Collect for Trinity VIII
ALMIGHTY God, your Son Jesus Christ fed the hungry with the bread of his life and the word of his kingdom.
Renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your true and living bread,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
2 Samuel 11, V 26 - 12, V 13a
Ephesians 4, Vv 1 - 16
St John 6, Vv 24 - 35
God provides for his people. From the very first verses of the Bible God is seen to provide for his people. In the Creation narrative given in the first chapter of the book called Genesis, we may read, ‘God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree and seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food”.’ Later in Genesis you may remember the story of Joseph. Joseph’s eleven brothers were angry with him because he was the son most beloved by their father Jacob, and because he was a dreamer who told his dreams to his brothers in a very disparaging ways. They sold him into slavery in Egypt. To cut a very long story short, Joseph became the principal governor of Egypt under the Pharaoh and, after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams about feast and famine, arranged for enormous quantities of grain to be stored throughout the land. Eventually, driven by starvation in their own country, the brothers turned to Joseph for sustenance. It’s a fascinating story and I commend it to you. Again, it shows the extraordinary steps to which God will go to provide for his people.
Perhaps the most detailed of the early evidences of God providing for his people are to be found in the stories of the sojourn in the wilderness that the Israelites suffered after leaving Egypt. While wandering for forty years in what we today call the Sinai Peninsula and the Negev Desert their shoes did not wear out and their clothing remained intact. However, they did suffer from hunger and thirst and blamed their ill fortunes on Moses. They demanded that he take them back to Egypt where they had, they said, despite their misery and slavery, sufficient to eat and drink. We can read of the time that Moses struck the rocks of Mount Horeb and water flowed for them to drink. On another occasion he caused water to flow from the rock at Meribah. You will no doubt also remember the time when God caused manna to settle on the ground like early morning dew to feed his hungry people. He also caused flocks of quails to land where the people could catch them, eager as they were to supplement their meagre diet. Yes, the Old Testament is full of stories of God’s munificence in providing for his people.
The Jews divide the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, into the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. So far we have explored a few of the references to God providing for his people in the Law, the Pentateuch. Let me give you just a few examples from the Prophets and the Writings. In the first book of the Kings we may read that God sent ravens to feed Elijah, he commanded a widow to feed him and God twice arranged for angels to offer him a cake baked on hot stones. In the Writings perhaps the most well known passage is to be found in Psalm twenty-three, where the writer believes that God will prepare a table before him. Psalm one hundred and eleven tells us that, ‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant’; while Psalm eighty-one says, ‘I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you’.
And so to our Gospel proclamation: it came immediately after the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we heard last Sunday. Jesus and his disciples had crossed the lake and the people had followed him, as we heard, in other boats. Jesus seemed a little cross. ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’ He had fed them the day before; here they are waiting to be fed again. But, Jesus understands that there is more to faith in him than being fed with earthly food. He makes reference to the manna that their forefathers had received in the wilderness, of which I have spoken. His job was not to feed them perpetually with bread, or even with bread and fish.
While checking some sound recording equipment a few weeks ago I happened to tune in to a religious broadcast service. The preacher was talking about God’s benevolence and stressed the point that while God provides for his people, he does not sate them; he gives them sufficient to satisfy their needs, he does not, as folk in the north of England say, ‘over-face’ them. An example of this can be seen in the provision of manna in the wilderness. The Israelites were told by God to pick an omer of manna for each person, each day – an omer is a volume measure, a little over two litres, about half a gallon. They were to pick the manna fresh each day; any kept overnight would breed worms and become foul. The only exception was an allowance to pick enough for two days on the day before the Sabbath, so as not to break God’s commandment about resting on that day. Despite being inaccurate in their measurements, the author of the book called Exodus tells us, ‘those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage’.
