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The process of Theological Reflection

Ordinary Sunday 17, 27 July, 2003
Deacon Tat Hean Lie, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Last night the choir organised a wonderful night for the parish, a mediaeval dinner. Whenever I hear the word mediaeval dinner or banquet, paintings by Breughel appear before my eyes. In one of them, I can see clearly someone taking off with the pudding. And believe it or not, that actually happened last night. Making some people to suggest that we should request the Vicar to perform the loaves and fishes act as in this morning's Gospel. However, it wasn't necessary, we all had enough to eat. In fact, we had more than enough. Although I am not sure if the leftovers filled twelve baskets.

Many of you who have read the latest issue of our magazine Apostrophe will know how I become a hospital chaplain. Often people will say that it must be very hard at times to be a hospital chaplain. I won't say that it is easy, but paradoxically, the people I minister to, in turn also minister to me, and that is how I am sustained. I mentioned in my first sermon, how they challenged me to discover God in unexpected places in my life.

When I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE, I learnt a process called Theological Reflection. Theological reflection usually concentrates on specific, discrete events. While this approach helps to discover the richness of each experience, it can also obscure the fact that every event is part of a continuous series and does not really exist in isolation from everything, which precedes it and results from it. To be consistent with this holistic view of reality, theological reflection should be a continuous, habitual activity. In addition, theological reflection is a skill, and like any skill it needs to be used continually for maximum benefit.

Theological reflection may begin with a single episode and methodically reflect on its theological meaning. When the outcome of this reflection is put into practice (praxis), it becomes a new experience, which can again be reflected upon. This reflection gives rise to another praxis, which calls for new reflection. In this way a cycle of theological reflection is gradually built up. And the ability to recognise the divine presence in daily activities will come more readily. The starting point, however, remains the specific occurrence that stimulates reflection.

Today's reading, John's Gospel, chapter six, is good example of the continuous sequence which theological reflection encourages. In chapter five Jesus healed the man by the Sheep Pool and then got into a dispute with "the Jews," who confronted him for performing this work on the Sabbath and making himself equal to God. "Later on," begins chapter six, as if intentionally connecting it with chapter five, "Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the sea of Tiberias" (6:1). The connection continues with the observation, "a large crowd kept following him because they saw the signs he was doing for the sick" (6:2), such as the cure in chapter five.

Jesus' prior action, the healing, led to a theological reflection with "the Jews" which ended with Jesus parting company from his opponents. His action of departing immediately created the setting for a new reflection, which John introduces by saying, "Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples" (6:3).

Although the crowds were not as disturbed as the authorities that Jesus performed his works on the Sabbath, that didn't mean they had grasped the deeper meaning he intended to convey. By going up the mountain with his disciples, Jesus may have wanted to wean them away from a popular, superficial interpretation of his ministry and reflect with them more deeply on its implications. In any event, this is the type of continuous action-reflection cycle that enhances theological reflection.

By going up the mountain with his disciples, Jesus evokes the image of Moses, teacher par excellence. Indeed, this suggestion is confirmed by John's simple reference, "Now the Passover festival was near" (6:4). Passover and Moses were inseparably linked. In addition, Passover implied food, eating the Passover meal, so "when Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him," (just like the Israelites who followed after Moses), "he said to Philip, 'Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?'" (6:5). Even in the midst of the most important, private theological discussion, Jesus never forgot "the crowds" whose needs were to be met. Indeed, meeting people's needs is the ultimate praxis of theological reflection.

However, Philip responded more as a pragmatic realist than an optimistic disciple. "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little" (6:7). Nothing cuts off theological reflection more quickly than a problem-solving response, whether it is a critique of a proposed solution, as in Philip's comment, or an alternative solution as in the response of Andrew: "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish." As soon as he said it, Andrew must have realised the absurdity of his suggestion. "But what are they among so many people?" (6:9). Of course, the author of the Gospel is building dramatic intensity by contrasting the disciples' sense of futility with Jesus' eventual action. From a theological reflection point of view, the same contrast is instructive. Philip and Andrew were dealing with this situation at a needs-assessment level (just as theological reflectors can sometimes see only the emotional or psychological needs of a person). Jesus had a different angle.

Passover was near; Jesus was breathing the air of this great feast; he saw the crowd and their hunger in theological terms. "Make the people sit down," he requested (6:10). Then he re-enacted part of the Passover ritual, giving thanks for the available bread and fish, and passing them around. There is no explanation of how it happened (the Gospel is not on the level of Philip, or Andrew, or merely curious readers), but everyone had enough to eat. In fact they had more than enough. The leftovers filled twelve baskets – an obvious reference to the new Israel about to emerge from the original Israel.

Jesus had answered his own question by using a sound pastoral principle. "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" We won't. Rather we'll search with the people for the resources they possess and use them, gratefully, to meet their needs. This was the same principle Jesus used with the man at the Sheep Pool in chapter five, with the Samaritan woman and the royal official in chapter four, with Nicodemus in chapter three, with the marriage feast at Cana in chapter two. Go within the situation, look for what is there, trust it, use it, and enter through it into God's kingdom.

Last week most of us would have read the statement in the pew sheet prepared by the Vicar and the churchwardens. At the 11.00 o'clock high mass, Fr Colin gallantly and courageously made his own statement in person for which he was rightly applauded. For those of you who weren't able to be present, especially for the 8.00 o'clock and the 9.30 people, I am sure you will understand that it would be inhuman to expect Fr Colin to do this more than once. But that does not mean that there is a conspiracy of silence to exclude you, or that your grief and pain will be ignored. On the contrary, I would like to stress that your sorrow is our sorrow, and by 'our' I mean all of us here. One of the most touching and at the same time encouraging thing I saw on entering the sacristy last Sunday prior to high mass, was the sight of Fr Colin comforting our Vicar.

Henri Nouwen, the leading figure in Pastoral Care and Chaplaincy has this to say:

So many terrible things happen every day that we start wondering whether the few things we do ourselves make any sense. When people are starving only a few thousand miles away, when wars are raging close to our borders, when countless people in our own cities have no homes to live in, our own activities look futile. Such considerations, however, can paralyse us and depress us. Here the word call becomes important. We are not called to save the world, we are not called to solve all problems, and we are not called to help all people. But each of us has our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world and here in our parish. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and to give us the strength to live out that call with trust. Then we will discover that our faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.

Together as a people, let us search for the resources we possess and use them, gratefully, to meet our needs at this time of sorrow. This was the same principle our Lord used with the man at the Sheep Pool, with the Samaritan woman and with the royal official, with Nicodemus, and with the marriage feast at Cana. Let us go within our situation, look for what is here, trust it, use it, and together enter through it into God's kingdom.

The Lord be with you.


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