw?

I don’t know whether you had realised that there is a second miracle of feeding the multitudes. This comes a couple chapters later in Matthew’s gospel – and in Mark’s Gospel too. I had always thought that this was another version of the same story that had got mangled in the telling and accidentally ended up as a second event. I don’t think that any more.

Certainly Jesus does the same thing but he does it in a different place, for a different people and with different numbers of loaves, fishes and people: these details are not the sloppy rememberings of another tradition but are themselves significant elements of two different events, and we know this because in Mark’s version Jesus questions the disciples very closely about the two feedings and gives them a hard time because they don’t get it.

“When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him “Twelve.”

“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you collect?” And they said to him “Seven.” Then he said to them “Do you not yet understand?”

Well, if the disciples, sitting not five feet from Jesus, found the meaning obscure, perhaps we may be forgiven for not fully understanding it either.

What many commentators are now saying to us is that the first miracle is a feeding of the Jews and the second miracle is a feeding of the Gentiles.



Well, this interpretation of Jews and Gentiles is evidenced by the fact that the first miracle takes place in a Jewish area near the Sea of Galilee while the second takes place in an area called the Decapolis, a largely Gentile area. Two different words are used for “basket” in the accounts: one a word of Jewish usage and one a word of Gentile usage.

The number five from the first feeding is very much a Jewish number because of its relationship to the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law. The number four in the second feeding is a Gentile number because it refers to the four Gentile empires that had overrun Israel - the number of “beasts” in the book of Daniel. The number twelve in the first feeding refers to the twelve tribes of Israel while the number seven in the second regularly stands for fullness or completion in many scriptural texts: the mission to the Gentiles completes Jesus ministry.

These two stories must have been understood by Matthew and Mark as a prefiguring of the two stage preaching of the Gospel: “to the Jew first and then to the Gentile” as St. Paul later observed. The bread symbolizes the word of God: a standard association in Jewish thinking linked to the warning in Deuteronomy “You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Two thousand years down the line and we don’t instantly recognise the subtext as the original listeners and readers would have, and that diminishes our understanding of the Gospel. There are so many layers to the miracle stories, and yet like Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King we persist in seeing the two dimensional – and arguing about it!

But there is more: perhaps the most obvious theological emphasis of this feeding miracle is to tell us that Jesus is the new Moses. Even with a sketchy knowledge of the Old Testament most people are likely to remember that Moses had done something similar with the manna in the desert and closer examination shows other areas of comparison. Like Moses Jesus crosses the water into the desert, sits the people down in companies and feeds them with miraculous bread in such abundance that there are basketfuls left over. Much less obviously, because the relevant Old Testament story is perhaps less well known, Jesus’ actions also recall Elisha. Some of the details of the feeding stories clearly reflect an incident in 2 Kings when Elisha takes an army into the desert and feeds them miraculously with a few loaves.

Taking Moses and Elisha together, the story seems to be telling us in an allusive way that in recapitulating what Moses did, Jesus is fulfilling the Law and in recapitulating what Elisha did, Jesus is fulfilling the Prophets. This feeding miracle is intended to teach us that Jesus is truly the one whom the Law and the Prophets foretold.

Some commentators go further: they see the bread as having a sacramental reference. The words and actions of Jesus over the bread are exactly the same as at the Last Supper. The association with Moses and the Exodus event point to a Passover setting and thus to the new Christian Passover, the Eucharist.

So, this Gospel miracle is also a deeply meaningful theological statement. Its meaning is Christological in that the miracle tells us something about Jesus; it is typological in that it relates to comparable figures of the religious past, Moses and Elisha; it is eschatological in that it relates to the end times, presenting Jesus as the fulfilment of the religious tradition; it is symbolic in its use of numbers and sacramental in its reference to the Eucharist. All these dimensions were important to the Gospel writers and should also be important to us. However, they are regularly missed in the “standard” approach to miracles because we have lost the skill of finding the keys to the N.T. in the O.T.

