St Stephen Lewisham
28th July 1991
Year B, 17th in Ordinary
Feeding the Five Thousand
2 Kings 4: 12–44
Ephesians 4: 1–6
John 6: 1–15
In last week's Readings we heard about the good and the bad shepherds: the ones who looked after the sheep God has given them, and the ones who failed to do so.
And in the sermon we heard about the enmity which has always existed between the two communities, the Shepherds and the Farmers, the Wanderers and the Settlers, the Nomads and the Agrarians, Abel and Cain; and how that, in some deep and wonderful way this enmity between the warring people came to an end in the crucifixion, death and resurrection of the Good Shepherd our Lord Jesus Christ for, in the words of St Paul to the Ephesians "he is our peace, who has made the two into one and broken down the middle wall of partition between us to create out of the two communities one single new man in himself, and by restoring peace through the Cross to unite them in a single body and reconcile them with God".
And by that body of course we understand him to mean both that body which died on the cross and thereby actually made that Reconciliation possible; and the risen body, the Church of God, which is the means whereby the process of reconciliation is to be carried on until the end of time.
Well, the readings today take all this a stage further. Jesus seldom taught people anything without giving them a practical example of what he meant, to follow up and drive home the point he was making. In this case St John tells us about the feeding of the Five Thousand.
It is worth noting to begin with that this miracle is the only one before the events of Holy Week which all four of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John join together in writing up. This suggests to me that they all saw it as being particularly important, and Saint John, as he so often does, goes on to record a long discussion which took place between Jesus and the Jews after he had fed them. The fact that they totally failed to understand the point he had been trying to make seems to underline the importance for you and me to "get it right".
Thinking about what happened the first thing that caught my notice was the number of 5,000 people. That's almost exactly half the number of people living in our parish; and for whom God holds you and me and Father Geoffrey jointly responsible. There are, believe it or not, 10,000 people living in this part of Lewisham of whom Jesus will say to us on the Day of Judgement, "Well, Francis (or Geoffrey or Mary or John or Pat) and what happened to those 10,000 people I quote in't your care during the 1980s and 1990s in Lewisham? What did you do for them?"
Well, of course, if the answer is "I don't know" or "I did nothing for them" then the outlook for us is going to look pretty dicey, isn't it?
So may I suggest that as a matter of urgency, and beginning right away this morning, ("Today, while it is still called today") we take stock of what Jesus expects us to do.
First of all let's get the number into proportion, and let's take the smaller number of 5000 to begin with. 5000 people is not an unimaginably large number. It's the size of two large secondary schools, the sort of number of people who can be fitted into Earl's Court or Wembley Arena quite comfortably, and only a fraction of those who go to things like a big football match or the Cup Final. So although it sounds a lot of people to be responsible for, in fact it is not as many as all that. People are coming together in groups of 5,000 or more day after day for one reason or another.
Secondly, think of it in terms of time. If one of us were to spend one minute with each of them it would take him or her only about two working weeks of 40 hours to get around them all single-handed. That is always supposing that, like the 5,000 they had come together in the same place.
Now in case you ask "and what on earth could one do to someone in a single minute?" let me remind you that the specific job given to Philip and Andrew and the Apostles was to feed them with the bread which Jesus gave. And then remember that it's going to take considerably less than a minute for each of us to receive the Bread of Life later on this morning. Thank goodness it is less than a minute a head and that there will be two lots of us doing the distributing or else the giving of Communion alone would take more than an hour most Sundays.
Once we begin to see such things in true perspective they begin to take on a different look, don't they? That figure of two working weeks only applied to what one person could do for 5000 people. But there are many more than one of us here today, and hopefully most of us have got more than two weeks of our life left to live.
So to our Lord's question to you and me on the Day of Judgement "Well Francis (or Geoffrey or Mary or John or Pat), and what did you actually do for those 10,000 people in Saint Stephen's parish whom I put you in charge of?", it's really not going to sound very convincing if we say "Well, Lord, I didn't actually do anything because they seemed too many to be worth starting on", when a simple calculation like the one I'd just done suggests that each of us could have done at least something in a fortnight however small, for these people acting on our own and with 70 or 80 of us regularly worshipping here we could have done it many times over or many times more quickly.
Philip's first reaction to Jesus's question "and what are we to do?" was very much like yours or mine "it's hopeless," he said to himself "so why bother?".
Andrew's reaction was rather different. He spotted a small boy with his picnic and brought him to Jesus. "It's not much," he said "but it's a beginning. What d'you think we can do with that lot?".
Now watch very closely what happened. Jesus said "make the people sit down". In other words he led every one to suppose (quite correctly) that something was going to happen, but that it might take a little while. They'd got to be patient if they were going to get what they wanted.
Then Jesus took the child's offering and gave thanks for it - in other words he said some sort of grace over it. The offering wasn't much, not nearly enough at first sight, and it was the simplest most basic food - bread and dried fish, that anyone could have said grace over.
But it was a beginning. And at the hands of Jesus the whole thing began to grow. We don't know exactly how. Perhaps Jesus didn't allow even his apostles to see what he was actually doing as he broke the bread. But the fact is everyone got fed and there was a lot over as well. Perhaps then Jesus wanted his apostles to be litter-conscious as the people they had served were evidently not; but whatever the reason, the Apostles had to spend quite some back-breaking time cleaning up the mess after the miracle had taken place.
Well what does this teach us?
First, I think, that we ought to expect extraordinary things to happen when we begin to do what Jesus tells us, though not necessarily from the moment we begin. And of course if we don't begin at all then nothing whatever will happen.
Secondly we're not to be ashamed of the small resources at our disposal at the start. One young boy with five barley loaves (the cheapest sort) and two small fishes (the leftovers from the weekend) can, if rightly used provide all that is needed for Jesus to work with.
Thirdly do remember that there is more than one of us working together. Time and again God chooses a small nucleus of people who love him in a particular time and place to be his instruments in ministering to several thousands of others. It doesn't matter in that sense if you and I aren't the ideal material for this sort of job. Nor were the Apostles, nor were the loaves and fishes. Anyone can see that the idea was a non-starter - any one but Jesus Christ, that is.
Everyone that is, except Jesus himself, and, in his own childlike way, Andrew. It should have become obvious from what he said by now that if you and I are going to wait until we are ideally suited and trained to be God's servants, then everything else is going to be kept waiting to the turn of the century at least, by which time some of us will be dead anyway! No. We've got to begin. Begin now. Begin here. We've got to learn to expect things to happen; we got to learn to cope with at least some measure of disappointment; we've got to train ourselves, like Andrew, to spot things which otherwise would be too humble and insignificant for most people even to notice.
And as for cleaning up the mess afterwards, I think it reasonable to say that we can safely leave that question until there's a mess to clear up. Which of course there won't be unless we start answering Jesus's question "Well Francis (or Geoffrey, or Mary or John or Pat); and what are you going to do about all the people in Lewisham I have put into your care?"
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