8th Sunday after Trinity
2 Kings 4:42-end; John 6:1-21
St Barbara’s 25.7.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Last week our gospel reading was about the demands of the crowds on Jesus – everyone trying to get near him to receive healing. And our gospel reading today, from John’s Gospel, carries on that theme: “a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick”. There is excitement, anticipation in the air. A modern day equivalent may be that of Prince William and Kate on a walk-about, or the Pope visiting a catholic country. Everyone wants to get close, there is no let up, even when Jesus and his disciples end up in the wilderness, on a mountainside, miles away from any urban settlement, a crowd of thousands follow them.
And it is on this mountainside that we get one of the most famous miracles of Jesus, the feeding of the 5,000. It is the one story about Jesus, outside of the events of his final week in Jerusalem, that is recorded in all four gospels. It is an important story, and one which John takes the remainder of the chapter to unpack, a chapter that we will hear gradually read throughout the next few Sundays.
But today we are going to focus on the responses of the people around Jesus, something which John, uniquely, gives us an insight into, and as we do so, I wonder who will you identify with most.
Lets first begin with one of the disciples, Philip. I find it quite heartening that the first person to think about the issue of food for people, out in a wilderness area, with no villages, bakeries or stalls for miles, is Jesus. We sometimes may think that only spiritual things matter to God – prayer, holiness, and the like – but actually he cares about the whole of us, our bodies as well as our souls. Our physical beings matter to him.
And so he turns to Philip and asks him where they could go and buy bread for all these people so that they don’t go hungry. Philip’s jaw must have hit the ground. Feed these thousands of people? That’s going to cost 8 months of a person’s wage, or in today’s money, going by what the Office for National Statistics calculates as the average wage, £18,500! The disciples probably earned just about enough to keep them and their families above the subsistence level from week to week. That kind of money would take a lifetime to save.
So Philip’s response is one of despair. What can he possibly do? In the light of the need, there is nothing he can do that can make a difference? I can identify with that reaction. The need is too big. My resources or my skills or my voice is too small. Therefore, I will spend my time calculating how big the problem is and despair. Whether when watching the news, or responding to a local situation, or seeing a loved one suffering, sometimes we may be tempted to simply give up. What can we do?
Another of the disciples, Andrew, reacts slightly differently. He wants to do something. Even though he feels the situation is hopeless frankly, he goes out and tries. Maybe he goes round the crowd asking for food donations, but his heart is not really in it. He can tell that this huge crowd, in their excitement to catch up and follow Jesus, have left all provisions behind. All he can find is one young boy with a small packed lunch. “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish,” he says, “but how far will they go among so many?”
Unlike Philip, Andrew has tried, but he has ended up in the same place of despair. We may be able to identify with him too. “We thought it was a bit of a helpless case, but we did try, but it was just never going to work.”
Philip and Andrew are two of the twelve disciples, two people who have spent more time with Jesus than almost anyone else, people who have seen his miracles up first hand. And yet faith comes hard. Despair seems to be a more natural position when faced with the needs of the world.
It takes a young child to show a response that leads to transformation. We know that this boy is poor. The loaves that he has are made of barley, hard, coarse bread, but a third of the price of wheat loaves, and so only eaten by the poor. The fish he has are small dried or pickled fish, not fresh, more expensive ones. He really doesn’t have much. And this may not just have been his lunch. It may well have been his only meal for the day. Those of you who have travelled in poorer countries around the world will have seen thousands of such children, thin, wiry, their presence almost unnoticed by the busyness of life around, scratching out an existence, maybe picking up and recycling street rubbish, or looking for tiny tips by cleaning car windscreens or shining shoes. So often missed or ignored.
But not missed or ignored in the presence of Jesus. This child has the the generosity of heart to offer what he has to Jesus. Did he know what Jesus would do? Probably not. Could he even have imagined it? Unlikely. But he offers what he has not knowing what will result.
There is love and generosity and faith in abundance here, and it is expressed not by the religious leaders, or the disciples, or even by the adults in the crowd. It is expressed by this nameless boy.
His response challenges us all. Firstly, that those qualities of love and generosity are to be found in the places where we may least expect them. Possibly only Jesus was unsurprised – after all, he spoke of and regularly affirmed the value of children and others on the margins of society. Are we ever in danger of writing off people or communities when in fact they may be the catalysts of greatest hope and love in our world? Do we need to look at out world through different eyes?
And secondly, it shows that even when we are faced with seemingly intractable problems or overwhelming needs, Jesus can take the small amount that we have to offer and use it to bring hope and transformation. We are encouraged not to despair but to act.
It was great having Pam with us last week and her sharing with us what the church in Willenhall are doing. I was also really encouraged hearing how some of you have already responded to what you heard, offering practical assistance and your specialist skills. And I know others of you have been praying for Pam and the church this week. It would be easy to despair, to give up hope, and indeed the challenges in our city, and in our world, are immense.
But this story gives us hope. God can take our offering, if given in love and generosity, and use it to bring about transformation in ways we couldn’t begin to imagine. What can you offer today – a gift, a skill, a time of prayer – that God can take to help bring about transformation in someone’s life today?