We are in the season of Epiphany – epiphany meaning, God’s revelation of God’s self to the world.
John 2:1-11tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle according to John: turning water into wine in Cana. I unpack this under three headings:
Gifting. In this story, Jesus seems, perhaps, uncertain about his gifts. But his mother, Mary, is much more certain. She prompts Jesus to do something about the wedding banquet running out of wine. And even though Jesus is reluctant to get involved, she tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you”. She has confidence in Jesus, she recognised his gifting, and she prompts him to exercise his gifts.
Common good. You’d think Jesus’ first miracle would be spectacular. A extraordinary miracle would help establish his brand as the Messiah. But instead, his first miracle, while exceptional (he made around 600l of choice wine), was rather everyday and ordinary – common. He addressed the rather domestic needs of a couple who had just got married. I really love Jesus for this miracle for the common good – it reminds us that he is interested in and willing to intervene in our daily lives.
God’s revelation. John concludes this passage in v11 by saying, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” God’s glory is revealed through this miracle – the epiphany! And as a result of that, his disciples believed in him.
As Jesus exercised his gifting, for the common good, God was revealed and people believed.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11tells us about the gifts of the Spirit, and is part of a larger chapter about the church – the body of Christ – being made up of many parts, each of which is vitally important to the whole. I unpack this under the same three headings:
Gifting. Paul tells us that Holy Spirit gives a gift or gifts to every believer. Every Christian receives one or more gifts, Gifts of the Spirit, according to the good judgement of Holy Spirit. Whether we recognise our gifts or not, whether we recognise them as gifts of the Spirit or just natural talents, we have gifts from Holy Spirit. People often don’t recognise their gifts – often others recognise them first, like Mary did with Jesus. In those cases, we may need to prompt someone else to recognise their gift.
Common good. Paul tells us that the gifts are given not for personal use and benefit, but for building up the common good. Here ‘common’ refers not to the ordinary, but to the ‘collective’. The gifts are for the benefit of the community of believers, and indeed for the world. They are not intended to benefit us, but rather to help us benefit others. The only way we can contribute to the common or collective good is to exercise the gifts we have.
God’s revelation. As we exercise the Gifts of the Spirit, God is revealed and people can come to believe in God. Our exercising of our gifts reveals the character and values of God, and shows people who God is and what interests and concerns God, and that reveals God and can draw people to God. We, as the collective – the church – need to reveal God, and we do this best when we exercise the gifts God the Spirit has given us.
And so, when we recognise, accept and exercise our gifts, we contribute to the good of the collective, and God is revealed to the world and people may come to believe.
If you want to skip the sermon and just watch the unscripted enacted “parable of giving back to God” with 13-year-old Zachary, watch the video below. Zachary blew us all away with his 50/50 deal!
This is the fourth in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. In week two, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Last week, we considered the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church. And today, we consider what it means to be a generous church, or a generously giving church.
Can we accept the following core principle? Everything that exists was made by God, comes from God and belongs to God. Everything: the cosmos, the earth, the plants and animals, water and air, life itself, and we ourselves. You and me. Even the things we have made as humans originate with God – we made them from materials that come from God’s creation, using the intellect and the capacity for learning that God gave us, made by people, whom God created. Everything comes from God and belongs to God.
Including our money.
We may feel that we’ve earned our money, worked hard for it, deserve it and that it belongs to us. These are not untrue. But again, our capacity work, to learn to do our work and do it well, and the things we work with, and the self that is you who is doing the work – all of these were created by God, come from God and belong to God. Therefore, our money also is God’s. All of it.
It is a common misperception among Christians that our money belong to us, since we worked for it, earned it. This is neither true nor correct. We have to challenge this misperception many of us hold. This is vital to our being able to properly think about the money that we earn.
If we think of all the money we have as coming from God, then the small percentage of this money that we give to the work of God in and through the church, is really a blessing, because the large percentage of the money that we get to keep for our own use is a gift from God. A grace.
God invites us each to give proportionate to what we have. Traditionally, this would be ten percent of what you earn (gross or net – you decide). You could choose to give more than 10% or less than 10%, as you feel led. But having 10% in mind is a good point of departure to reflect critically on your attitude to and practice of giving.
The bottom line is that we – and you – have to give to God’s work.
