“Moses said to YHWH, “But, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence,
either before or since you have spoken to your servant.” Ex 4:10
Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year B:
Mystery - Miracles or Magic!
This week, we leave the Year B Gospel of Mark and read chapter 6 from the Gospel of John for the next five Sundays. Reading this passage all on its own (John 6:1-15), we could miss the major themes in the Gospel of John, and we might wonder why John places this story, which is told in all four Gospels, where it is. In this account there is compassion and communion, but there is so much more. While Jesus' heart is touched by the hunger of the "large crowd", John is teaching us about the power of God in Jesus, about who Jesus is. We learn about who Jesus is by what he does - as actions speak louder than words. The words Jesus said, connect to the actions Jesus did. We have the down-to-earth disciples, overwhelmed by the "large crowd", trying to work out the cost of feeding so many people. "It's Impossible!" they say, but all things are possible with God. This story is about the power of God in Jesus, and about Jesus' compassion for the large hungry crowd. God's power is "far more than all we can ask for or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20b). If the disciples had remembered the story of how the prophet Elisha (found in 2 Kings 4:42-46
- the first lectionary reading) fed a 100 people from "twenty barley loaves" then they might have had greater trust in Jesus - who is the very presence of God. If we can receive this faith story - Jesus' fourth 'sign' - with the eyes of faith, then we can grow in our ability to trust God in mist of the most seemingly difficult situations of life.
The people who are with Jesus are a people longing and hungry for freedom from the Roman empire that oppresses them. This need leads them to project on to Jesus an easy short-sighted answer to their need. It's certainly understandable, and only human, that they would see Jesus as a miracle-worker and potential king. Even the desire for a king (never God's desire), however, is too small a dream and falls far short of God's dream for the people. Jesus wants to give us what we don't even realise we need; he knows what we need, deep down in our innermost, authentic human selves. Why do we ask for too little, when God can and would give us so much more? Can we see beyond our immediate wants and expectations? How else will we begin to see where God is leading us?
How do you explain a miracle? The feeding of the five thousand recounts a great wonder that Jesus worked. Many have tried to explain this miracle in rational terms. The most common "rational" explanation of the feeding of the five thousand is that it was an act of generosity. They say the charismatic Jesus inspired many in the large crowd to share them with others there provisions. I strongly object to such a modern reading that misses the point that John is making about God at work in our midst, God's power to completely transform human expectations. However I believe, we're focusing on the wrong thing when we concentrate on explaining the miracle of multiplying the barley loaves and fish, when the more remarkable miracle is the hope that Jesus inspired in the masses who followed him. Jesus' powerful presence and deep compassion for their suffering and need might explain the ability of ordinary, insecure and fearful people to follow him to a deserted place. The scientific arrogant scepticism of our time seeks to provide rational explanations for everything and loses the capacity to wonder at the extraordinary within the ordinary of our everyday lives.
The definition of miracles that we are using here is not just the literal miracle of whether or not the person with a disease is healed. Rather it is about the more ordinary moments, when the power of God’s love and grace overwhelms our sensibilities. It is about see our faith communities becoming immersed in God’s healing love and goodness. A miracle may simply be that people believe that God’s grace has been unleashed. When we do something ordinary, God takes that ordinary act - like offering 5 barley loves and 2 dried fish - and creates something incredible. It seems that we limit the concept of miracle only to physical healing and discount the moral miracles of unity. We still have to be honest about the despair, brokenness and decline that is happening in our church situations but we can’t allow ourselves to believe the statistics that bring despair have the last word. We are called to be a people of hope, who declare by word and example that God is still about God transforming lives. This story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and our stories of change and transformation as individuals and communities have amazing miracle power if they are told and heard and believed. Our stories have to touch the heartstrings in order to inspire change. The God who spoke to Moses and the prophets - still speaks, the God who protected his people and fought their battles - is still at work, the God who feeds the poor who are hungry and thirsty - is still doing so. This is the reality in which we scripture-formed believers 'live and move and have our being'. Each time we do what we thought we could not do, each time a faith-community lives in loving faith unity despite differences, God has been at work. When we recognise God's presence - this is a miracle. Our gift of faith takes us beyond appearances.
What are our expectations for our own church community? What hope do we have in spite of perceived falling attendance? Do we worry about whether we are being true to the gospel, speaking courageously, and acting boldly on behalf of all those who suffer, or are we worried about whether our church will be able to pay its bills? This is a pressing question and we can be tempted to concentrate on survival and maintenance which can distract us from our true mission. We want our church to survive so that it can preach the gospel, minister to the suffering and speak a prophetic word in a world that has little compassion and caught up in self interest. As gospel inspired people, we are challenged to focus not just on the "reasonable," not just on "basic needs," but on "multiplying resources," so that we might experience "a revelation of amazing grace." The words grace, and amazing, belong in any discussion of miracles and wonders. Have you ever witnessed such sharing, such wonders, such grace? Generosity itself is a miracle to me, and it expresses a God given power to completely transform lives. And I don't mean the lives of those who receive as much as the lives of those who give.
Speaking of those who give: the disciples of Jesus were overwhelmed by the need before them. They did not it seems feel a responsibility to meet the large crowds need, so Jesus raises their awareness. They try to assess the situation, measure their resources, and figure out a solution, but they are powerless in the face of so many hungry people. John draws a contrast between the power of God that was about to burst forth and the power that we think we have today: the power of knowledge. John observes that "knowledge as power," is the opposite to "love's knowledge" which can take what appears to be little and indeed multiply it. It is "loves knowledge" that enables an individual and a community to recognise the power and presence of God in a given situation. God responding to our prayers for the world's needs with the question, "What do you have?" Think of the abundance many of us enjoy, even in the midst of economically challenging times. I often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems and the needs of the world. And yet, what would happen if we trusted in the power of God to multiply in amazing ways the resources we have, and what would happen if we saw this as a communal question? Perhaps our sense of community has been lost in an over-emphasis on the individual. This miracle shows us that there is always enough for all, with plenty left over, "twelve baskets."
John's Gospel is the one that does not have an account of the Eucharistic meal in the upper room, so this story is John's equivalent of 'the last supper.'" What follows the sharing of loaves is important, because John, unlike the other Gospel writers, draws political meaning when the people start talking about Jesus as their new king. Jesus first performs a "sign," and then will discusses it with those who witness it and then uses it as a teaching moment with his followers as he interprets its meaning. That is John's approach to teaching us about the power of God, and about who this Jesus really is - not a magician but a visible expression of the living God - the same yesterday, today and forever. This story connects us with the celebration of the Eucharist. It reminds me that Jesus does not command his disciples to exclude the divorced and remarried, the pickpockets, the spies from the Temple, the merely curious, or the hangers-on, or those who don't know their catechism, or even those who are unsure about their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Jesus simply responds to human need, as he so often does, above all other considerations. How well does this mirror our celebration of Eucharist sacrament today? It seems that the church wants to protect Jesus-Eucharist from the defiled (sinners) and only let those who are worthy to be fed. The crowds came out from their homes, their towns, seeking something from Jesus. What are we as part of the "large crowd" seeking for today? C.S. Lewis, the 20th century English theologian reflects; "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see." As we come with our hunger and thirst for love to the Eucharistic table, will we sense a miracle? Will we with faith based on "love knowledge" be able to see the "sign" Jesus works?