Seventeenth Sunday of Year B (John 6:1-15)


As you were getting up this morning, to get ready to come to church, you probably went into your bathroom to wash your face and brush your teeth and turned on the tap marked ‘C’, and all was well. If you went on holiday to Italy and you wanted to have a drink, wash your face or brush your teeth, you may well stand by a sink and turn on the tap marked ‘C’ and you would get a nasty shock. It stands for Caldo the Italian word for Hot. What you needed to do instead was to turn on the tap marked ‘F’ for Fredo or Cold.
This mistake is easily made, especially since we are so used to seeing the letter ‘C’ on cold taps back home. But it shows us the problem of misreading the signs. In today’s Gospel we have several examples of people misreading signs. First, we have Philip: he is asked by Jesus where they can buy bread for the crowd to eat. He replies that 200 denarii would only buy them a mouthful each. Six months wages just for a mouthful! So Philip can see no way that the people can be fed. He is unable to see past the practicalities.
Andrew begins better. He shows Jesus a boy with two fish and five barley loaves, the bread of the poor. But he cannot see the point and asks ‘what is that between so many?’ The disciples cannot read the signs and give the wrong answers to Jesus’ questions
The people are also a bit of a mixed bag. They have followed Jesus as they are impressed by outward things, his miraculous healing of the sick. Once they have been fed, they recognise the sign as a declaration of Jesus’ identity, but they misinterpret it. They are about to take him by force and make him king. This is not what Jesus’ kingship is about, he isn’t a political ruler, and his kingship is not of this world. All three have expectations which are met, but not in the way they were expecting.
The context of the Gospel story is important. It was just before the Passover, the festival commemorating Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea towards the Promised Land. It is a festival of Hope and Freedom, of Liberation, of a God who will feed them with manna from heaven.
It is also the same time that Jesus will celebrate the Last Supper with his disciples, instituting the Eucharist, which Christians have faithfully celebrated ever since and the reason why WE are here today. The blessing, breaking and sharing of bread is a serious matter then, and not just an excuse for a conjuring trick.
The fact that it is a serious matter explains why Jesus will devote so much time and effort to teaching the people about this in the Gospel passages we will read over the next few weeks. It matters because it is how we encounter Jesus and are fed by him.
In the Gospel, it is Jesus who takes the initiative. He recognises that people are hungry, and that they need to be fed. He takes the basic foodstuff, bread, to show us how God works with simple things. These may be, like the barley loaves, poor, the kind that the world despises and looks down its nose at, but for God, nothing or indeed nobody is scorned or cast aside. Ours is a God who takes what is available and uses it. Jesus takes what he is given and thanks God for it, in recognition that all we have, our lives and all of creation is a gift, for which we should thank God.
It is through prayer and blessing that bread can be broken and distributed and provide sustenance, on a scale and in a way that defies our expectation and understanding. Not only are the people fed but as a sign of the superabundance of God’s love and mercy, there is more left over at the end than there was to begin with. Thus, in giving thanks to God and sharing his love, the kingdom of God of which the bread is a sign, grows, is shared, and satisfies people’s deepest needs.
Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and distributes bread to demonstrate what the Kingdom of God and the message of the Gospel is. This looks forward to the Institution of the Eucharist, just before Passover. It points to the great Passover, where the world is freed from the slavery of sin, washed in the Red Sea that flows from Calvary, and given the Law of love of God and neighbour.
This miraculous feeding by the shore of the Sea of Galilee will happen here today, when we, the people of God, united in love and faith offer ourselves and like the little boy, give the bread that we have, so that it may be taken, blessed, broken and given that we may be partakers in the mystical supper of the Kingdom of God. We eat the Body of Christ not as ordinary food – that it may become what we are – but that WE may become what HE is. THIS is our bread for the journey of faith. THIS is the sign and token of God’s love. THIS is the means by which we too may enjoy forever the closer presence of God.
So then, as the five thousand received and were satisfied, let us prepare to eat that same bread, the body of Christ, which satisfies our every need and fills us with a foretaste of the Kingdom of God