Within this context, we might think that Jesus more than satisfied the needs of those many who joined him on the grassy hillsides and were fed. We are told of the many baskets of food that remained when everyone had had their fill. It is interesting that we are not told what happened to the food left over. Were the twelve baskets-full just some arbitrary measure? Why, on a remote hillside, would there have been a number of empty baskets waiting to be filled? We are not told these details. Some have argued that there was no miracle at all. In seeing Jesus distribute some food to those around him, others got out their picnic sandwiches and shared them with their neighbours. If we read about the social conditions that obtained in those far off times we will quickly learn that the people were subjected to serious privations. There was little work, insufficient food and few resources. The crops that had previously been used to feed the indigenous population were now sent to supply those dwelling in Roman cities, especially the million or so that lived in the empire’s capital. The common people were hungry and had little better to do with their time than follow this itinerant teacher and healer; they would almost certainly have carried no food with them. But, like their ancestors in the wilderness of Moses’ time, they ate their fill of the bread of the Lord that had given them.
However, Jesus would not feed them on the following day, because he now saw that it was time to explain the difference between ‘bread from heaven’ and ‘true bread from heaven’. The significance of this explanation and the reason that the feeding miracles are so heavily emphasised in the gospels is surely the link that they so obviously have with that final, earthly meal that Jesus had with his close band of disciples, when he gathered them in the upper room on the night before he was crucified. On that occasion, called The Last Supper, Jesus promised to extend the range of God’s largesse to his people. Thus far God had, at various times, given earthly food to his chosen people. As we have seen, examples included water from the rocks at Meribah and Horeb, the quails that came in from the sea, and the bread and fish offered by Jesus to the crowds. God also gave manna, a previously unknown substance, not of earthly origin, to his hungry people. Now Jesus told his closest disciples that God would offer the very Body and Blood of his only-begotten Son to those who believed on him. Jesus explained to them, in that upper room, that, after they were given the necessary authority, they would be able to take two simple, and readily available ingredients of bread and wine and, with appropriate words and actions, make these become the very Body and Blood of their, by then, resurrected, ascended and glorified Saviour. We know from Saint John that Jesus commissioned the remaining eleven disciples on the evening of the day of resurrection. To be accurate, he commissioned ten of them; Thomas was absent and didn’t see the resurrected Jesus until a week later. Following the ascension, God sent his Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Comforter, to give final authority to those men to follow the procedures in which Jesus had instructed them. Our church believes that that same authority has been passed down to our bishops through an unbroken line by a process called the Apostolic Succession. Each bishop mandates his warrant to those he ordains to enact the Eucharistic liturgy, thereby empowering them to offer the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to those who join them in worship.
Through baptism into the Church Universal of God we are now members of God’s chosen people. Just as in ancient times, God is still determined to provide for his people. Today he gives us something far more precious than manna, or quails, or loaves and fish. Waiting for us on our altar, under a white veil, is what appears to the casual observer to be a carafe of wine and a container of wafers of bread. Yet they are far more than that. Through the words and actions that Jesus taught his disciples to use, an ordained priest of God has transformed these simple ingredients, by the invocation of the Holy Spirit of God, into the very Body and Blood of the Son of God. Through our sin we cannot see this transformation; we can only observe what scholars call the ‘accidentals’, the original outward forms. Yet, in a very real sense they are the Body and Blood of Christ; we refer to them as the Real Presence. In normal times we should receive both the bread and the wine. However, during this present influenza pandemic the church, in her wisdom, has decreed that, for purely hygienic reasons, communicant members shall only receive the bread, the host. The use of a common chalice is being temporarily withheld. There is a theological doctrine called concomitance which declares that the Body and Blood of Christ are present in each of the consecrated species. It is an extension of the idea that developed in the fourth century concerning the union of both God and man in Christ, that the Godhead and the human soul of Christ are both present in the Eucharistic elements.
So, as has happened down the ages of time God still provides for his people. All we have to do is approach the altar in full assurance of faith and receive our Saviour into ourselves. Thereby we shall be spiritually fed for our continuing pilgrimages towards the nearer presence of God, which is Christ’s promise for us all. And, just like earlier chosen peoples who were fed by God we shall not be satiated, but we shall be satisfied.
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