It really is not optional. Everything you have is from God, and God expects you to give at least some small portion of that back to him. But God really doesn’t want you to do it grudgingly or sulkily, like a chore or unpleasant task. No! God loves a cheerful giver. God loves us to give out of gratitude for all we have already received from God, out of thankfulness, out of joy and out of the privilege to participate in God’s work in the world.
At our church, St Stephen’s Lyttelton, we’ll be doing our dedicated giving pledge next Sunday (3 October). During the coming week, give serious thought to how much of the money God has entrusted to you you will give back into God’s kingdom.
This is the third in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Last week, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Today, we consider the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church.
Last week I emphasised that the people are the church, not the clergy, and that even without clergy, a church is still a church; while a minister without a congregation is really not a church. I wish to reiterate one of the things I said last week: there is no mediator between God and people: You have direct access to God. Priests, ministers, clergy to not mediate between you and God. As Paul write, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Clergy, therefore, are just one part of the body of Christ, performing their roles as equals with everyone else. Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians, regarding a congregation that had split over those who preferred Paul and those who preferred Apollos. Paul makes it clear that neither of them are really very important: “7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything (referring to himself – Paul, and Apollos), but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. … 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9 & 16).
But, lest we think we can get rid of all our clergy, the Second Testament is full of references to clergy, under various names, such as apostles, oversees, deacons and elders. These are all people who are called, set apart and placed in positions of leadership, for example: Paul writes, “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). An overseer, which is what Timothy was, is a kind of clergy person. Elsewhere Paul writes, “This, then, is how you ought to regard us [apostles]: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Here again, Paul refers to clergy (apostles). But notice it is as servants of Christ, not leaders. Yes, also as those entrusted with the mysteries of God. Clearly, clergy are part of the Christian Church.
The expectations of these clergy is high. Dauntingly high! See some of the expectations that Paul and Peter have of those in Christian leadership:
1 Corinthians 4:2 “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
1 Timothy 3:2-13 An overseer is to be above reproach, faithful, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, sober, gentle, peace-loving, not money-loving, a stable family, a mature Christian, good reputation among non-Christians, hold to the truths of the faith, a clear conscience, etc.
1 Peter 5:1-3 Elders (could be clergy and/or lay leaders) are to be shepherds of God’s flock, watching over them, doing so willingly (not because they are obliged to), not pursuing dishonest gain (integrity in the workplace), eager to serve (no mention of leading), not dominating the people, being a worthy example for others.
(Peter’s focus on shepherding, which Jesus picks up when he describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’, causes me to like the term ‘pastor’ and the ‘pastoral’ role. I try to think of my role in the church as shepherding.)
These expectations honestly daunt me. In truth, these are expectations of all Christians. But there is far less wriggle-room for clergy. We are expected to deeply embody these values and to set an example of Christ to those we minister to.
To be sure, the Bible contains numerous examples of bad leadership from clergy, and we see and hear God’s judgment against them. I regularly read Ezekiel 34, to remind myself that God is not playing around when it comes to God’s expectations of church leaders. Here is just an extract from this chapter:
God says, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves [on their flock]. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-10)
Let us admit that most of us have had experience of church leaders who failed us in their pastoral responsibilities; who have not lived up to these expectations. And let us admit also how their actions may have harmed the church and us as individuals. This is the sad reality of the church – pastors do fail us.
To be sure, God will judge the shepherds, elders, overseers, apostles, deacons and priests when they (when we, when I) fail to live up to God’s expectations. We go into the ministry knowing this, with fear and trembling.
But we ourselves should recognise the humanity of clergy, avoid judging and strive to forgive when we’re let down. We can’t hold on to resentment. We need to learn to forgive, to let go, to move on. Else we get stuck in a vicious cycle of anger and hurt, that keeps us trapped and unable to experience God’s love and healing.
As I take up today the role of Rector of St Stephens, Lyttelton, I wish to articulate my commitment to you as your pastor. I will certainly fail at times and let you down, but this is what I will strive for during my time among you. And I invite you to (kindly) pull me aside and point out those times where I fail. I will do my best to hear, learn, repent and do better:
I will strive always to be kind, compassionate, inclusive and loving.
I will listen, be open-minded, hold to a people-driven church, be responsive and flexible to your needs.
I will endeavour to be fair, impartial and consistent, and also honest and direct.