Trinity VII Yr B

Some monks came to see Abba Poemen and said, ‘Abba, we have noticed some of the brothers falling asleep during the early morning service, should we wake them up so that they may pray more devotedly?’ He said, ‘Well I, for my part, when I notice a brother falling asleep lay his head in my lap so that he may sleep more soundly’
 
It is perhaps not surprising that amongst the men and women who lived in the Egyptian desert, and who developed the monastic tradition one of the most inspiring is a man whose name means ‘Shepherd’ in Greek. His care and gentleness towards his brothers is an example of how to be a Christian: gentle, non-judgmental, forgiving.

Living as we do here, out in the countryside, surrounded by fields, I suspect that the imagery in this morning’s readings is not completely lost on us. We are used to sheep and the shepherds who look after them. The care and devotion which a Shepherd should devote to his flock is a sign of God’s love and care for us, and to those of us who have been given any sort of pastoral responsibility in the church it serves as a reminder of who and what we are supposed to be: its cost, and the responsibility we share for the care of Christ’s flock, the burden and the joy. It is frightening to think how little our own strength and skill is compared to the task – we have to rely upon God, and his strength and not our own.

In this morning’s first reading, we see what happens when it goes wrong (there’s advice for bishops here). The Kings of Israel are not true shepherds as they exercise power which destroys and drives away the sheep. They don’t care for the well-being of the people, who have scattered, gone wandering off, as the mood takes them. It’s all gone horribly wrong; and yet God, the true shepherd of our souls, does not leave his people comfortless. He promises to give them a good Shepherd, and points towards his son, the Good Shepherd, who will lay down his life for his sheep. The prophet Jeremiah looks forward to a future when there is a Good Shepherd, who is Christ, who lays down his life for his sheep. This is care, this is self-giving love.

In St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we see the work of the Good Shepherd and its fruits. He gives us life through his death. Through him the flock is united; sin, that which divides, that which keeps us apart has been overcome by Jesus, he restores our relationship to one another and to God the Father, by laying down his life, by giving himself for us upon the cross and here in the Eucharist, where we the people of God are fed by God, are fed with God, to be built up into a holy nation, to become more like him, to have a hope of heaven, and of eternal peace and joy with him.
In conquering the world and sin, Christ shows us that there is nothing God cannot do or indeed will not do for love of us. All divisions, all human sinfulness can be reconciled through Him who was sinless, who gave himself to be tortured and killed that we might be free and live forever.

In this morning’s Gospel we see a picture of what good shepherds are like. Jesus and the apostles have been teaching the people, it’s a wonderful thing but it does take its toll. The disciples tell Jesus that it’s time to have a rest, to spend some time alone, in prayer and refreshment. The people are so many; their needs are so great that the apostles have not had time to even eat. It is a recognisable picture, and it shows us how great was the people’s need for God, for God’s teaching, for his love and reconciliation. Jesus does not send them away he takes pity on them because they are like sheep without a Shepherd, and he, the good Shepherd, will lay down his life for his sheep. His people are hungry so they will be fed by God, and fed with God. God offers himself as food for his people and continues to do so: he will feed us here today, feed us with his body and blood, with his word, so that we may be fed, so that we may be nourished, so that we may be strengthened to live our lives, that we may live lives which follow him, that we may have the peace which passes all understanding.

It’s a wonderful gift, which comes at a tremendous cost, which shows us how loving and generous God is towards us His people. Our response should be gratitude that we are fed in this way, that we have been reconciled to God through him. We should live lives fashioned after his example, lives which show his love and his truth to the world, lives which proclaim his victory, lives which will attract people to come inside the sheep-fold, to have new life in Jesus, to be with Jesus, to be fed by him, to be fed with him.

It’s a difficult thing to do, to live this life, to follow His example but with God’s help, and by helping each other to do it together, we can, and thereby give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever.

