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Sermon on John 6, 1 – 15

Sunday 27 July, 2003

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When I was a young Dominican, 50 years ago, the Archbishop of Lyons, Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier, used to say – as he considered how things had developed in his life and in that of his diocese – “It all happened as if there was some sort of Providence at work!” His “as if” and his “some sort of” both indicated, with a smile, his strong episcopal belief in the intervention of God’s providence in our lives as Christians and as Churches.

So I invite you to recognise, with Cardinal Gerlier and with me, that everything in our lives too, despite their many ups and downs, happens as if some sort of Providence has been at work. In our story as inter-church families, no less, everything happens as if some sort of Providence has been at work.

Why, you may ask me, begin this sermon with that little hymn to the presence of God in our lives? Well, because, when I was preparing this sermon a few days ago, I discovered that the biblical text that has been suggested to me overlapped with, or rather prolonged, or rather repeated the story which – just five years ago, on the last day of our first international Gathering – I had been asked to preach about. The story of the feeding of the five thousand in 1998, the feeding of the five thousand again in 2003 ! Just a change of evangelist: in Geneva it was Matthew, here in Rocca di Papa it is John. Neither Don Mario nor I chose this passage, no one else either, since these are simply the Gospel verses which all Western Catholics and plenty of other Christians are reading and thinking about on this 27th July, the 17th Sunday of the Church’s ordinary liturgical year.

If I were a lazy preacher I might have thought of looking out my sermon from the Geneva papers. Alas, it was published in that splendid little journal Foyers Mixtes. I am sure that even those of you who were not present at that first Gathering will have read that address with all due care.

I could also have been anxious about having to speak on the same theme before a congregation containing many of those who heard me five years ago. Yet, having humbly consulted, as best one may, the Spirit who inspires us and leads us into the fullness of truth, I felt she was whispering into my ear: “Be not afraid, brother Rene, be of good cheer. It is not you who chose this text but me.”

- “Do you really want me, Lord, to repeat myself today?”

- “Well now, brother Rene, do you think I don’t have to repeat myself? Have you counted ? The story of the feeding of the five thousand, which you have got in front of you this morning, is one that I had to repeat six times to the Gospel writers, once each for the four evangelists and another time for both Matthew and Mark.”

- “Yes Lord. I am aware of that but I am still the same person and these who are sitting in front of me to listen are also, many of them, the same … you can’t expect me to feel quite happy.”

- “Stop wasting time. Don’t you realise that it is my job to bring home to them once again the Good News of the food that is promised? So now, wipe your glasses. You need to read rather more carefully this page in the Gospel.”

So I dropped my eyes. And read again my sermon from 1998.

- “Dear Lord, you know, I probably didn’t point out adequately in Geneva that those peasants and farmers of Galilee who were to be fed by Jesus had first been cured by him of their sicknesses and their infirmities, of all their various infirmities, no doubt even of their mental infirmities.”

- “Good, carry on.”

- “I see that John, the only one among the four reporters of this story, has the crowd sitting down on a green slope of much thick grass. I also notice that he gives the names of the disciples involved and points out more clearly that the person who made available the five barley loaves and two fish was a young boy.

The treasure that Jesus is going to distribute did not belong to any of his disciples. They are more or less bypassed by the event as it happens. Philip has no real answer to Jesus’ somewhat tricky question “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Their usual leader, Peter – who was no doubt somewhere around – keeps a safe silence; or else John simply didn’t hear him. As for Peter’s brother Andrew, the first disciple to be called, as our Orthodox friends like to style him, he is counting up in his head that what it would cost to feed these five thousand or so men - without even counting the women and the children who would have been with them - would have been way beyond what was available: more or less the wages from two hundred working days for a farm worker of the time.

So the only response Jesus’ staff team could conceivably have given was: “sorry, nothing doing, no, non, nein, niet, quite impossible, no food for such a crowd.”

The real answer is contained in what our great French novelist Georges Bernanos liked to call the mystery of our empty hands. No doubt, as I said five years ago, Jesus could quite easily have brought down from Heaven a squadron or two of happy little angels carrying coffee pots and of hotel porters with plenty of heavenly bread. In fact he had another way of doing it. We need to watch out.

In fact, Jesus turns to one of the youngest actors present. John the Evangelist makes us see that the five loaves and two fish were squeezed into the none-too-clean haversack on the back of a young lad.

It is this tiny gift of nothing much which when offered by a Palestinian lad is taken by Jesus and which, when he has given thanks, he can distribute to those who came to listen to him.

Note here too a difference with the synoptic Gospels; in these latter it is the disciples who, at Jesus’ command, distribute the bread and the fish among the crowd. In John’s version their role is reduced to that of gathering up the bits left afterwards. And yet that was by no means a matter of nothing much – their baskets ended up full; and twelve is a perfect number, a number indicating fullness – as if this distribution hadn’t in any way affected the original gift which remains complete for the next time round.

But I haven’t yet finished. The main difference between the three synoptic Gospels and that of John is at a rather different point. In the fourth Gospel the miracle takes place at the beginning of a long speech on the bread of life (“my flesh is true food”, “my blood is in truth a drink”, is how Jesus puts it later on). This speech about the bread of life takes the place in John’s Gospel of the story of the supper on Holy Thursday which is substituted in any case by that of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.

In other words, the feeding of the five thousand, in John’s Gospel even more than in the other Gospels, is linked to the mystery of the Eucharist.

Within the complex muddle in which we find ourselves today, whatever part of the world we come from as Christians, concerning the sharing of those Eucharistic gifts of our Lord which we all so burningly long to receive together in the Holy Communion … In this whole muddle – perhaps even in order to lighten it a little – I am struck by two points arising from this story, which come to much the same: all of us need to be given a) a young lad’s heart and b) the mind of a servant.

The heart of a child: that takes a very long time and is often a pretty difficult thing to get oneself given. In reality it is a project for the whole of a life. It takes continuous and life-long effort. To achieve what a servant needs to achieve, to turn ourselves into servants of one another who can wash each other’s feet, who can practise the sacrament of the brother or sister, as our Orthodox friends would say: it looks a lot easier and yet it makes a good many demands too.

Yet if we can behave in that sort of way then perhaps one day, surely one day, our Lord will undoubtedly one day, knowing our weakness like that of a crowd who were hungry and thirsty, put into our hearts the heart of a child and into our hands the will and willingness of servants, both of them the unfathomable gift of his Body broken for us all and of his Blood shared out for us all. These we will indeed receive together, all of us, in the hollows of our empty hands and of our open hearts.

For one day, without a shadow of doubt, the walls which have been built in our heads and in our hearts – which do not rise as far as heaven, as the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Platon of Kiev used to affirm with such burning faith – one day those walls will simply crumble away. Remember, as I so often do, how to the amazement of us all, one day not yet fifteen years ago, the Berlin wall simply crumbled. On the crumbly ruins of those wobbly exegetico-theologico-dogmatico speculations of ours about each other’s churches, probably all too tortuous, all too arrogant, we will see appearing, to our great joy, the Lord, the bright and satisfying Bread of Life.

Hear our prayer, dear Lord, come, come soon for us all and gather us around yourself at your table.

Maranatha!

Fr Rene Beaupere