I will ask God to help me be consistently Christ-centred, Word-based and Spirit-led.
I will use the gifts God the Spirit has given me – leadership, teaching and pastoring – to guide, equip and support you. We are a clergy-supported church.
And I will try hard not to get in God’s way. God forbid that I become a stumbling block to the work God wants to do among us!
And so I invite you all us to work together in partnership to build God’s kingdom in and through St Stephens.
This is the second in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. Last week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Today, we reflect on being a people-driven church.
What is a church?
Imagine a congregation that is without a minister. Will they still be ‘a church’? Yes, for sure! A community of the faithful, even if they are just a few, is a ‘church’.
Now imagine a minister without a congregation. Perhaps even a minister with a church building. Will she or he still be ‘a church’? No, they won’t. A single person, even a minister, does not constitute a church. They will be simply a Christian person in fellowship with God.
Fundamentally, ‘the church’ is defined by its people. It is the people who constitute a ‘church’, not the minister or priest. All too often, however, ministers think that they are the church. And all too often, parishioners thing the minister is the church. We here this particularly when parishioners use phrases like, “We’re here to support our priest” or “Our pastor will decide what we should do”.
Priesthood of all believers
1 Peter 2:4-10 provides us with solid teaching on what it means to be church, particular versus 4-5 and 9-10. Here Peter describes the church with the following images:
you are like living stones
you are being built into a spiritual house (or a temple of the Spirit)
you are a holy priesthood
you offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ
you are a chosen people
you are a royal priesthood
you are a holy nation
you are God’s special possession
you are to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light
you are the people of God (though previously you were not a people of God)
you have received mercy (though once you had not received mercy)
Martin Luther summarised this as “the priesthood of all believers”, drawing on the phrases ‘holy priesthood’ and ‘royal priesthood’ above. In the first Testament, priests were appointed to mediate between the Jewish people and God. They offered prayers and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. Only priests could engage God, not the people.
But with the coming of Jesus, who became our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16), we have direct access to God through Christ. Jesus opened a direct pathway for all Christians to God. The writer of Hebrews says therefore, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence.” Jesus is the only one mediate between Christians and God – no priest can or should try to do this.
Moreover, we, collectively – all the people of God – the whole church – are called to mediate God to the rest of humanity, but witnessing to Jesus Christ. This is mission, and it is the mission of every believer.
One body of Christ
And so, we the church are called to be one people, one body, the body of Christ. Diverse for sure. But united in our shared relationship with God. There is thus no male nor female, no black nor white, no rich nor poor, no South African nor foreigner, no educated nor uneducated, no young nor old, no priest nor parishioner. We are all part of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) – every single one of us – and every part is vitally important – and every part must do its part.
Therefore, I say, a church is all about its people and must be driven by its people. We must be a people-driven church. It is all about YOU, not about the minister (we’ll talk about the role of the minister next week). Church is not like watching a movie, where you recline in a comfy chair with popcorn and cooldrink, while watching other professionals act things out on a screen. No! You are the actors and you must play your part in life and work of the church. It is all about you! You are the church. You drive the church.
We focus on stewardship for one month of each year – the month of September. It is the time when we reflect on everything that God has given us – which is everything, every single thing – and how we use this in God’s service. Stewardship has its roots in the creation story in Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
After God had created humanity – male and female – in God’s image in Genesis 1, God immediately said to them, “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen 1:28). And in the narrative in Genesis 2, God placed the man God had created in “the Garden of Eden, to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15).
In both narratives, the first thing God does after creating humanity is to entrust God’s creation to humankind, to rule over it in God’s stead (which is what a steward does) and to tend and care for it (which implies care and love). For us today, stewardship involves taking care of everything God has entrusted to us – our bodies, our relationships, our family, our finances, our possessions, our gifts (or talents or abilities), our time, our earth, our future – and using these to build God’s Kingdom.
Stewardship is not only an individual thing, but also a collective thing. We are called, as the Body of Christ, as a collective, to steward our church and to each participate in building the life of the local church as a place in which people can grow, receive support and healing, learn about God, contribute to those who are in need and fellowship together. Stewardship is thus as much about your church as it is about you.
The book of Nehemiah
The book of Nehemiah, which is largely written as a first-hand account by Nehemiah himself, provides us with a good foundation to stewardship.
