Readings: Ex. 16.2-7a; Galatians 4.21-31; John 6.1-14
“Man shall not live by bread alone” Matt 4.4
Did I tell you about the new Vicar who used to go into the village pub every Sunday evening after Evensong and order two Gin and Tonics. He would drink them both and then order another two.
After a few weeks of this the barman asked him why he always bought his drinks in pairs.
“Well its quite simple really” he said, “when my twin brother moved to work in Australia, we decided whenever we were out drinking we would always order two as a reminder of each other.”
After a few months the priest came in and ordered just the one gin and tonic. The barman feared the worst.
“Is everything alright with your brother?” he asked.
“O yes” said the priest “its just that its lent and I personally have given up alcohol.”
Part of the discipline of self-denial for lent is to remind ourselves that there is more to life than food and drink.
And in an inverse sort of way, that is one aspect of John’s teaching in today’s Gospel - the Feeding of the 5000.
Some think that today, Refreshment Sunday, takes its name from the Gospel, when the 5000 were refreshed. Others think it refers to the relaxation permitted this day of what used to be draconian national Lenten discipline laws - you are allowed the luxury of Simnel cakes today.
Of course it is also called Mothering Sunday, perhaps because we are reminded in the Introit to the Mass and the Epistle that ‘Jerusalem is Mother of us all.’ (4.26)
Or maybe it was the practice of returning to the Cathedral or mother-church on this fourth Sunday in Lent. Certainly it became the custom to visit your mother with a small gift in some parts of England.
My mother always spent the preceding weeks telling us children not to buy her anything, as it was a waste of money. Of course we knew she meant life wouldn’t be worth living if we didn’t buy her anything! But then she was very happy with a 6d bottle of Lilly of the Valley from Woolworths.
Today’s Gospel is a strange story, set in the relative wilderness to the east of the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights. It’s the only story, apart from our Lord’s Passion, that is recounted in all four Gospels. It was obviously an important part of early Christian tradition.
In John’s framework for his Gospel, based on the seven signs this is the fourth sign.
There was the water into wine at Cana (when Jesus’ Mother whom we also honour on this day, reminded us of the pattern of our discipleship: ‘Whatever He says to you, do it’); the healing of the royal official’s son; the healing of the lame man; and now this very earthy and in some ways, uncalled for, miraculous provision of food.
The disciples had just returned from a successful preaching tour - thousands won to the Catholic faith - and were in need of a rest. So Jesus takes them away to a quiet place. But as usual, the grapevine soon spreads the news to the local populace and this crowd of 5,000 men, and presumably at least that number again of women and children, gather expectantly.
Our Lord had trained at the same seminary as Fr Bill Scott who I remember telling me when I didn't turn up for 7am Morning Prayer on my day off: ‘a Day Off is a privilege and not a right!’ Jesus knew when to rest but also when pastoral need should make him break his rest. So then the 5 loaves and the 2 fishes, a young boy’s picnic lunch (a typical eye-witness account not mentioned in the other Gospels) – this becomes the stuff of history.
The thoughtful Mother who wrapped them up and thrust them into her son’s hands, no doubt with the instruction that he was to wear a vest as it got chilly on the Golan Heights, could never have imagined that 2000 years later billions of people would be spiritually fed by her simple act of mothering love.
But why did Jesus perform this miracle? The people were not about to die. They would make it to their homes.
The Jesus of the four Gospels does not do tricks to try and persuade the crowd that he is the Messiah. Indeed, at the end of this story when the crowd want to hail him as the new Prophet, he flees into hiding.
In most miracles, Jesus responds to need, and occasionally, as in the water-into-wine, this story, and the following sign - walking on the water, he shows his mastery over nature and also provides Gospel teaching through what is called an ‘enacted parable’.
In other words, the primary function of the miracle is to illustrate a concept he is trying to teach, usually to his immediate disciples.
And so it is here, that our Lord is making a simple point and, as it turns out later, another very complex point, to his disciples.
The simple point may be expressed in this way: Jesus is not nearly as discouraged as we are, by the little we have to offer. In fact, one of the prerequisites of true worship and discipleship is the recognition of our inadequacy.
“What can I bring him, poor as I am?”
For Philip it was hopeless - ‘how can we feed them?’ he syas to Jesus.
For Andrew it was more hopeful - he found the little that there was - and this was enough for Our Lord.
We are to bring what we have in the recognition that only the Lord can multiply it to meet the needs that are there.
It is important for us to recognise in our lives and in the life of our church, that we are always inadequate, and can only ever offer our little loaves and fishes.
So in our worship: we bring our music, our liturgy, our preaching, our vestments, our art and culture; with the recognition that it is inadequate, but it is the best we can offer. Only Christ can transform it to worship in Spirit and in Truth which is acceptable to the Father and which truly prepares us for heaven.
And in our daily lives, our prayer must always be that God will take what we offer, the little we are able to do, and by his power give our acts of service significance and influence far beyond their meagreness.
But John is also pointing to deeper truths in his account of this incident.
There is a little phrase in v.4: “and the Passover was nigh”. (Mark’s account makes the same point by another eye-witness touch - they sat down on the green grass. Any of you who have been to the Holy Land will know that about the only time there is any green grass on the Golan Heights is before Passover.)
The Passover. Here is John’s axis of interpretation.
If you read on in this chapter of John, there is a clear movement from miracle to theological discourse, from Jesus to Moses (our OT reading), from bread to flesh. 'unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.' (John 6.53)
Our Lord is preparing to show them that hard teaching that will make many leave him: he is the Bread come down from heaven; the bread that satisfies the human heart and feeds the soul.
Soon the Passover lamb must be slain and eaten, as a reminder that the Angel of death passed over the Israelites as they were being released from slavery in Egypt.
And soon the Lamb of God must be slain and give his flesh and blood for the salvation of the world.
This story is not just about feeding hungry people. It is about a Saviour who alone can satisfy the spiritual hunger that is everywhere evident in the world.
And even when we have received the Bread of Life, as we will in a moment, we are not satisfied and as part of our human condition we will and should long for more.
As CS Lewis says “All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasises our pilgrim status, always reminds, beckons, awakens desires. Our best havings are wantings.”
Our best havings are wantings.
The 5000 were fed and we are fed. But like them, we will only truly find sustenance for our journey when we bring the little that we have and are, and realise that
“Man shall not live by bread alone.” Matt 4.4