Fake News, Gifts and a Boy's Lunch
Ordinary Sunday 17, 29th July, 2018
Nicholas Browne, Lay preacher at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle account which appears in all four gospels — and the lectionary springs a bit of a trap on the unwary preacher as, in the midst of the Ordinary Sundays of Year B we have, not Mark's, but John's version of the story. Looking at the differences between the two accounts, two things seem significant: the presence of the young boy who provides the loaves and fishes and the role of the disciples in John's version of the story.
Look at the start of the story. In the synoptic gospels the disciples report, with appears to be mounting panic, the presence of the loaves and fishes but there's no mention of where they come from or who brought them. John's sequence of details is a little different. In response to Jesus' question the pessimist Philip observes that "six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." Then, you can almost hear the transition from hope to disappointment on the part of Andrew: "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?"
Firstly, while I don't want to read too much out of these few words, they strike me as a common refrain in our lives and ministries: 'Well we have this — these loaves, these people, these resources, these talents! But, no, it won't be enough.' To which John's answer is clear: with Jesus, it will be enough. What you have will be enough. You will be enough. We will be enough.
And secondly, look at where the miracle starts — with one boy's act of generosity. One twentieth century de-mythologising account of the story suggests that the crowd then followed the boy's example and brought out and shared what they had — and given the way we are all too reluctant to share our wealth and privilege you could argue that this would, indeed have been a genuine miracle. To be honest, though, I don't think this was John's point — but, nevertheless, the miracle could only occur following the boy's offer. So John suggests to us that, with Jesus, while we have to offer will be sufficient, it will, however, be necessary. Without the gifts we bring to the table, no miracle can occur.
And if I can be forgiven a side note — and again at the risk of reading too much out of a few words — can I put in a good word here for that most denigrated of species — the teenage boy. As one who has worked with them as a teacher and youth leader, I can see so many of the boys and young men I have worked with in this story. Anonymously and quietly giving what they have. Not saying much — not, perhaps, having much they can say — but just getting on with the job of helping in a straightforward and practical fashion.
Now look at what Jesus gets the disciples to do. "Make the people sit down." With that, he reminds the disciples of their job description — they are not to question whether there will be a meal. Their job is to make the people sit down and to distribute the meal that Jesus provides. And this, of course, is our job description as well. Like the disciples, our job is to factor Jesus in to any challenging situation we may face and to count on his presence and power. If we bring what we have to a situation of need, then Jesus is present and ready to help. And when we gather up the fragments, we will find that we have been given more than we need, more than we can even plausibly expect.
But this, in John's version, is where things start to go pear-shaped. As so often happens, the people take the wrong message from this — and are about to grab Jesus and make him king, leading him to "withdraw again to the mountain by himself." Like so many episodes in John's gospel this is a story fundamentally about who Jesus is, and — at least in part — about the dangers of getting it wrong.
Similarly, in the letter to the Ephesians, the author — either Paul, or someone in the next generation of Christians consciously working in his tradition — discusses the various gifts given to members of the Christian community by Christ. The promise again, is that Jesus will give us what we need to equip the Saints for the works of ministry and to build up the body of Christ. Again, though, the apostle sees the potential for it all to go wrong. Like the crowds who have just been fed, we can mistake the significance of what has been given to us, in this case because of false doctrine, by trickery and by deceit. Within the body of Christ, on the other hand, we need to speak the truth in love.
Now, I'm not denying that this expression has become something of a euphemism for condemnatory language on the part of Christians. But I'd suggest that we need to reclaim it. We need to reject the untruths and deceitful scheming that are sometimes presented as Christian doctrine. The fake news that suggest that worldly riches are a sign of God's favour. That the Kingdom of God excludes those who make us uncomfortable. That we can take our cultural prejudices and call them the will of God. Or, frankly, that locking up vulnerable people in offshore prison camps is an act of Christian morality.
The end of today's gospel shows exactly why it can all go wrong — fed by the meal that Jesus provides, confident in the gifts he gives, it is all too easy to assume that the next stage is take him by force and make him a king — that is, to see him as the means by which we can impose our will on the world. Yet the message for the Christian disciple is clear — that even if the crowd disperses, "tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine", if we lay our gifts before Jesus, he will give us more than we need to share the meal.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.