This miracle has all the flavour and literary style of the Jewish narrative known as haggadah, a genre of Jewish theological writing. We should not be surprised by this as Matthew and Mark were Jewish writers. They were steeped in the traditions of the O.T. and they derived their theological understanding from their Jewish antecedents. They recognised all these extra elements in the feeding miracles and understood their importance: Jesus did THIS and in doing so echoed THAT and each detail had such incredible theological significance that it had to be recorded because of the picture each layer helped to build up. Yes, this is most certainly a story of Jesus’ divinity and the reasons why are found in the detail: so they underlined these threads of prophecy-fulfilment, symbolism, typology, allegory and numerology throughout their Gospel narratives. These are the signposts which point to Jesus’ divinity and to the readers and listeners of the day they must have been akin to flashing neon lights which spelt out the truths, hopes, patterns and meanings and modern relevance of the scriptural past those elements represented.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy). Only all too often we have lost the key and therefore miss many of the nuances.

What should this mean for us today? When we read the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, how should we react? Well, perhaps the best response is the one provided by scripture itself, the discourse of Jesus on the Bread of Life in John’s Gospel:
“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from Heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

What would Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King have made of it all, I wonder?

Luke: Lazarus and the Rich Man

Amos 6.1 and 4-7
Psalm 146
1Tim 6. 6-19
Luke 16.19-31

No missing the point in the readings this week, then: What will it take for us to get the message that the choices we make and the lifestyle we adopt will have far-reaching consequences? That’s always a timely and generally challenging issue for Christians in the West, isn’t it?

From our Jewish heritage via the life of Jesus to the earliest Christian communities, we confront over and over again in scripture the requirements of our discipleship and the role of money in our lives. “Alas for those who are at ease…who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches…who drink wine from bowls” says Amos. I don’t know about the ivory beds, but I’ve a mental image of me lounging on couches and drinking wine on a number of occasions. I’m quite good at that.
Maybe too much about me there.

Today’s psalm (146) advises us to place our trust in God, who alone "gives justice to those who are oppressed…food to those who hunger…sets captives sight to the blind...protects strangers...sustains the orphan and the widow".
So, what’s the bottom line here?

That only in God can we ultimately trust and the other stuff that gets in the way, that maybe gives us status and a sense of well-being are dangerous things to put our confidence in. They give us a false sense of security.

On to the Epistle: As Timothy and Paul discovered in their experience with the early Christian church, clinging to God in the face of life's realities is no easy task. Paul warns Timothy against the dangers of wealth, for "Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires which plunge them into ruin and destruction" (v9).
Note: its not the fact of being rich, but the desire to be rich when we aren’t already and I include the desire to be richer in that too, not just rich.

Ever dreamed of winning the lottery?

Oh dear!

Me too.

Paul assures Timothy, though, that "godliness with contentment is a great gain" (v6). "Contentment," from the Greek autarkeia, might be better understood as a detachment from worldly goods.

There’s a challenge then. I don’t know about you but when it comes to worldly goods, I’m a hoarder. Rachel is always saying to me: “new shirt/pair of jeans/shoes in: old shirt/pair of jeans/shoes into the charity bag.”

As if!

I just have a very full wardrobe.

I don’t know how it is with you. It’s possibly not clothes. Maybe it’s C.D’s? Flat screen T.V? The car?

A detachment from worldly goods eh?

A scary challenge.

Finally, we have Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man where Luke also highlights the dangers of wealth, which he uses as a literary device both in his Gospel and in Acts. For Luke, possessions are a sign of power. Wealth is a great danger to those who possess it in these books, for they have a tendency to rely on money rather than God.

This parable is one of the most striking indictments of the corrupting influence of wealth and its consequences in the gospels. It has its origins in a traditional Egyptian story that made its way into Jewish folklore. In one Jewish legend, a husband repents after his wife sends him a warning from the underworld.
Not so in Jesus’ reworking of the tale.