Jerusalem had fallen and the people of Israel had been taken off into exile in the East, to Persia. The walls of the city had been destroyed, leaving the city vulnerable to anyone who wanted to take stuff. Nehemiah, whose name appropriately means “God comforts”, arranges with King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. He does three main things:
First, Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem. He ropes in everyone – the priests (or clergy) and all the people, working as families and neighbourhood (suburbs), to build up the walls. The walls serve to protect the city from foreign invaders, to create a safe sanctuary for those who dwell therein. People put their heart into the work, even putting their lives at risk, holding a spear or sword in one hand and a shovel in the other. Nehemiah writes in 4:6, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half it height, for the people worked with all their heart.” It reminds me of how the people of St Stephens, Lyttelton literally built the building themselves, as we recentlysaw in a video on St Stephens’ Day.
This kind of working to build the church is what stewardship involves for us, particularly if we are members of a church that has been broken down in some way. Churches are not perfect, and things can break. When they do, all the members of the church – clergy and laity – need to stand shoulder to shoulder, with a sword or a shovel, and work together to build up the church. After all, we are the church.
Second, Nehemiah takes care of the poor. In chapter 5, Nehemiah learns that some people (wealthy, elitist people) are taking advantage of the crisis by requiring poor community members buy back the land they used to own or charging them interest. Nehemiah writes, “When I hear their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials” (5:6-7). He called them together and instructed them to cancel the interest on loans and to return people’s property to them. They said, “We will give it back and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say”. Here we see those with more giving to those with less. We see people cultivating concern for those in need. We see a faith community forming, based on sharing and care.
This kind of working to build a church that takes care of its own is what stewardship involves for us. This is particularly so, if we have an economically diverse church, or if some are struggling with life’s challenges more than others. Caring for each other within the church is something Jesus emphasises over and over again – it is this love for one another that reveals to the world that we are Jesus’ disciples. It is at the heart of stewardship.
Third, Nehemiah gets the prophet Ezra to read the Law to the people (chapters 8-9). The people gather every day and the listened to the Law being read. In response to hearing the word, they repented of their sin. Their song, in chapter 9, verses 5-37, repeatedly starts with “You” – You alone are the Lord, You give life, You are the Lord God, You made a covenant, You have kept your promise, You saw the suffering, You send signs, You divided the sea, You led them, You came down, You made known, and on and on and on. They turn as a group, as a body of believers, towards God. They focus on God.
And at the end of that chapter, they made a collective commitment: “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing…” (9:38). Among other things, they commit to stewardship: “We will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and olive oil. … We will not neglect the house of our God” (10:37+39c).
This kind of engagement with the Word of God, and the response of penitence and commitment to dedicated giving, is what stewardship involves for us. We are asked to commit seriously to God, to make a solemn pledge to give of our time, our abilities and our finances to to the building up of God’s church and the work of God through the church.
What does this mean for us?
Even in the midst of Covid, with all the restrictions on our meeting, stewardship calls us to build our church. That means to come back to church, whether in-house or on-line. Too many have drifted away from church and from fellowshipping with others, even though church is available online. We must come back and practice again being church – whether inhouse or online. We must relate to each other, which we can do between services, by phone, WhatsApp and Facebook. And we must participate in praying for each other.
We must take care of those who are poor and vulnerable. A key way to do this is to give some of our financial resources to the church. A good church will use these resources to build out God’s work through the church, not to line the pockets of clergy. A good church will account for every cent that comes into the church, and demonstrate how the finances it receives are used to build the Kingdom of God.
We must immerse ourselves in the Word of God, through reading scripture, through listening to sermons and teachings, through prayer, through joining a mid-week group. In so doing, we root ourselves in Jesus, and begin to be transformed into his likeness.
I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to reflect carefully on stewardship over this coming month, and on our place within the church of Christ.
We continue with our series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:24-35. Last week (Part 1) we read about Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 men (plus children and women) with just five small barley loaves and 2 little fish. We recognised that there were two levels to the story – on the ground floor, this is a story about Jesus caring about people being hungry and doing something about it; on the first floor up, this story is an invitation to have faith in Jesus, that he is more than capable of taking care of our needs. This week (in Part 2 of our series), we add on a third floor, which is to faith in Jesus, who is the Bread from Heaven, the Bread of Life.
