July 30th, 2000
All Saints Benhilton
Did you realise that, apart from Holy Week, there is only one incident in the life and sayings of Jesus that is recorded in all four Gospels? It is, of course, the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
So important indeed did Saint John consider it, that he devoted his longest chapter, seventy-one verses in all, to record what Jesus did and said on that occasion; and so important do those who chose our readings also believe it to be, that they break off from reading St Mark and devote no less than the next five Sundays to that chapter alone.
You and I, therefore, will not be far wrong if we see this sign of the Loaves and Fishes, as the focal point of Jesus teaching. Saint John, you remember, uses the word "Sign" instead of "miracle", and the whole point of a sign is that it tells us the way to go next. If anyone believed when he saw a sign pointing to Benhilton he actually was in Benhilton, or worse still that the sign itself was Benhilton he would never get there at all.
So it was with the Jews who ate the bread in the wilderness which Jesus gave them. They wanted more bread. They weren't in the least bit interested in the direction the sign was pointing. Jesus tried, unsuccessfully it would seem, to turn their minds away from the "food that perishes" to the Living bread, "my flesh which I will give for the life of the world".
So what did Jesus mean when he said this?
A good place to start our enquiry he is with the words "Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God", words which, you will remember, Jesus quoted when the Evil One tempted him to turn stones into bread in the wilderness, but words which the People of God had heard many years before as their teachers reminded them how God had fed their ancestors in the desert as they struggled onwards on their journey to the Promised Land.
Now it's true of course that if someone has nothing to eat they will eventually die of starvation. It's very natural, therefore to associate bread with life, and the absence of it with death.
But wait a minute! We all know, don't we, that it doesn't follow that the more bread a person has the better his life will be? No matter whether we think of bread as standing for food, or money, or power, or influence, people's experience the world over is that in the end, these things fail to satisfy. There something else besides bread that Man needs if he is to live a happy and fulfilled existence.
That thing, or rather Person, is God, Man's Creator. The Old Testament writers talked about "Feeding on the word of God", and by "word" they chiefly understood the Law and Commandments which God had given them. Keep The Law, said the Scribes and Pharisees, and you will live or happy and fulfilled life. And many people believed what they said, and some at least found that it worked out like that in practice for them.
But only some; for its notorious that the sort of people who find keeping rules and regulations is something quite congenial are not, as a rule, the happiest and most fulfilled of people. All of us must know people whose record at Rule-keeping is exemplary. They're never late for an appointment; they're always are up-to-date with their mortgage payments, they come to Church every Sunday without fail. In a word, their manner of living is exemplary. Curiously, however, it is precisely these people who carry about with them a distinct air of dissatisfaction.
So what's wrong? Well, it has been a matter of common observation for thousands of years that people who feed on nothing but bread, though they may stay alive, nevertheless are not particularly healthy. Of course we nowadays know the reason why this is so, namely that a healthy diet must contain certain other ingredients besides bread and carbohydrates, particularly proteins, fats and vitamins, but especially proteins which abound in such foods as fish.
Loaves and fishes. There are, no doubt, many conclusions we can draw from that particular Sign, but the one which we have thought about this morning is this:
Faith is like Feeding. And unless we are being regularly fed by the Living Word of God then we shall start to become spiritually anorexic. But it's not enough to receive what the world sees as being our weekly "meal of religion" by coming to Church. In order to grow healthy and strong we need to have a balanced diet. It's true that for most people fulfilling their Sunday duty will form the biggest part of their spiritual food just as carbohydrates and fats form the bulk of our daily diets.
But we ignore the "little things" at our peril, just as a diet lacking in proteins or vitamins will, in the end, prove as deficient as simply not getting enough to eat. Because the really nutritious parts of our spiritual diet lie hidden in the words of Scripture; or come to us when we turn our minds to prayer at the beginning or end of the day; or may simply dawn upon us many weeks later when we remember something which was said in a sermon, or we read in a newspaper.
You and I have eaten many good meals in our lives. There's probably very few we can remember in any detail. Yet without those meals we should not be the people we are today. Jesus, the Living Bread has come down from heaven. Let us eat of him and be well filled in our inmost being.
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