The rich man in this story lives a life of comfort, while Lazarus suffers right outside the gates of his house. (Symbolically, the name Lazarus means “God is my help”). The rich man's preoccupation with wealth prevents him from acknowledging Lazarus or reaching out to ease his suffering during his lifetime.

Now I need to make this parable real for me otherwise it will remain as a story without the power to touch me. I need to find an application to my daily life: I don’t have a starving beggar living on my doorstep but I do find beggars in general, winos and junkies, often all rolled into the same person, a problem.

How about you? Who is it that you don’t see? Who is your Lazarus? Is it about race, sexuality, gender, age, disability, social class, weight, political affiliation?


The uncomfortable warning here is that in ignoring Lazarus, the rich man creates an unbridgeable chasm after his death.

Both men die: Lazarus likely of starvation and the rich man? Well, it’s tempting to imagine his cause of death as an over-indulgence linked heart attack or stroke. Lazarus goes to heaven; and the rich man to Hell and in the afterlife their roles are reversed, with Lazarus resting in the "bosom of Abraham" and the rich man suffering the torments of Hell.

"Send Lazarus," he cries out, "to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames" (v24).

No. Lazarus has found rest.

And there is of course this insurmountable problem of a chasm between the two men that cannot be crossed.

Then, in an apparently uncharacteristic burst of altruism, the rich man worries about his five brothers and asks that Lazarus be allowed to go and warn them about what has happened to him.

No, again. If they aren't willing to listen to the prophets' calls for justice, scaring the hell out of them (or into them, as the case may be) won't do any good.
As Lazarus was stuck with his lot in life, so the rich man is stuck with his lot in death. His sin? He refused to cross the chasm between him and Lazarus in their first life. His inability to walk outside his gate, to share his abundance, doomed him forever. He kept himself apart, and such is his sentence for eternity.

Now, there is an irony in this story isn’t there? Jesus would rise from the dead and in doing so would bridge the chasm between God and humankind that is caused by our selfishness and greed. What the rich man had begged for would come to pass. And there is an application for our own time and our own lives – well, two actually:
Firstly, if we want to follow Christ, we must struggle seriously with issues of wealth – or perhaps it’s fairer to say relative wealth - in our own lives.

Secondly, we need to examine our relationship with those marginalised groups around us. Let’s be clear: In not doing so, either by choice or omission, we don’t create an unbridgeable chasm after our death like the rich man in the parable: Jesus has dealt with that. But we, who are disciples of that same Jesus, can reveal him in our lives by crossing the many chasms that divide today’s society - between rich and poor, sick and healthy, powerful and powerless, straight and gay, black, white and Asian, you name it - to help bring to the world the fullness of life in Christ. Yes, and for me that includes the beggar, the wino and the junkie. I have to take it on board too.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, then, who did you instinctively identify with as you heard it? Jesus’ disciples probably identified with Lazarus, because most of them were poor, too. When we read the story today, we should probably identify with the rich man and that should make us all feel pretty uncomfortable.
We are all the rich man to some extent, content with our life style, indulgent, wanting to move up: the better job which really means more money; the nicer house and so on. Many Christians today buy into the culture of consumerism with gusto, so that it is difficult to tell us from our non-Christian neighbours.

But we are all Lazarus too: beggars, poor and dependent on God. As we confess every week we cannot by our own reason and strength please God by ourselves or come to him worthy in our own right.

So, to wrap it up: God calls us to be different from the crowd around us, and God specifically calls us to care for the poor.

Let’s be clear about the motive here. This isn’t about currying favour with God. It can’t be, we know we can’t earn God’s approval. This issue of “good works” is about discipleship and obedience: we do it because that is what God wants us to do. And when we do it, we demonstrate that we have been truly transformed by our contact with Christ. Our dependence on God for life, for making some kind of sense out of our chaotic world, for the blessed assurance that our follies, mistakes, errors and self-indulgences will not keep us from crossing the chasm - and all this through Jesus Christ - should have a humbling effect on us, and move us to a lifestyle that sees all people as children of Abraham.