Today’s passage involves four interactions between the crowd (who had followed Jesus after his feeding them) and Jesus: they as a question and Jesus answers. With each Q&A, Jesus seeks to redirect the people from focusing on the things of this world, on things of the past and on ourselves, and to rather focus on him.
Redirection from worldly work and food to heavenly work and food
The crowds ask Jesus, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus is quite critical of them, saying they are just chasing miracles and food for their tummies. The then urges them, “Do not work for food that spoils, but rather work for food that endures to eternal life.” Note Jesus’ emphasis both on work and food, contrasting work and food that are temporal and can go off and have to be discarded, versus work and food that are enduring, even to eternity.
This reminds me of Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, just two chapters earlier, where he said, “Everyone who drinks this water [from the well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
Jesus is redirecting us from the things of this world – from food and water and even miracles – towards the things that are of eternal significance – towards faith, towards heaven and (we shall soon see) towards himself.
Redirection from our actions to Christ’s
The crowd seem to be getting with the programme, so they ask, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” This is a laudable question – they want to do the works of God, they want to meet God’s requirements, so they want to know what they should do. It is hard to fault them for wanting to do the work of God! But Jesus gives two redirections.
First, he shifts the focus from that they must do to what God does. The tells them what they must do by referring to the “work of God“, not ‘your work’. This is a huge hint towards the centrality of salvation through faith in Christ. Jesus says that the work we must do is in fact the work of God. This reminds me of Phil 2:12-13, where Paul writes, “[you] work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” He gives what sounds like a contradiction! You work out your salvation because it is God who is working in you…” We cannot do anything, except what God does in us. We are dependent on God for everything that we do.
Second, he shifts from “the works God requires” to the “work of God” – from plural to singular. The crowds were thinking in terms of the many things they needed to do as signs of faith, but Jesus says, ‘No! There is just one work of God. Just one thing is required. And that is to believe in the one God has sent’. That’s it: to believe, or have faith. Faith alone is what God requires. And this faith is almost a falling into Christ, like a relaxing into him, reclining into him, resting in him. It is hardly ‘work’ at all!
Jesus is redirecting us from a focus on the many things we think we need to do to satisfy God’s expectations, towards a simple (yet also hard) just trusting in God to enable our faith in Christ.
Redirection from a small vision to God’s grand agenda
The crowds now get cocky and impertinent, asking Jesus what sign he will given them to prove that they should deign to listen to him. They seem to have entirely forgotten that he just fed thousands of people from a small lunch box! They refer back to Moses, when they were wandering in the desert, centuries before, who gave them bread from heaven (manna).
But in Jesus’ response, he contradicts everything they have said (and in the process, declines to give them a ‘sign’):
It is not about Moses, but about my Father.
It is not what was given to them (in the distant past), but what the Father gives them right now.
It is not about bread from heaven (manna, which lasted only one day), but The True Bread from heaven.
It is not just for you, but for the whole world.
Jesus directs them from a rather small and long-gone longing for manna from Moses towards a far greater, more enduring and more inclusive bread that is True and from Heaven.
Redirection from bread to Christ
Finally, it seems they get it! Instead of referring to Jesus as “Rabbi” as in the start of this passage, they now refer to him as “Lord” (or “Sir”). And they now ask, “always give us this bread”. They recognise that everything they had been setting their eyes and hearts on was quite worthless. But this True Bread that Jesus was talking about now – that was bread worth having! This is like the Samaritan woman, who says “Lord, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
And Jesus replies,
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Jesus has completely redirected them away from bread to himself. Jesus IS the bread of life. He does not give them the bread of life; he is the very bread itself! If we want bread, we want Christ.
Our reading this morning is from John 6:1-21. We will be spending five weeks on this chapter. I think that this is the most consecutive Sundays we spend on any chapter in the Bible. (I stand to be corrected.) This is because we receive here some of Jesus’ most profound and important teaching – about the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven. It starts with a story about ‘real bread’ and becomes a story about ‘Real Bread’ (Bruner’s commentary on John).
In the first 15 verses of John 6, we are introduced to bread. It sets the scene for the rest of the chapter. We can read this story at two levels: on the ground floor, it is a story about Jesus feeding 5000 men from five small barley loaves and two small fish – a story of compassion and care; on the first floor, it is a story about an invitation to faith – faith in Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.
