by Colleen Clayton
May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
I have recently become a fan of the YouTube phenomenon, ‘Past Grannies’. There are hundreds of videos, each about seven minutes long. Each one features a different, elderly, Italian woman, demonstrating her traditional technique for making a particular kind of pasta and sauce. The pasta shapes are many and varied. So are the grannies! But each granny works with practised eyes and skilful hands to create her signature dish.
What often amazes me is how simple the dishes are. One of my favourites was made by Letizia a 100-year-old granny who described how she made this particular recipe to feed her family during the second world war. The pasta is made with semolina flour, water and salt. The sauce, with wild fennel and dried broad beans. It is simple, peasant fare.
I was thinking of Letizia as I reflected on this week’s Gospel reading, as Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain and there, feeds a crowd with the simplest of food.
This story of a miraculous provision of food shows that God cares for God’s people. This theme can be seen in each of the readings set for today: in the reading from Kings, we hear of God’s power at work through Elisha, feeding 100 people; the psalm speaks of the Lord giving food to all; and the letter to the church in Ephesus records Paul’s prayer that God’s people may be filled with the ability to understand and receive the love of God that is beyond human comprehension.
However, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is a story about far more than God’s miraculous provision of food. We are told that the crowd keeps following Jesus because of the signs they see him doing. Jesus’ disciples however, including you and me, are invited to understand and seek far more than miraculous signs. Instead of following Jesus just out of curiosity, or in the hope of seeing something miraculous, the disciples follow because of their deep hunger and longing for wholeness and healing, in their lives and in the world.
This is the story that sits in the centre of John’s Gospel. It is of great importance to John’s theology and John demonstrates its importance by giving us lots of significant details rich in symbolism.
Moses ascends a mountain alone to receive the Law to teach to the people. Jesus himself is the fulfilment of the Law and he ascends a mountain with his disciples who will continue to learn, and teach, the message they receive from him.
After returning from the mountain, Moses feeds the people with manna in the wilderness. Jesus feeds the crowd in a lonely place, providing plenty for them in the midst of scarcity.
Jesus tells the people to sit down on the abundant grass that was in that place. Grass like the green pastures in which the Lord makes his sheep lie down in Psalm 23.
This whole incident takes place as the Passover festival approaches. Jesus feeds the crowd himself, providing the food and then giving it to them, a foreshadowing that he will become the new Passover lamb.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all write about Jesus and his disciples sharing a meal during which Jesus speaks the words we now associate with the Eucharist. ‘While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14.22-24).
John’s Gospel does not record a ‘last supper’ in the way that the synoptic Gospels do. Instead, in John’s account, Jesus and the disciples simply share a meal after which Jesus washes their feet. In John’s Gospel, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is the place where we find Jesus blessing, breaking and giving bread.
For the next four weeks we will continue to spend time in this portion of John’s Gospel as we explore the theme of Jesus, the bread of life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ self-giving flows throughout his life. It is to be found in the signs he performs, in his teaching, in the meals he shares. In John’s Gospel, the institution of the Eucharist is not connected solely with Jesus’ death but with his entire life and it echoes throughout all the stories he tells.
And these are stories of abundance! Not least the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus feeds the crowds with what he is offered. A small boy is willing to share and so 5,000 people are fed with twelve baskets left over.
This pattern is the same today. God gives life through what is already available to us. God offers Godself to us and invites us to share our lives with others, and as we do, we receive an overflowing super-abundance; more than we could need or want.
This is central to the feast of the Eucharist. The gifts of the people are offered, blessed and broken but it is Jesus himself who we receive, Jesus who gives us spiritual and physical nourishment, and it is Jesus we take with us when we are sent out into the world. It is our purpose to share the bread of life, to pass on the message of the abundance of God’s love.
Sometimes, especially when things are difficult, it can be tempting to turn to Jesus as the crowds did, to have our needs met, to be filled. But there is a difference between wanting what Jesus can do for us and wanting Jesus himself. Jesus calls us out of the crowd to follow him and be his disciples. That call means that we will be filled as we share our lives and offer them up to be blessed, broken and given.
To do this, we need each other. We need to share our strengths and our weaknesses, not endlessly commenting on the things that we don’t have but offering what we do have. Bishop Stephen Bayne, the former Ecumenical Officer for the Anglican Communion says,
Eucharistic people take their lives and break them, and give them, in daily fulfilment of what Our Lord did and does. He took his life in his own hands – this is freedom. He broke it – this is obedience. He gave it – this is love. And he still does these simple acts at every altar and in every heart that will have it so; and time and eternity meet.
In this fifth lockdown, we are, of course, aware of all that we don’t have, all the freedoms we have lost. However, Jesus still calls us to freedom, obedience and love. It is through making these choices that we will experience the super-abundance of God.
Writing to the church in Ephesus, St Paul was not locked down but locked up. In chains for preaching the Gospel, nevertheless, he writes with joy and freedom, focussed, not on his restrictions, but on the boundless possibilities to be found in God’s love. He does not write from a theoretical point of view but as someone who, despite real deprivation and scarcity, knows the abundance of God.
So, with St Paul let us pray that God may grant that we will be strengthened in our inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. That we may have the power to comprehend, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.
The Lord be with you.
 Bishop Stephen Bayne former Ecumenical Officer for the Anglican Communion, quoted in
The Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey, by Michael Mayne, published byDalton, Longman and Todd, 2008.