Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost Proper 13 August 05, 2018 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Food can be so much more than food. Just as words are more than sounds, and can be more than expressions of oneself, but rather revelations of profound truths, food can be more than sustenance. While there’s nothing at all wrong with takeaway curry or a cheeky Nando’s — sorry, I’ve just been in the UK; in American, that’s Chinese takeout or some quick KFC — while there’s nothing wrong with using food simply to fill us up and keep us going a bit longer, some of the most memorable and transformational moments of our lives are also centered on food.
Most of the commentaries I’ve seen about this part of John’s Gospel, “the bread of life discourse,” say that it’s an exploration or explication of the Eucharist. I’m not so sure. It could be bigger than that. Now, those of you who know of my high Eucharistic theology — I believe that God transforms or replaces the bread and wine into Christ’s actual body and blood, and therefore the Sacrament should be treated with the greatest reverence we can offer — you might reasonably wonder, “What could be bigger than that?” Well, I think St. John is speaking more generally, about how we can be connected, or re-connected, to God through food.
St. John explicitly connects the feeding of the 5,000 to the years in the desert, where God fed the people of Israel directly, for many years, with the mysterious manna. This is yet another way of describing Jesus’s divinity, but this image also necessarily includes the people being fed, and compares the spontaneous crowd that swarmed to Jesus to the Israelites who had been led out of Egypt by God, through Moses, and formed into a nation in the desert, where they experienced a unique intimacy with God, and learned to trust God, who fed them daily by hand, despite their grumbling.
Jesus tries to get the crowd, or at least, the faithful remnant who have continued to follow him, to understand that the food he gave them was about more than food, more than momentary physical sustenance. The food he gave them was a way of connecting them more closely to God. Rather, the food was a sign that indicated who Jesus is, not just a new Moses, but a new way for God to be closer to humanity, a new way for God to nurture and mold people into a holy nation, only this time, not a nation based on kinship and shared lineage, but shared experiences, shared choices, shared love, faith, and joy.
So, there are many ways in which God uses food to become closer to us, and this intimacy never leaves us unchanged. God becomes more fully present and connects to us through gathering not just for feeding miracles, but also in every celebration of the Eucharist. Even coffee hour is an example of this divine strategy. Coffee hour may not seem miraculous. We know perfectly well that people in the congregation bring and prepare that food, but considering the ever-increasing complexity and distractions of modern life, the fact that people still make Christian community their first priority every week is miraculous, and cause for celebration.
I started thinking of this as I was reflecting on Gwen and John’s wedding. Many of the guests marveled at what a beautiful event it was, in every way. Even those who were less religious felt connected to the divine in the sensory beauty of sacred choral music in the ornate jewel box that is King’s College Chapel, and we also felt connected to Gwen and John’s love at the wonderful reception dinner in the Cloister under the Trinity College’s Wren Library on the banks of the River Cam. There’s a long but straight line from that occasion back to Gwen’s first Sundays here at St. John’s.
Just by being the loving, Christ-centered community we are, by welcoming her to our sacramental, musical, and literal feasts, we gave her and her boys exactly what they needed during a very difficult time in her life, when they had suddenly lost much that had seemed reliable, and essential. No one could have predicted exactly what direction Gwen’s story would take, let alone that it would feature such a splendid resolution. Anything could have happened. But what did happen, happened in large part because so many people decided that coming to church was worthwhile.
Every miraculous feeding can only be a miraculous feeding when people choose to be fed. Your decision to come to church every Sunday helps make miracles, some of which are realized out of sight, sometimes years after the fact. So on behalf of our newly married friend, as well as on behalf of the Church, thank you for making our own feeding miracle, right here, lovingly, faithfully and joyfully.