The ground floor – a story about caring
Jesus is on the mountain side and he sees a large crowd heading his way. John writes “Jesus looked up and saw”. Jesus is always looking up and seeing. We get this again and again in the Gospel narratives. He has his eyes open and sees the needs of those around him. If you listen to my messages over the past month, you’ll hear it over and over. He sees. And he has compassion.
So he asks his disciples how they can arrange bread to feed the people. It is a huge ask, of course, with 5,000 men, plus children (we know there are children there, because soon we meet a ‘boy’ in v9) and women (if there are children, there are surely women). So, there were perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 people! Andrew brings a boy who has a little bit of food – not much more than a snack. Jesus gives thanks for the food and distributes it to the people. (One wonders what the boy thought about having his lunch annexed by the Andrew and Jesus!) Everyone eats their fill, so much so, that there are 12 large baskets (big baskets that could hold a man) of leftovers of the barley bread.
Many of us believe that Jesus performed a miracle, in which he multiplied that little bread into much bread. Others believe that when people saw Jesus’ (and perhaps also the boy’s) generosity and compassion, they were moved to share what they had with those who had less. And so, what we see is a social miracle about people moved to caring and sharing. Either way, this is a story about Jesus caring for others – caring for our everyday needs. As we often pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Bread is life in come communities. In others, it is maize meal porridge. In others, it is rice. Every society has a staple food that provides the foundation of life. Jesus cares about this and wants people to have food in their stomachs. And to have it abundantly.
The first floor – a story about faith
The feeding of the 5000 is an important miracle story in the Bible. It is the ONLY miracle, taking place between Jesus’ baptism and his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that appears in ALL FOUR Gospels. There is no other miracle that appears across all four Gospels, except this one. And in John’s gospel, it introduces a lengthy chapter about the spiritual meaning of Real Bread. Still, even on the first floor, the real bread is just bread. But the interactions between Jesus and the others are an invitation to faith.
John tells us that the event takes place just before the Passover festival (v4). The Passover symbolised, as it still does, liberation and redemption from slavery in Egypt, God standing up for the people of God, God caring for God’s chosen ones. It is central to Jewish faith, like the cross is central to Christian faith. This cues us that this is a story about faith.
Seeing the large crowds, Jesus invited Philip to faith: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” For sure, this is a big ask – it is a big crowd. But Philip was there in John 2, when Jesus changed water into wine – a lot of wine, a lot of really good wine! Jesus invites Philip to have faith. A faith response might have been, “Lord, I can’t imagine where we could get or afford so much bread. But I know you can make a plan! If anyone can feed this many people, it is you!” That would be a faith response, particularly after witnessing the water into wine miracle. Instead, all Philip can see is the large crowd. He loses sight of Jesus. His faith fails him.
Andrew shows a little faith, however. He finds a boy with some food. He emphasises the smallness of what the boy has: “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (v8). And then his tiny bubble of faith pops: “But how far will they go among so many people?”
Yet, that is all Jesus needed: a tiny morsel of faith. He takes those small loaves and small fish and gives thanks for (literally ‘eucharists’) them and feeds 5000+ people. Jesus is not constrained by the size of our faith. Andrew’s faith is feeble, small and easily fizzles. But what is important is not so much our faith, as the one in whom we place our faith: Jesus is more than capable of calming our storms, feeding us, healing us, helping us. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He is God incarnate. He can do anything.
It is only in the collecting of the leftovers that the disciples and the people recognise a miracle has taken place. I think Jesus instructs the disciples to collect the leftovers so they can see and touch the miracle, much as Jesus does with Thomas in John 20 – “Put your finger here; see my hand”. As Thomas was invited by Jesus to see, touch and respond in faith, so were Philip and the other disciples invited to see, touch and respond in faith. And so are we. Particularly during times of turmoil, illness, loss, distress and hunger.
Immediately after the story of the feeding of the 5000, we have John’s version of the story of Jesus walking on the water (see my sermon on this same story from Mark’s Gospel, a month ago). The disciples are alone in a boat on a lake in a storm and struggling to make headway. Jesus sees their plight and walks across the water to them. They are terrified to see him, but he says, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid“, and he climbs into the storm-rocked boat with them – he chooses to be in the boat in the storm with them – and immediately, they find they have reached the other side of the lake, where they were headed.
Jesus remains more than capable of riding out and calming the storms in our lives.