A prayer of Dr Pusey

O our Saviour! of ourselves we cannot love thee, cannot follow thee, cannot cleave to thee;
but thou didst come down
that we might love thee
didst ascend
that we might follow thee,
didst bind us round thee as thy girdle
that we may be held fast unto thee;
Thou who hast loved us, make us to love thee,
Thou who hast sought us, make us to seek thee,
Tho who, when lost, didst find us,
be thou thyself the way,
that we may find thee
and be found in thee,
our only hope, and our everlasting joy.

Trinity V Year B

Abba Moses the Ethiopian


In Scetis a brother was once found guilty. They assembled the brothers, and sent a message to Abba Moses telling him to come. But he would not come. Then the priest sent again saying, ‘Come, for the gathering of monks is waiting for you.’ Moses got up and went. He took with him an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried on his back. They went out to meet him and said, ‘What does this mean, abba?’ He said, ‘My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.’ They listened to him and said no more to the brother who had sinned but forgave him.
The monks of the Egyptian desert knew a thing or two about human nature, and our ability to make snap judgements, to listen to gossip, to be stubborn, to judge a book by its cover, to write people off and dismiss them. As they tried to live as a Christian community, built up together in love, they realised that it all starts with us at a personal level – we need to try to live the change which we want to see in the world around us. We won’t be very good at it, but if we try, and if we trust in God and if we forgive others and are forgiven by them then, who knows what God might do in our lives.

       Likewise the people of Israel seem to be very good at grumbling and moaning at God – the do a lot of it in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, but are not quite so good at hearing what God has to say to them. The lot of the prophet, like Ezekiel in our first reading this morning, is not necessarily a happy one, but it is something which has to be done. He is sent to the obstinate, so a prophet may well be rejected, but he is called to proclaim the word of the Lord regardless. The prophetic vocation is what drives St Paul, the love of Christ compels him (cf. 2Cor 5:14).  Thus when he is speaking to the church in Corinth he can say “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2Cor 12:9-10) It is after all not about Paul, but all about Jesus, who loves us, and who saves us, whose triumph over sin, the world, and the devil looks rather like defeat – the execution of a Galilean blasphemer is what brings about the healing of this world. It is through the grace of God, an unmerited kindness, which we cannot earn, given to us so that we might respond to God’s call and share in his life, justified by grace and sanctified through charity. We may not have an encounter like Paul on the Road to Damascus, but that does not mean that God cannot or will not be at work in our lives. Despite our weakness God can and does use us, ordinary, frail, sinful human beings for the furtherance of his kingdom. It doesn’t make much sense – it goes against everything which we would expect, as Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, ‘For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’(1Cor 1:18)

       The people of Nazareth are likewise more than a little surprised at the teaching and activity of someone whom they think that they know. There is something scandalously ordinary about the Incarnate Son of God – he grows up as a carpenter’s son in a backwater town. How can we take a God seriously who works like this? The people of Nazareth have this problem, and so Christ could do little because of their unbelief. Just like their forebears they are stubborn, unable and unwilling to look beyond the surface or to trust God to be at work. So Jesus heals the sick as a sign of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of love, forgiveness, healing and restoration, and turns instead to his disciples. He calls his disciples to share in his work: to carry it on, as a matter of urgency, to preach repentance – to turn away from self and sin towards God; and the nearness of the Kingdom, shown through healing, a sign of what God in Christ is doing, and will do on the Cross and through His Resurrection.

       The Church then exists to carry on this work of proclamation, to live it, despite our weakness, our sinfulness, relying on Christ rather than ourselves, or our own strength. Indeed, in our weakness we are reliant upon Christ, and thus we acquire humility, through which God can truly be at work in us, building us up in love, fed by Him, in Word and Sacrament, fed with Him, given a foretaste of eternal life in Christ, so that we may be strengthened by him to bear witness to His saving truth, so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.