Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
29 July 2018
This week’s Gospel offers us one of the all-time favourite biblical stories about Jesus.
This story was so popular in the early church that we find it in all 4 gospels, while Mark and Matthew each tell the story twice!
This story is told six times across the four Gospels.
This miracle story resonates with something deep within the Christian heart.
It is especially remembered at the lakeside site of Tabgha, an ancient green spot on the western side of the Sea of Galilee where seven freshwater springs flow into the lake. Because this place stays green most of the year, in the Christian imagination it has become attached to the story of the feeding miracle.
You may recall that our Gospel today says there was a lot of grass in the place. In the earliest account of this miracle from Mark 6 there is a reference to the green grass of the location.
In 1932 a beautiful mosaic of the loaves and fishes was found in the ruins of a Byzantine Church whose existence had long been forgotten by the local people. That mosaic has become famous, and it features in altar ware as well as all kinds of religious souvenirs.
Of course, those of us who work on the archaeological site at Bethsaida will want to claim the honours for our own lakeside patch.
The reality is that competing for the location misses the point of the story.
Magic meals and the open table
Let’s back up a little and think more deeply about this much-loved story.
Jesus is remembered as someone who had an ‘open table’ at the very heart of his Jewish renewal movement. That renewal movement was centred on the immediacy of God’s active presence among us, an idea that was expressed in the distinctive phrase, kingdom of God.
As understood and practised by Jesus, the reign of God was expressed in various signs of renewed community among people, and especially among people who were overlooked by the powers that be; then and now.
Perhaps the most visible sign of the kingdom present among the people gathered around Jesus was the way that people shared meals, crossing social boundaries and discovering a new community of equals.
Yet when Jesus was gathering people for these remarkable and distinctive meals he worked no miracles and used no magic.
We know that, of course. But perhaps we have never thought about it.
As child, Jesus did not take over the kitchen and provide an endless supply of miraculous food for his mother.
When he accepted hospitality at the table of tax collectors and other social outcasts, Jesus did not provide supernatural nibbles.
When the disciples shared food with Jesus day after day as they travelled around Galilee they had to find their own supplies.
When Jesus was chatting with the Samaritan woman at the well, his disciples were in the village of Nablus fetching some food which they later urged Jesus to eat.
When he was arranging for his final meal with the disciples, Jesus had to book a room and send a couple of people ahead to organise the catering.
As a general rule, Jesus organised his food the same way as we do. He did not snap his fingers and invoke supernatural powers to organise the catering for his functions.
So what are we to make of this remarkable tale of Jesus feeding thousands of people with just a handful of food?
Like the water turned into wine at Cana, the feeding of the multitude is a symbolic story, rather than a report of something that actually happened.
Like many of the parables, it is an exaggerated account. As is the miracle of the wine at Cana.
There is not just enough for everyone, but there are numerous baskets of scraps left over. In fact, there are more leftovers than Jesus started with.
Likewise at Cana: not only is there a huge quantity of wine (almost 700 litres), but it is the best wine they had ever tasted. The best had been kept to last.
Both these symbolic stories evoke the Jewish expectation of superabundance in the messianic kingdom at the end of time.
Jesus proclaims that God is generous, and calls us to be people of hope and generosity in response to that love.
As with the parable of the sower whose lazy farming techniques still resulted in an awesome harvest beyond all reasonable expectations, so the picnic lunch of a small boy can feed thousands of people and leave bucket loads of leftovers after everyone has had their fill.
The challenge for our Cathedral community is to choose hope rather than fear.
Sure the task ahead of us is immense. But we do not look around and ask “but what is that among so many?”
Rather, we take what we have. We offer it to God with thanksgiving and anticipation. We share what we have and give no thought to keeping back for ourselves in case there is not enough to go around.
When we act like that, we are eucharistic people. We are people of hope, people who know how to respond to God with thanksgiving.
We offer this city … hope.
We offer the families who bring their children for Baptism … hope.
Every time we gather for at the Table of Jesus we celebrate … hope.
So let us come to Table of Jesus with hope in our hearts and a determination to share the message of Jesus: God is amongst us and all will be well.
Come, take the bread and wine, as a sign of a sacred abundance that never runs short.
Thanks be to God!