Our Eucharist readings for today align around the theme of generous giving. Read the texts:
Extracts from Psalm 112
1 Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who find great delight in his commands.
3 Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever.
4 Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
5 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.
9 They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor, their righteousness endures forever; their horn will be lifted high in honor.
Extracts from Matthew 6
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2-4 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Extracts from 2 Corinthians 9
6-8 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
10-11 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
Key lessons about giving generously
God consistently and insistently calls us to generosity. This giving is to be sacrificial, in other words, we give until it hurts a bit; we give so that we feel the loss a little.
Givers will be rewarded according to their generosity. There is a kind of economy of giving, with a return on our investment, possibly in this life, and certainly in the next.
Giving should be done freely. We should not give grudgingly, reluctantly or out of obligation. We should also not give in order to obtain a reward or recognition – indeed, we should give privately, secretly. Our generous giving is rather motivated by our response to God’s generous giving to us.
Mark 4:26-29 provide a short parable about the Kingdom of God, a parable that has no similar parallel in any of the other Gospels, and that is sandwiched between two much more familiar parables about the kingdom – the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed. It is worth spending a bit of time reflecting on this less-well-known parable:
Jesus also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like: a person scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether they sleep or get up, the seed sprouts and grows, though they do not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, they put the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
As we approach this parable, we must ask, “What does this story tell us about the Kingdom of God”, since Jesus uses parable almost exclusively in his teachings about many things, including the Kingdom. As Mark writes a few verses later, “Jesus did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:34).
A few interesting things to note about this brief parable:
The human character is referred to only as ‘a man’ or ‘a person’ and then simply as ‘he’. This suggests that the human is not an important character in this story.
The rich part of the story is what happens between the two actions of the person – between scattering the seed on the ground and harvesting it. Between these, the person does nothing. This focus of the story is this in-between space between human actions and in which God works.
While the human character is thin and peripheral, two other non-human characters have prominent roles, both of which are preceded with a definite article (the) instead of the ‘a’ used for the human:
“The seed sprouts and grows”. It is clear that the human does nothing to enable this. It is something the seed does on its own. This is what seeds do.
“The soil produces grain”. It is clear that the human again does nothing to enable this. It is done by the soil. Indeed, Jesus emphasises this by preceding the phrase with “all by itself” (αὐτομάτη / automatē) – the soil produces a crop of its own accord, through its own volition.
These activities of these two characters, who show agency and power, are a mystery to the human, who does “not know how” it happens.
Those who garden or farm will know that to produce good crops (or flowers, etc.) you need good soil. If you have good soil, you’ll have good produce. It’s all about the quality of the soil. Those who garden will also know that there is nothing you can do to make seeds grow – that is something they do themselves – all you can do is ensure conducive conditions for growth.
From this analysis of the parable, I suggest Jesus has three main lessons for us regarding our place and work in the Kingdom of God:
We must scatter spiritual or evangelical seeds. Our words and our actions must scatter Kingdom of God seeds around the world.
We must work to ensure that the soil into which we scatter the seeds is well composted and conducive for growth. We get the most detail from Jesus on this in Mark 4:1-20. We can do this by nourishing and nurturing the values of the Kingdom – justice, love, inclusivity, generosity, truthfulness, integrity, humility, service, sacrifice, etc.
We must trust God to do what God does, which is to make seeds grow and to produce a crop for harvest. This is in God’s domain. We cannot make seeds grow in another person; only the Spirit of God can do that.
Two of Jesus’ disciples come to him asking for positions of authority in heaven (Mark 10:35-45). It is really an immature and arrogant request. Understandably, Jesus responds quite firmly. In part he points out that in the world people are grasping for positions of power that they can lord over others, but then he says, “Not so with you!” He calls us to a different value system.
And then he continues to says that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If even Jesus – the Son of God – has come as a servant, how much more should we be servants. We are called to take on a servant mentality – as awful as that might sound – and to live out his role in the world – serving humanity.
We have a critical failure in South Africa of public service, from those employed by the State (who are called “public servants”, as described in the Batho Pele White Paper for Public Service). Far too many people who are employed as public servants (whether as general assistants, chief directors or ministers) have lost this focus – that they are employed to serve the public. But not just them – all of us! We Christians are all put here on earth to serve humanity, to serve the world. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.